No, that title is not a mistake. I have been alive for 32 years. With the exception of the time between my birth and 6 months (when I was ghostly pale), I have been brown for most of those years. I like being brown. I like the fact that I have African roots even though I don’t know where those roots came from. (Thanks a lot, slavery.) That said, from the time I was very young, I knew that my life as a black female would be different. Without going into detail, there are preconceived notions about me based solely upon the colour of my skin. This is especially apparent when I go shopping, where I am mostly treated like either a nuisance, or a petty criminal. I am writing this post for anyone who has been surreptitiously followed in a store by a well-meaning, but misguided sales clerk. If you have ever heard a “code blue” to the section you were browsing in, only to find that 2 security guards rush to where you’re standing, this is dedicated to you. (For the record, I worked the sales end of a retail store for 7 years. Our old code to identify alleged shoplifters was “Max to multimedia” because we did not have a multimedia section, or a person named Max on staff. I’m on to you.)
In order to make your shopping experience more enjoyable for all involved, consult these handy tips for navigating the world of retail shopping as a brown person.
- Carry a small purse. If your bag is large, keep it closed and close to your body. (Large open bags scream, “I’m looking to jack your stuff.”
- Know what you want before you enter the store. If you browse, the store clerk will assume that you are “casing the joint”
- Smile and make eye contact with the clerks. Try to give off, “I’m not a thief. Really.” vibes. Appear extra trustworthy.
- Be confident, but not too confident. A too-confident brown person makes them uncomfortable, and the clerk immediately becomes defensive and attempts to put you in your place. Wherever that is. Probably a few ladder rungs below them.
- If you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask the clerk immediately. Thieves don’t ask for help unless they’re in a group and need to create a diversion. By asking for help, you are establishing yourself as a legitimate customer.
- If you are followed by a clerk or security guard, make it worth their while. Walk slowly all around the store. More than once. Stop every so often to make eye contact with the person following you. Smile each time. If the person asks you if they can help with anything, hand him or her your purchases and ask them to take them to the cash till. Or make them hold your purse. They asked.
- Shop quickly. (Choose the items you would like to purchase and go straight to the cash line before the clerk has a chance to realize you aren’t going to steal anything. Bonus points if you pay with cash.)
- Be mindful of these two facts:1. No matter how much money you have, or how well you are dressed, brown skin equals broke a$$ thief in the eyes of many shopkeepers. 2.You did not do anything wrong. You are up against 200+ years of institutionalized discrimination, stereotypes, and misconceptions about your ethnicity. You cannot fight this alone.
- Do not show any signs of indignation when a store clerk reminds you of the price of something when you are shopping. All brown people are poor after all. Counter this by confidently (but not too confidently) reaching in your wallet to pay for the items. (Bonus points for paying with a wad of cash.) If you show emotion, it freaks them out because they don’t know if you’re going to be a Will Smith type brown person (non-threatening, affable), or a Lil’ Wayne type brown person (volatile, menacing). We all look the same.
- Be aware of the fact that, even if you follow every single one of these rules to the letter, someone will still deem you a thief because you have brown skin. Remember that you are not a thief, you are a customer, and you should be treated with respect.
You do look like a thief, however. So try not to.