Shopping while black

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"Shopping while black" is a phrase commonly used for the type of marketplace discrimination that is also called "consumer racial profiling", "consumer racism" or "racial profiling in a retail setting". Shopping while black describes the experience of being denied service or given poor service because one is black.


Most commonly, "shopping while black" involves being followed around or closely monitored by a clerk or guard who suspects you may steal, but it can also involve being denied store access, being refused service, having ethnic slurs directed at you, being searched, being asked for extra forms of identification, having your purchases limited, being required to have a higher credit limit than other customers, being charged a higher price, or being asked more rigorous questions on applications.[1] This can be the result of store policy, or individual employee prejudice.[2] Consumer racial profiling occurs in many retail environments including grocery stores, clothing shops, department stores and office supply shops, and companies accused of consumer racial profiling have included Eddie Bauer, Office Max, Wal-Mart, Sears, Dillard's, Macy's and Home Depot.[1]

Shopping while black is sometimes also called "shopping while black or brown", but researchers say black people are the most frequently targeted.

Shopping while black has been extensively covered by American news media, including a hidden camera ABC News special in which actors posing as store staff harassed black customers to see how other shoppers would respond,[3] and a Soledad O'Brien segment called "Shopping While Black", part of a CNN special on being black in America.[4] It is usually assumed to occur mainly in the United States, but has also been reported in the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands.[5][6]


"Shopping while black" is word play based on the name of an actual crime in the United States, driving while intoxicated, which is commonly referred to as DWI. DWI led to DWB (driving while black), which led to SWB (shopping while black). The phrase implies that a shopper may be treated poorly by store personnel or others simply because he or she is black. The concept stems from a history of institutional racism in the United States, United Kingdom and other countries, as well as references to racial profiling.[7]


A 2006 analysis of federal court decisions involving marketplace discrimination in the state of Illinois found that both real and perceived racial discrimination existed in the Illinois marketplace.[8]

In his 2003 paper "Racial Profiling by Store Clerks and Security Personnel in Retail Establishments: An Exploration of 'Shopping While Black'" criminologist Shaun L. Gabbidon wrote that the majority of false arrest complaints filed in a retail setting in the United States are filed by African-Americans.[9]

Researchers who conducted in-depth interviews with 75 black people living in black neighbourhoods in New York City and Philadelphia found that 35% reported receiving consistently negative treatment when shopping in white neighbourhoods, compared with 9% who said they received consistently negative treatment in their own neighbourhood.[2]

In 1995, a young black man shopping at an Eddie Bauer store in suburban Washington, D.C., was accused of having stolen the shirt he was wearing, and was told he would need to leave it behind before leaving the store. He filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging "consumer racism", and was awarded $1 million in damages.[10] In 2000, a black man named Billy J. Mitchell was awarded $450,000 in compensatory and punitive damages from Dillard's, after being arrested despite having done nothing wrong. Also in 2000, a black woman unsuccessfully sued Citibank after she was detained for no good reason while making large purchases with her Citibank Visa card.[11]


One cause of racial profiling in shops is overt racism. Store staff operating under an "animus-based theory" treat African Americans differently because they dislike them, and may want to "keep them in their place". Some shopkeepers practice racial profiling because they think it will increase their revenues ("revenue-based statistical discrimination"), for example by catering to discriminatory preferences of other customers by excluding black people. Other shopkeepers are trying to minimize costs ("cost-based statistical discrimination"). In these cases, researchers describe the cause of racial profiling as "subconscious racism", with retailers making assumptions about their black clientele based on stereotypes that say blacks are likelier than others to commit crimes and to not be credit-worthy.[12]


People who have experienced consumer racial profiling have described it as embarrassing, insulting, hurtful and frightening.[2][13]

Some black shoppers try to avoid racial discrimination either by avoiding white-owned businesses entirely or by deliberately dressing in a middle-class style. Because they are likelier to live and work in majority-white neighbourhoods, middle-class black people experience more racial profiling than poorer black people.[2]

Responses to "shopping while black" treatment can be divided into the three categories of exit, voice and loyalty: shoppers can leave the store; complain, boycott or file a lawsuit; or accept the situation and continue shopping.[14] Black people are likelier to launch a boycott against a shop-owner in a majority black neighbourhood rather than a white one. Social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner have described this as pragmatic and rational: a boycott is likelier to succeed in your own neighbourhood, where other residents are likely to support you and where the shopkeeper's social status is similar to your own.[2]

In his 2001 book Stupid White Men, filmmaker and social critic Michael Moore advised black readers to shop via online stores and catalogues only, and said if they needed to shop in-person they should do it nude, otherwise they're "just asking to be arrested".[15]

Celebrity instances[edit]

In 1992, R&B singer-songwriter R. Kelly told Jet magazine that when he appeared at a Chicago shopping mall to sign autographs, "the security guards took one look at the way I was dressed and the fact that I am a young Black man and thought I was a shoplifter."[16]

In 2001, Oprah Winfrey told Good Housekeeping magazine about how she and a black companion were turned away from a store while white people were being allowed in, allegedly because she and her friend reminded the clerks of black transsexuals who had earlier tried to rob it.[17] And in 2005, Winfrey was refused service at the Parisian luxury store Hermès as the store closed for the evening, in what her spokesperson described as "Oprah's 'Crash' moment", a reference to the 2004 movie about racial and social tensions in Los Angeles.[18]

In 2013, a shop assistant in Zurich allegedly refused to show Winfrey a $38,000 crocodile skin Tom Ford handbag, allegedly saying it "cost too much and you will not be able to afford [it]."[19] However, the Trois Pommes boutique sales assistant responded that Oprah Winfrey lied about what happened in the luxury Swiss boutique where she works, specifically denying claim that she had told Winfrey could not afford the crocodile leather bag, and stating that she had asked her if she wanted to see the bag, but that Winfrey had not replied.[20]

In the 2007 biography Condoleezza Rice: An American Life, author Elisabeth Bumiller describes two "shopping while black" type incidents: one when Rice was six and a department store clerk tried to keep her mother from using a whites-only fitting room, and another when Rice as an adult was shown cheap jewellery by a Palo Alto clerk, rather than the "better earrings" she had asked for.[21]

Similar wordplay[edit]

The most famous play on DWI is probably driving while black. Other variants include "walking while black" for pedestrian offenses,[22] "learning while black" for students in schools,[23] and "eating while black" for restaurants.[24] Actor Danny Glover held a press conference in 1999 because cabdrivers weren't stopping for him in New York City; this was called "hailing while black", and was further investigated on Michael Moore's television program TV Nation.

In 2001, the American Civil Liberties Union convinced the United States Drug Enforcement Administration to repay $7,000 that it had seized from a black businessman in the Omaha, Nebraska, airport on the false theory that it was drug money; the ACLU called it "flying while black".[25] A pain specialist who treats sickle-cell disease patients at Manhattan's Beth Israel Medical Center reported that for many years doctors forced African American sickle-cell sufferers to endure pain because they assumed that blacks would become addicted to medication, and Time magazine labeled this "ailing while black".[26][27]


  1. ^ a b Williams, Jerome D., and Geraldine R. Henderson, Anne-Marie Harri (November–December 2001). "Consumer Racial Profiling: Bigotry goes to Market". The Crisis magazine, published by The Crisis Publishing Company, Inc. Retrieved 19 August 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Lee, Jennifer (2002). Civility in the City: Blacks, Jews, and Koreans in Urban America. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.]: Harvard Univ. Press. pp. 168–180. ISBN 0674008979. 
  3. ^ "What Would You Do - ABC News - Shopping While Black". Retrieved 19 August 2012. 
  4. ^ "CNN Presents Black in America". CNN. Retrieved 19 August 2012. 
  5. ^ Sabir, Wafeeq S. (2007). An examination of social characteristics and attitudes in a sample of police officers in a Southwestern city. ProQuest. p. 22. ISBN 9780542846915. 
  6. ^ Essed, Philomena (1991). Understanding Everyday Racism: An Interdisciplinary Theory (4. [Dr.] ed.). Newbury Park: Sage Publications. p. 86. ISBN 0803942567. 
  7. ^ Harris, D. (1999) "The stories, the statistics, and the law: Why 'Driving While Black' matters", 84 Minnesota Law Review. pp. 265–326. Retrieved May 7, 2007.
  8. ^ Lowrey, [editor], Tina M. (2008). Brick & Mortar Shopping in the 21st Century. New York: L. Erlbaum Associates. p. 181. ISBN 0805863648. 
  9. ^ Pirkey, Melissa F. (2011). Reinforcing racial stereotypes as we shop: Using focus groups to explore the retail racism experience. ProQuest, UMI Dissertation Publishing. p. 22. ISBN 1243416203. 
  10. ^ Racial issues in criminal justice: the case of African Americans. Westport, Conn.: Praeger. 2003. p. 101. ISBN 0275975622.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  11. ^ Gainey, Michelle Inderbitzin, Kristin Bates, Randy (2012). Deviance and social control : a sociological perspective. Los Angeles: SAGE. p. 411. ISBN 1412973775. 
  12. ^ Harris, Anne-Marie G. "Shopping While Black: Applying 42 U.S.C 1981 to cases of consumer racial profiling". Boston College Third World Law Journal. Retrieved 19 August 2012. 
  13. ^ Free, Jr., edited by Marvin D. (2003). Racial issues in criminal justice: the case of African Americans. Westport, Conn.: Praeger. p. 101. ISBN 0275975622. 
  14. ^ Lowrey, [editor], Tina M. (2008). Brick & Mortar Shopping in the 21st Century. New York: L. Erlbaum Associates. p. 189. ISBN 0805863648. 
  15. ^ Moore, Michael (2001). Stupid White Men: and other sorry excuses for the state of the nation! (1st ed.). New York: HarperCollins. p. 80. ISBN 0060392452. 
  16. ^ Waldron, Clarence (7 December 1992). "Stars Recall their Encounters with Racism". Jet magazine. Retrieved 18 August 2012. 
  17. ^ Johnson, Jr, Robert (1998). Race, Law and Public Policy: Cases and materials on law and public policy of race (2d ed.). Baltimore: BCP Books on Demand. p. 261. ISBN 1580730191. 
  18. ^ Givhan, Robin (24 June 2005). "Oprah and the View From Outside Hermes' Paris Door". The Washington Post. Retrieved 19 August 2012. 
  19. ^ Thompson, Nick (9 August 2013). "Oprah Winfrey racism row over Switzerland shop incident". CNN. Retrieved 11 August 2013. 
  20. ^ 'Oprah's a liar': Sales assistant in Swiss racist handbag row denies telling TV host that she could not view item because she couldn't afford it
  21. ^ Lapidos, Juliet (17 December 2007). "The Condensed Condoleezza Rice". Slate magazine. Retrieved 19 August 2012. 
  22. ^ Mosedale, M. (2007) Critics say a Minneapolis law criminalizes walking while black: What Lurks Beneath?" City Pages. 28(1369). Retrieved May 7, 2007.
  23. ^ Morse, J. (2002) "Learning while black", TIME Retrieved May 7, 2007.
  24. ^ Coolican, P. (2003) "Chief vows to root out profiling by Patrol", The Seattle Times. 11/21/2003. Retrieved May 7, 2007
  25. ^ "ACLU of Nebraska Wins "Flying While Black" Case". ACLU. May 2, 2001. Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  26. ^ Cloud, J. (2001) "What's Race Got to do With It?", Time magazine. Retrieved 5/17/08.
  27. ^ Washington, J. (2000) U.S. Customs Applies A Double Standard In Two Directions At Once, JINN. Pacific News Service. Retrieved May 7, 2007.