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You're A Black Girl in Chanel, They Want To Know What You're Doing Here, From Oprah To Obama How Retail Discrimination Rife In Designer Stores

US President Barack Obama
Oprah Winfrey

Discriminated: Oprah Winfrey complained that a Swiss clerk did not think she could afford a $38,000 handbag, and even President Barack Obama has said he was once followed in stores

The usual scenario involves suspicious glances, inattentive clerks or rude service - not handcuffs.

Yet when a black teen said he was wrongly jailed after buying a $350 belt at a Manhattan luxury store, it struck a nerve in African-Americans accustomed to finding that their money is not necessarily as good as everyone else's. Shopping while black, they say, can be a humiliating experience.

Much attention has been paid to the issue over the years - Oprah Winfrey complained that a Swiss clerk did not think she could afford a $38,000 handbag, and even President Barack Obama has said he was once followed in stores. But according to shoppers interviewed Monday, many people don't recognize how prevalent retail discrimination is, and how the consistent stream of small insults adds up to a large problem.


'It's one thing if you don't understand. But don't ever tell me it doesn't happen to me,' said Natasha Eubanks, who shops often at high-end stores in New York City. 'You can't assume it doesn't happen just because it doesn't happen to you.'

Sometimes, Eubanks said, it takes clerks more than five minutes to simply acknowledge her presence. Or they brush her off after a token greeting. Or they ask her question after question: 'You're a black girl up in Chanel. They want to know what you're doing here, and what you do for a living.'

She says she has dealt with this type of treatment at least 20 times in New York City.

'I don't look like that typical chick who walks into that type of store,' said Eubanks, owner of the celebrity website 'It feels differently than when you go into a store and are treated properly.'

Trayon Christian's problem was not how he was treated when he went into Barneys New York - it was what happened afterward. In a lawsuit filed last week, the 19-year-old said that he bought a Ferragamo belt at the Manhattan store, and when he left he was accosted by undercover city police officers.

According to the lawsuit, police said Christian 'could not afford to make such an expensive purchase.' He was arrested and detained, though he showed police the receipt, the debit card he used and identification, the lawsuit said.

Trayon Christian

Suing: In a lawsuit filed last week, Trayon Christian said that he bought a Ferragamo belt at Barneys New York, and when he left he was accosted by undercover city police officers

After Christian's lawsuit was filed, another black Barneys shopper said she was accused of fraud after purchasing a $2,500 handbag, and the black actor Robert Brown said he was paraded through Macy's in handcuffs and detained for an hour after being falsely accused of credit card fraud.

For Yvonne Chan, the reports were a painful reminder of when she worked in a liquor store in a predominantly white Massachusetts town. Every few months someone would be caught stealing, and about half the time it was a black person.

'You find yourself watching black people. (The stealing) only happens once in a while, but it changes your perception,' Chan said.

Chan, a graduate student, always tried to remind herself not to act on stereotypes, but, 'Like it or not, I'm going to have a preconceived notion of races from my experiences. As much as I would like to force my brain not to think like that and put everyone on an even playing field, stereotypes play a role in our society ... we skew the view of people as individuals.'

'Most black people don't have the money to shop at Barneys. But that does not mean all black people are not able to buy these things'

Those skewed views can affect who gets arrested for retail theft, said Jerome Williams, a business professor at Rutgers University who has studied marketplace discrimination.

Many people justify racial profiling by saying that black customers are more likely to steal. But one study has shown that white women in their 40s engaged in more shoplifting than other demographic groups, Williams said.

'The reason they don't show up in crime statistics is because people aren't watching them,' said Williams.

Statistics showing that black customers steal more 'are not really an indication of who's shoplifting,' he said. 'It's a reflection of who's getting caught. That's a reflection of who's getting watched. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.'

Dido Kanyandekwe knows he is being watched. 'But I joke with them; I see them looking at me and I say, "Hello, I see you!" And I wave,' said the 18-year-old college student in New York City, who was in Barneys on Monday buying a $600-plus pair of Italian designer sneakers.

Pedestrians pass Barneys New York department store Monday, Oct. 28, 2013, in New York

Under fire: After Christian's lawsuit was filed, another black Barneys shopper said she was accused of fraud after purchasing a $2,500 handbag

'Most black people don't have the money to buy stuff at Barneys,' said Kanyandekwe, the son of wealthy parents, before paying for the black leather shoes with a credit card. 'But that does not mean all black people are not able to buy these things.'

Black people are not the only ones who can face unequal treatment in stores. Hispanics have made the same complaints. And Sher Graham, a white woman who lives in Mobile, Ala., says black servers in the fast-food restaurants she visits often wait on black customers first.

A few months ago, she said, a black cashier started talking to black women standing in line behind her about their order. 'When I brought this to her attention, she just shrugged her shoulders and completely ignored me. This action happens more times than not here in the Gulf Coast region,' Graham, a consultant and speaker, said in an email interview.

'It's frustrating to be constantly ignored and people pretend it doesn't happen'

Yet if the number of complaints is any guide, the experience is most common for African-Americans.

Candace Witherspoon, a wardrobe stylist in Los Angeles, went to a store in Century City last April to buy a purse and shop for one of her celebrity clients. She was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. In a letter to the company, Witherspoon said the sales associate barely greeted her, then ignored her, in contrast with her treatment of white patrons.

'As the other customers left, she said "Thanks ladies for shopping. Have a good day." When I left she gave me a nasty look and didn't say anything,' Witherspoon's letter said.

Toni Duclottni, who runs a fashion web site in Los Angeles, recently went to a Beverly Hills department store intending to spend about $4,000 on shoes. But she took her business elsewhere after being ignored.

'It's frustrating to be constantly ignored and people pretend it doesn't happen,' she said.

To her, the solution is simple.

'They rush to judgment, they jump into it assuming something without speaking to a person,' Duclottni said. 'They'd be surprised if they just walked up and said, "Hello, can I help you find something?" They'd be surprised.'

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Comment by steffie on November 3, 2013 at 6:25am


Comment by tanjy davis on October 31, 2013 at 9:40pm
The white people who work in the high end stores cant afford the things in those stores either,so when they see a person of color they cant even handle that idea.Really their salary is not alot.They just pretend and steal whenever they can.
Comment by ed mentis on October 31, 2013 at 8:43pm

@ Nahdjay . I`m with you 1000%. trouble is though to get that through the head of rich Negros is like talking to a stone wall. These folks I think believe that $5000 bags , Lexus trucks and diamonds will get them accepted by the rich whites and the others. It usually don`t hit home until they get a nice hard race slap in the face that might wake them up. It always gets me when I see the hurt  look on their faces when they get on TV and complain how they were mistreated. It just cracks me up....Nope we aint learn a damn thing over the years and some of us heads are up too high and totally unaware of the rope that is laying across the way up ahead.

Comment by Nahdjay on October 30, 2013 at 11:36pm
Stop shoping and dinning were the color of your skin is not respected.
Comment by CrazyLouNyc on October 30, 2013 at 11:20pm

I would open my own clothing store if I had 2500 to blow on a bag.  SMH.  We need to stop feeding these racist organizations and keeping them on top.  There are a lot of decent white people out there...why not support them by buying their products.. Instead we feed the devil himself and wonder why he has the energy to keep us in the flames.  

Comment by ed mentis on October 30, 2013 at 10:24pm

The problem is , as blacks we do some of the most stupid things that does us no good. Not because you have the money , means you have to rush off and give it to folks that don`t respect us/YOU at all. I hear blacks say all the time that they have the right to buy what ever its their money. But guess what, when the blatant racism slap them in the face they want to holla. Before it happened they didn`t care , but when their turn come they are horrified. I say it serves them right for being asses. Blacks that so call made it try way too hard to show the world that they have it , forgetting that they are STILL BLACK and no matter how much money they have, they are looked upon by many whites and other groups as LAZY , WELFARE QUEENS, THIEVES and NIGGERS. I guess they believe money  made them special. We have a lot to learn and I don`t see us learning anytime soon.

Comment by Kareem on October 30, 2013 at 6:05pm
@big women.. I hear what you are saying but if someone wanted to buy a bag for $2500 that should be on them.. if they have it let them spend.. and as far as buying realestate goes, anyone who buys a home lets say for $500, 000 and after they complete all their payments and the house is paid for you get sick and loose your job and can't afford to pay the taxes, they will take your home from you. So when do you really own your home?? So investing in a home should be a up to that person who wants to spend $500, 000 on a home that they own on paper but if they don't pay taxes good ol uncle will own that house.. as far as spending on education I'm all for that because they can't take that away from you.. just like that $2500 bag..
Comment by cgb on October 30, 2013 at 5:50pm
Spelling errors sorry
Comment by cgb on October 30, 2013 at 5:49pm
I had thus discussion withsome friends the other day. Who am I to decide how someone else spends their money?. I work extremely hard and if jiwent to reward myself with a bag it's my choice. If u want to take myself away, again my choice. I think people have their own perception of what's important to them at whatever particular time in their lives. Whom am I to judge? I sure don't want anyone telling me how and what I should do with mine?
Comment by Big Woman on October 30, 2013 at 4:47pm
BK, I just don't understand, I guess some of us just don't get the long term ramifications of our financial actions. Invest in real estate
instead of a $2500 designer bag or send your kid to private school, invest in your future dammit !

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