It feels like racial profiling to me. Admittedly, it’s absolutely nothing compared to the random stop and searches so many black and Latino men go through. Meaningless compared to the dangers of Driving While Black. But nonetheless, I feel targeted and disrespected. I’m talking about people assuming that I work in the store when I’m there to shop. It’s late January — the end of the sale season so I’m fresh off the circuit, newly questioned and bristling about it.
I realize that this happens often to other people and it’s not related to race. I saw a recent article on things that black people mistake for racism, but shouldn’t. And this was on that list. My argument is that it happens too frequently and only in certain stores for me to think that my race doesn’t play any part in the assumption that I’m in the store to serve.
Mind you, I have nothing against being a salesgirl. I often dream of quitting my job and moving to Paris to be a shopgirl and live a simple, yet fashionable life. Nothing wrong with the department store hustle, my problem is with the blanket assumption that I’m doing it.
Like once in Bloomingdales, a woman thrusted an item at me and asked me to put it on hold. When I told her I didn’t work there, she said, quite sensibly, Oh, but you aren’t wearing a coat! Right, bitch. I was trying on a dress.
At Barney’s I’ve been asked if an incredibly cute color-block dress as available in green. Once in Neiman Marcus, a little girl ran up and asked whether the item she was holding was on sale. I question why she would ask me. She pointed at her mom across the store and said, She told me to ask you.
One time in Saks, a bewildered-looking man asked me to start a dressing room for his wife. I said I don’t work here — with an attitude. He flushes with embarrassment and stammers, I’m so sorry! It’s just that you’re holding so many clothes. We both had to laugh at that one. Pass granted.
It’s never happened to me at Macy’s or Century 21 or H&M or Target. It’s always Saks, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales or Barney’s. And it’s never happened in Bergdorf. Perhaps because I don’t look nearly polished enough to work there.
I’ve shared this complaint with other people. My white friends assure me that it also happens to them. My black friends run the gambit. Some suggest that I keep it all in stride, it’s no big deal. Others get completely off topic, asking why I’m in those stores, or suggesting that I should be shopping at a black-owned business anyway.
I’ve been developing a mentoring relationship with a senior-ranking African-American business professional and recently we had a conversation about assumptions. He described similar experiences — being with his CEO (an older white man) and people assuming he’s the driver. Driving around in his black Mercedes and people thinking he’s a car service? Entering a room for a meeting and people directing him to fix the projector.
He’s in the “take it all in stride camp.” His technique is to quickly redirect people. For example, when entering a room with his boss, he confidently steps forward and begins to introduce himself, so no one will make assumptions about why he’s there. He contends that it saves others the embarrassment of making bad assumptions.
But I’m not really interested in making them feel more comfortable. I want to feel more comfortable. I’ve decided that the next time I’m standing at the counter (on the side without the register), waiting to pay for my dress and someone hands me a credit card, I’m going to take that credit card and not even thank them for the gift.