The Emotional Toll Of Shopping While Black

By Angela Fichter

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Of the many troubling experiences a black person will face in their life, racial profiling ranks among the most pervasive. Whether it’s being mistaken for an intruder on your own doorstep, getting arbitrarily pulled over by the police, or being accused of theft and credit card fraud while shopping, racial profiling is an inescapable reality of black American life.

Like most black people, I’ve experienced my fair share of this type of racism — most of it in retail establishments. So has President Obama, who admitted to being followed in department stores prior to his presidency. Even Oprah, one of the richest — and, incidentally, most recognizable — women in the world, was refused a $38,000 handbag while visiting a Swiss store in 2013. In recent years, it’s become the stuff of lawsuits, and no (visibly) black person is safe from being targeted.

Retail racism is not only pernicious, it’s illegal. According to the ACLU, racial profiling violates “the U.S. Constitution’s core promises of equal protection under the law to all and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.” In 2014, NY Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who was investigating a lawsuit against Macy’s Manhattan flagship store that resulted in a $650,000 fine for racial profiling, noted in a statement that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin in public accommodations.”

But the threat of legal and financial consequence hasn’t stopped stores from discriminating. Zara and Barney’s are just a few of the many higher-end retailers that have come under fire for questionable protocols in recent years, the latter paying out $525,000 in fines for engaging in discriminatory practices and a further $45,000 settlement to a young black student falsely accused of credit card fraud. CVS, Best Buy, and Ross face hefty lawsuits for the same reasons, or for instructing their black and brown employees to discriminate against other people of color.

In a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, 46% of black people reported unfair treatment in stores and restaurants, compared to only 16 percent of white people. As evidenced by numerous recent cases, these are not isolated incidents, but a culture of overt racism poorly masked under the guise of “loss prevention.” Field experiments have proven that shoppers of color are surveilled more closely than white shoppers, and one study that found black men and women shoppers were overwhelmingly followed or faced with other subtle racism, like excessive staring. Research indicates that black shoppers are also targeted over Latino and Asian customers. Some black shoppers have also collected their own evidence, recording their experiences of being followed in stores to drive home the point that shopping while black is treated like criminal behavior.

Theft cost U.S. retailers some $32 billion in losses in 2015, but racial profiling isn’t going to save the economy; studies show that white people steal more than black people, but are arrested at lower rates. Racist surveillance does have one significant effect, though: it exacts a huge psychological toll on black shoppers, often making every retail experience into an exhausting ordeal.

Over the years, I’ve avoided entering certain stores or shopped with friends to ease the anxiety of being profiled. When I’ve shopped alone, I’ve sometimes elected to wear a trench coat and a designer purse I got from my mother, in some twisted effort to prove that I belong there — to look like I can afford whatever is in the store. I’ve witnessed countless white people shoplifting while store employees were busy following me, but their whiteness negated their criminality, and even acted as a protective barrier: they could steal and never pay the price.

All this effort to avoid the inevitable eventually starts to wear you down. The anticipation of being profiled makes me hyper-vigilant — my palms sweat, my heart begins to race, and my stomach cramps at the thought of having to enter a store.

It doesn’t help that, despite the illegality of racist retail practices, customers who are profiled have no real recourse. Recently, after being aggressively followed at major retailer I patronize regularly, I finally confronted the security guards. They rejected my accusations, but I still reported them to their employers. Their manager supposedly checked the surveillance cameras, which would have clearly indicated that I was being followed. But the message she left me was more about her own umbrage than about the evidence. “None of our employees engage in racial profiling and I take offense to any such accusation,” she said. “Regarding this matter, my reputation is surely above reproach.”

Part of me feels I should report this company for their unethical and illegal behavior. But it’s exhausting work, and it almost seems futile. After all, this is about a much wider system of prejudice, not just one or two bigots.

Racial profiling in stores feels especially insidious, because that watchfulness implies the assumption that, because I am black, I cannot afford to make a purchase — and that because I cannot afford to make a purchase, I am therefore inherently suspicious, untrustworthy, and criminal. Being followed sends the clear message that I’m not welcome and do not belong. The “Whites Only” signs on storefronts are no longer visible, but our every move, our clothing, the very fabric of who we are is policed just the same. It’s undermining. It’s hurtful. And it’s become stressful enough to threaten our health.

Researchers like Monnica Williams of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville are addressing the psychological and emotional effects of racial profiling and the consequent race-based trauma black people experience. Williams says that stress-induced responses to microaggressions, including things like being followed in a store, can be similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, ranging from anger and apathy to intrusive thoughts and serious physical illness. While the American Psychological Association only recognizes racism as trauma in acute circumstances, such as assault, Williams believes racism should be included as a direct cause of PTSD in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Numerous studies have shown a direct correlation between discrimination and the onset or worsening of illness in black Americans, particularly hypertension and other cardiovascular irregularities. Chronic stress has been shown to disproportionately affect black women, disturbing neuroendocrine functions and leading to increased risk of obesity. Carl Bell, a psychiatrist and former CEO of the Community Mental Health Council in Chicago says that racist incidents themselves don’t necessarily cause stress or trauma; rather “it’s the helplessness in the face of the incident.” To make matters worse, black people (and other folks of color) may often internalize their experiences when the realities of racial profiling are dismissed, excused, or simply ignored by therapists and medical professionals.

When a leisurely activity like shopping becomes devoid of its enjoyment, it soon becomes depressing — and life is depressing enough just trying to survive as a black person. So I avoid retail if I can, which is unfortunate because black women are estimated to have over $1.3 trillion dollars worth of buying power by 2017. In short, we are valuable consumers, and have money to spend. But the stress of racial profiling is enough to poison not only our health, but our willingness to contribute to the economy.

Speaking out against racial profiling is important, and while it’s upsetting to witness, each lawsuit highlights an ugly and uncomfortable reality. Challenging this discrimination demands that retailers, security companies, law enforcement, and the justice system begin to take these claims seriously and implement reform. But for now, until we can all commit to seriously addressing this culture of racism, unconscious bias, and its harmful effects, I will shop where I know I’m welcome and wait around for “post-racial” America to arrive.