Shopping While Black

Sometimes retail therapy just isn’t the same for global majority people

Hello friends,

If there’s one experience that makes me aware of my otherness in a global minority country, it’s shopping. For most global minority people it’s a nice fun activity, right? That’s not always the case if you’re Black.

I’ve seen the TV shows and movies where white people go into a shop, rifle through the racks, make havoc and then leave without incident. I’ve even seen them indulge in a little light shoplifting, just for fun.

None of those matches my experience when I’m shopping. (And before you ask, I can usually tell if treatment is racially motivated because I see how salespeople treat the paler people who come through the door.)

No, You’re Not Being Served

In my experience, there are all sorts of ways that salespeople can let you know you don’t belong. Now, I’m not the kind of person that needs someone to be over helpful, but there are times when SOME help would be useful.

Sometimes I walk through the door, and I can see the salesperson sizing me up and deciding I’m not worth their time, without saying a word. (Interestingly, that experience also happens in Barbados, where certain shops are notorious for ignoring locals in favor of white tourists - white supremacy at work again).

Anyway, I don’t mind being ignored most of the time, because if I find what I want I can blow their minds by turning up at the cash register with an item and - gasp - the wherewithal to pay for it.

Sometimes, if you actually need help, it’s hard to find someone to assist you. I’ve lost count of the times when I’ve been assessed with an inaudible sniff, handed off to a junior colleague, or simply ignored, while the salesperson serves white customers or simply browses social media - anything to avoid helping me. And at the cash desk, I’m almost always the person who has to wait while they complete some suddenly urgent task.

Someone’s Always Watching You

Another iteration of this is when the salesperson comes up to you while you’re looking at an item, and tries to steer you towards the sale rack. Or to tell you - without you asking - how much the item is (as if you can’t read a price tag). I remember having this happen when I was with my sister and daughter. We’d each planned to buy something but ended up taking our business elsewhere. She lost three sales that day, and lost our business forever.

The worst of these experiences is when salespeople and security guards start following you around the shop from the minute you walk in. Even if you’re not aware of it immediately, you soon get that prickling at the back of your neck that tells you you’re being watched. Sometimes, they’ll try to pretend they’re doing something else, as if they’re tailing someone in a bad detective movie. At other times, they’ll stare at you challengingly, as if daring you to make something of it. I never do, but just live with the discomfort.

As for wreaking havoc in a shop, I wouldn’t dare. In fact, I do my best to maintain a low profile. If I’m shopping with my sister, and one of us says something funny and we start to laugh, we’re very conscious that we don’t want to get too loud - after all, some white people already think Black people are too boisterous. We don’t want to make things harder for the rest of the team.

“Do You Work Here?”

The other thing that happens to Black and brown people in shops is that white patrons mistake us for the sales staff. No matter that we’re clearly browsing the shelves, too. No matter that we’ve got a shopping basket at our feet. No matter that we’re not wearing the staff uniform. In some people’s minds, the color of our skin means we must be “the help”. Again, I know when I’m right because of the discomfited look on their faces when I say that no, I don’t work there. I’ve exchanged many an eye-roll with my fellow melanated shoppers over that one.

The Need to Be Squeaky Clean

Children aren’t immune from this treatment, either. I remember being in Target with my daughter who was around 7 at the time. I was at one end of the aisle and she was browsing the toy section. She found something that interested her and grabbed it to show me.

But as I spotted her running towards me, I also saw the security guard giving her a hard stare and starting to move in our direction. I had to explain to her then that she should bring me to the item rather than bringing the item to me. And on that same trip, I explained about being ostentatious about returning items to shelves, and making it clear that you weren’t putting anything in your bag.

Keeping the Receipts

So that’s why I find the shoplifting thing a little wild. As a Black woman, I wouldn’t dare. In fact, I double and triple check the removal of the electronic tags to make sure I’m not going to set off the alarms. And if they do go off, you’d better believe I have my receipt at hand. (Always get a receipt and a bag, if you don’t want people to think you’re stealing.)

Honestly, I attract enough attention just being myself without adding an actual crime into the mix. Unlike the items in the shop, that’s something I really can’t afford.

Who can relate? Do you have a smooth shopping experience or do you get followed around like a potential criminal? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Thanks for reading,


© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Cover photo courtesy of Canva.

I am an anti-racism writer, a professional B2B writer and blogger, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast. If you value my perspective, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.