This week’s racial profiling allegations by New York City college student,Trayon Christian, have provoked me to take a long hard look at the manner in which blackness is consistently criminalized within retail environments. In the case of Christian, things may have gone even further than is usual, as the 19-year-old claims that he was not only falsely accused of debit card fraud by a sales associate at a high-end department store last April, but arrested and detained for two hours by the NYPD as a result. Those of us who share Mr. Christian’s racial and socio-economic identities know well the suspicion with which we are met when we walk through the doors of far too many retailers. We know what it’s like to try, in every way possible, to clearly exhibit our law abiding intentions, but are still rendered “criminal” by the prejudicial eyes of “loss prevention” strategies ostensibly aimed at saving retailers money. These degrading practices, such as being arrested for buying an expensive belt with your own money, as Christian experienced, are more often thinly veiled instances of the same sort of profiling that has perpetuated the “stop and frisk” culture of law enforcement in locales such as New York City. Trying valiantly to avoid suspicion So we do our best to never shop with large backpacks, or oversized outerwear. We attempt never to linger too long away from other shoppers and retail associates, and balk at the notion of running errands for family members who request that we use their credit cards without proper identification. We know that we will not only be denied the benefit of the doubt if questioned, we will often risk not being able to prove our innocence upon accusation. This ongoing compromise of one’s basic civil liberties and integrity is at the core of Trayon Christian’s allegations, as he is now suing the NYPD and the luxury retailer Barneys for violating his rights. (Barneys has posted a response to the allegations on its Facebook page.) The factors reflected in Christian’s scenario feature centrally as re-occurring themes in this writer’s life narrative. I am a fashion professional who has worked for a decade designing apparel, and now works writing about apparel industries. Often I’m in stores to flush out a piece I’m researching, or to see how accurately certain runway trends are being translated at mass market retailers. I’m not just in stores to score a retail fix and rack up credit card debt (though, I must admit that I end up making endless personal purchases as a result of my work). A consummate shopper — treated criminally I must stress: I pay for everything that I leave a store with. Yet, I’ve learned that my possession of receipts and adherence to by-the-book behavior are regularly undermined by the fact that I fit the racially-informed profile of a shoplifter “to a tee.” Zara on lower Broadway in New York City, Intermix near the Flatiron building on Fifth Ave., Trader Joe’s near George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and most recently The Home Depot on Manhattan’s Upper East Side are among the stores in which I have endured humiliating accusations of shoplifting, or worse. (TheGrio has reached out to the stores named above for comment. Only Home Depot responded by publication time with the following statement. “Respect for the diversity of our customers, as well as our associates and communities is a core value,” wrote Home Depot representative Stephen Holmes in an email to theGrio. “The Home Depot takes extremely seriously, and we have clear procedures in place, to ensure one’s race has nothing to do with whether an individual is stopped and accused of shoplifting. “Additionally, our policy specifically states that ‘surveillance should not be based on individual characteristics such as age, gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, national origin or relgion.’”) Judged: Not by the contents of one’s character I offer up myself as an example of how one’s assessment under the inequitable eye of profiling can drastically differ — for the worse — from one’s reality. I am an Ivy League-educated professional, with no criminal record, who has never stolen. I have held endless retail positions as an adolescent and make every effort to respect and acknowledge the work of retail associates. Those may be my realities, but they seldom factor into my treatment in stores. I’ve learned that I don’t have to commit illegal acts to be seen as criminal. My mere presence is criminalized. I know what it felt like to be Trayon Christian at the incredulous moment that he was detained for simply buying something he wanted. Reality check: Thieves come in all races I once asked a guard, as he physically removed me from a store under the premise that I had been de-magnatizing sensors: “You have assumed I’m shoplifting because I’m a black young man wearing a cap, and somebody fitting that description has shoplifted in your store before, but don’t you think a blond woman with a ponytail has shoplifted in this store, too? “Are you asking everybody that fits that description to leave your store?” Probably not, because I recall a certain “waspy” friend of mine who marveled about how she always got her favorite hair accessories at J.Crew via just picking the ones she wanted, and wearing them out of the store. Another white, female friend of mine who shopped (and shoplifted) a great deal at J.Crew. each spring would dutifully go to the Washington, D.C. flagship store on M Street, put on upwards of five swimsuits under her street clothes, and walk right out of the door. No police officer accosted her after leaving, as happened to Trayon Christian after legally paying for his item. (TheGrio has reached out to J.Crew for comment on these allegations, but calls were not returned by publication time.) Yes, there was the time in 2001 when Winona Ryder got caught trying to head for her car with upwards of $5,000 of unpurchased designer merchandise. But would her black, female counterpart have even gotten that far? Retailers are not assuming that white Americans could be sticky-fingered, clepto-boosters at the rate that they are making that assumption about me and people that look like me. Solutions to avoid racial profiling in shops And that my friends, is the issue: people of all colors steal — but only some of us are made to carry the stigma associated with doing so. And these stigmata carry over into our broader lives. We often unfairly wear these stigmata of dishonesty and untrustworthiness in the classroom, boardroom, and (most frighteningly) within the courtroom. Too often, we are deemed guilty of lies and deceit before any substantiated evidence would indicate so. What’s the answer? To retailers I offer: train employees to monitor all shoppers for suspicious behavior, because those who are successful career shoplifters rarely fit the outmoded profiles of troubled teens of color. Yes, this means that you are going to have to accuse white women (and men) of shoplifting more often. But trust: if they are shoplifting and caught on camera, they are prosecutable. Their tears and indignation will not absolve them of their crimes. A few of these arrests will send a strong message to those thinking about shoplifting from your store, and you will in turn see less shoplifters of any color trying their tricks. To people of color I offer: DO NOT SHOPLIFT. Not only are you putting yourself at risk of incurring the sort of criminal record that makes it incredibly difficult to secure full-time employment, you are also making it difficult for those of us people of color who don’t shoplift to merely live our day-to-day lives. It’s a lose-lose situation. Unfortunately, as Trayon Christian’s story shows, as a group we don’t have the luxury of taking silly risks for minor thrills that members of other groups enjoy. I will also add that we can and should utilize digital recording devices to our advantage when dealing with the phenomenon of profiling. In other words, pull out that camera phone. The moment you are asked to have your bag searched, or are told that you look suspicious, pull out your phone and start recording. Ask probative questions such as, “What exactly indicates to you that I am stealing?” and “Do you have a sign that clearly states that you have the right to the check bags of all who enter this store?” Ask, “I didn’t set off an alarm, but that person did. Are you going to search his/her bag as well?” Record all of this for two reasons. One, retail associates are less likely to compromise your rights when they know that they are being recorded. And two, if they do, having the entire experience video-documented may provide you with the grounds for successful legal action. An incentive for racial soul-searching What happened to Trayon Christian has been described on social media as “shopping while black,” echoing the familiar phenomenon many African-Americans experience when getting stopped while driving by police for no other reason than having a nice car. The police in these instances cannot conceive that a black person can afford that automobile without being a drug dealer, just as the police and Barneys associate in Christian’s case could not comprehend that he possessed $350 to buy a belt. Well, times have changed, and so must people’s perspectives. Just as there are white and other non-black thieves and criminals, there are of course millions of African-Americans with the means and right to possess objects of quality. It is a violation of our rights to project criminality onto those persons because their “type” does not fit a sadly persistent stereotype. One begins to wonder: From Trayon Christian, to Forest Whitaker, who was wrongfully accused of shoplifting on the Upper West Side of Manhattan – among the countless others who continue to meet undue criminalization through profiling — when will American communities will wake up and take an active role in assessing the insidious ways in which racism still operates so actively in our lives? Those of us who bare the burden of these injustices have been rendered wide awake regardless of whether we want to be. We must commit ourselves to sounding the alarms that will shake the rest of the nation out of its complicit slumber.
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