Racially Profiled While Shopping? Here’s 1 Way to Handle It

Portia Roberson
WXYZ-ABC 7 Detroit

Another day, another story about racial profiling—inspiring outrage from some, resignation from others and disbelief from those still hanging on to the hope that such behavior is a rarity in America.

As first reported by the Michigan Citizen, Portia Roberson—the attorney in charge of Detroit’s Civil Rights and Justice Department—was approached by police officers as she exited the fitting room of a Talbots clothing store. The police later acknowledged that they had been called by someone, and the store manager attempted to convince Roberson that she had asked the officers to look around because it was so “busy.”


Perhaps Detroit runs differently from other cities, but where I come from, officers usually have other things to do than help direct customer traffic when a store gets “busy.”

If you’re African American, you’ve likely experienced something similar at some point in your life, and while Roberson’s story may inspire a sigh of irritation, it’s unlikely to inspire shock. Every single one of my friends has a story, even if it doesn’t involve the police—a moment in which a salesperson pointedly ignored them or, to be more specific, clearly saw them but then made a point not to offer help. Or the moment a security guard casually but obviously followed them around the store.

In my case, there was the time I walked into a store I frequent but then, realizing I was late for an appointment, rushed out five minutes later, only to be followed down the street by a new salesperson I’d never met, who asked if I was in a hurry because I “forgot to pay for something.” (I hadn’t, just in case you were wondering.)

And of course, when I say “every single one of my friends,” what I really mean is “every one of my black friends.” On the occasions when I have shared my stories with white friends, they are usually shocked. “That can’t possibly happen to someone like you,” some have replied with a mix of surprise and indignation. Others search for a way to blame the moment on anything other than race: “Is there any possibility it was the way you were dressed that day? I’ve gotten worse service when I’m not in my business clothes. It’s still obnoxious, but … ”


But what is exhausting for those of us who are forced, every single time we receive negative treatment in public settings, to confront the reality that it may be more than how we are dressed is not just the psychological toll it takes but the emotional energy required to determine how to respond. If we launched letter-writing campaigns and boycotts every time someone profiled us, many of us would get nothing else done. And even if we did, would such actions really make the biggest difference?

What should be our course of action when some individual executes his or her own unofficial policy of treating those of us who are of color as less than?


For starters, we should do what Roberson did, which is use the power of social media—not just with the mindset of embarrassing a company or brand for the outrageous behavior of its employees but also with the intent of calling the company’s attention to an internal problem of which it may genuinely be unaware. We should give a company the chance to do or say the right thing before we assume that it won’t just because a specific employee did not—and before we call up the rest of our social media troops to attack.

But the other thing that all of us need to get comfortable doing is actually calling people out on their racism. So many of us are so worried about how we are perceived, particularly when we are the only person of color—or one of very few—in an environment that we sometimes allow that to disempower us. We never want to be seen as the angry black woman or man.


Sometimes, though, that outrage is deserved, and I wonder what the impact would be if more of us confronted these situations directly. Not by raising our voices or making a scene, but by calmly and clearly speaking the truth—if you’ll excuse the expression—in black and white. If more of us actually said, “You may not even realize you’re doing it, but I sense you’re treating me differently than other customers you respect and value, and I wonder if it is because of my race. If it’s not because of my race, then I’d like to know what it is that has caused this poor treatment. And I’d like you to call your boss and explain it to him or her, too.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to note that the incident in question was first reported by the Michigan Citizen.


Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter

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