“This holiday season, too many consumers will be treated on the flimsiest grounds as potential security threats rather than valued customers.”
Here at the height of the holiday season, many of us are spending a good deal of time and money shopping at our favourite stores. We invest our hard-earned money buying gifts, decorations, household items, and in exchange for our investment, we expect that these stores will provide us with quality customer service and goods, and will treat us with the respect every human deserves.
But this season many shoppers of colour will have a very different kind of retail experience. Sadly it is not uncommon for businesses to adopt a hostile and unwelcoming approach toward certain consumers on the basis of racial, ethnic, age, socio-economic and/or gender stereotypes. Too many shoppers face distrustful looks and clerks pointedly asking “May I help you?” Too many will be treated on arbitrary grounds as potential security threats rather than as valued customers.
As a non-retail business owner and former security officer, I understand the reasons for putting systems in place to protect employees and customers and to prevent losses through theft. I also know during busy holiday shopping, stores increase their staff, hire more plain clothes “loss-prevention officers,” and ramp up security measures. That’s fine.
What is not fine, however, is the all-too-common theft-prevention method of consumer racial profiling, a discriminatory practice where a security guard or store employee chooses whom to surveil on the basis of negative stereotypes about particular racialized groups. We have seen that in many cases this unearned scrutiny escalates to false accusations of theft in front of other customers, physical searches, detentions, police involvement or a host of other unjust humiliations that are the natural outcome of a practice built on discrimination and disrespect.
In 2013, Mary McCarthy, a black woman in her late 50s, entered a Shoppers Drug Mart in downtown Toronto to purchase mouthwash. McCarthy, a PhD candidate, was not greeted with respect, despite the fact that she was a regular and loyal customer; instead, she was subjected to a series of humiliations by an employee who conducted an arbitrary stop and search on McCarthy in front of other customers — all because she was black. (Ironically McCarthy’s PhD thesis was on the subject of subtle racism.) This is just one example among many.
Unfortunately, I have first-hand experience of the other side of consumer racial profiling. While working as a security officer in a mall, I was instructed by a site supervisor to closely follow black youth.
As I wanted to point out then, common decency, not to mention the Ontario Human Rights Code, dictates that every Ontarian is entitled to shop without being made to feel like a criminal because of the colour of their skin. It’s a sad fact that this holiday season, some Ontario consumers, maybe you or I, will be presumed guilty of wrongdoing based primarily on our appearance. We will be deemed guilty simply because we are shopping while a person of colour.
What can we do? Well, we can be vigilant. Where we see consumer racial profiling taking place, we can name it, call it out, and certainly not support these businesses with our money. As consumers and store owners in Canada’s most racially, ethnically and linguistically diverse province, we can do more to challenge this unacceptable practice. The problem is easy to ignore, but the consequences of doing so — for a society, such as ours, dedicated to upholding equity, fair treatment, diversity and inclusion — could hardly be graver.
Tomee Elizabeth Sojourner is an LLM candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School and a mediator, consultant and interdisciplinary legal researcher. firstname.lastname@example.org
This post originally appeared in the Toronto Star http://on.thestar.com/1T4IDYF