The Curious Case of SWB (Shopping While Black)

For those of you familiar with retail security, most stores, if not all, have those little black camera eyes hidden in the ceilings. So if you’re tempted to steal -- yes, you’re on candid camera.
Publish date:
October 18, 2012

I’m not naïve enough to believe discrimination doesn’t exist. As a native New Yorker, I’ve seen and heard the many injustices when it comes to people of color. From inequalities in public schools, to the racially biased stop and frisk law, yes, I’m aware. As an African-American woman in her late 20s, however, I have never really faced serious racial discrimination. That is until now.

Sure, as a kindergartener, teachers butchered the pronunciation of my name. I still experience it presently. And yes, I was always told that I’m “so articulate” by white people while I was growing up. I knew what that insinuation really meant, but I always shrugged it off.

It wasn’t until I went shopping in a Burlington Coat Factory in Rego Park (Queens, New York) with my infant son and fiancé, Derrick*, that I experienced the all too common SWB … Shopping While Black. For those of you familiar with retail security, most stores, if not all, have those little black camera eyes hidden in the ceilings. So if you’re tempted to steal -- yes, you’re on candid camera.

My family and I walked around Burlington Coat Factory looking to return and exchange a few baby items. If you’re like me, you like to circle around aisles more than once to make sure you’ve seen everything the store has to offer before making your final choice. I scooped up the starship fleece baby onesie that I was looking for and placed it on top of my stroller along with the other baby clothes I wanted to return.

I then handed my items to Derrick as he approached the customer service cashier. As usual, Derrick forgot something. This time it was his receipt. However, with the use of his credit card, the cashier allowed Derrick to make a return and exchange. As I waited for Derrick with our son, I spotted a cute little Hispanic guy browsing through the women’s section. “Hmm,” I thought to myself, “he’s probably shopping for his girlfriend. And damn is he short.”

As Derrick and I made our way to the exit doors, we were stopped abruptly by undercover loss prevention detectives. That cute little Hispanic guy I was eyeing happened to be an undercover cop (Detective Perez*). He, along with another African-American male, Detective Harris*, escorted us to the back office in Burlington Coat Factory where we were questioned. All I could think of was that this was a big misunderstanding that could be resolved swiftly. I was wrong. Detective Harris questioned Derrick about his original missing receipt and asked him where the items were. It went downhill from there.

“Sit down. Where’s the original receipt?” Detective Harris asked in a hostile voice.

“I don’t have it,” Derrick said. “What’s this about?” Derrick flashed his badge to Detective Harris. (Derrick is also an undercover loss prevention detective for a different retail outlet.)

“Listen. Sit your a** down,” Detective Harris yelled.

“What? I didn’t take anything,” Derrick said to Detective Harris as he stood up.

“I know you didn’t! But we have your wife here on camera stealing!” Detective Harris said, pointing to me.

My mouth dropped. I was floored. This couldn’t be happening. I’ve never stolen a thing in my life. I held my crying son as Detective Harris continued to rant and rave that I had stolen merchandise. When I finally spoke up and told the detective there was a mistake and I didn’t take anything, he told me to “shut the f**k up.” I was completely disrespected and astonished that he was talking to me in this manner. I was a young woman on the verge of getting my second master’s degree, not some hoodlum in the street! Detective Harris, on the other hand, was an overzealous 6’3, 190-pound prick with a flashlight and walkie-talkie.

Of course, Derrick defended his family by checking Detective Harris’ attitude. But that didn’t stop Detective Harris from searching through my belongings -- where he never did find “stolen” merchandise. Derrick and Detective Harris continued arguing. I feared it would get physical. Granted, I felt Detective Harris needed to be manhandled because of his unprofessional behavior, but not at the expense of my fiancé getting a criminal record.

Rego Park is known to be predominately white, but being stopped by a black detective who verbally harassed and disrespected a fellow African-American customer for a misunderstanding should never be tolerated. The whole situation not only opened my eyes to the discrimination African Americans face by other races, but also that suffered by discrimination from our own kind. I can surely tell you this: Had we been a white family, would we have faced the same degree of scrutiny and disrespect? No, of course not.

Have you been stopped or followed in a store because of your race?

Reprinted with permission from Clutch.