During the Jim Crow era, racist signs in store windows made it clear to people of color when they weren’t wanted. But today it can be much harder for customers to spot racial bias in retail establishments. Shoppers of color may suspect a salesperson is following them or, alternatively, ignoring them in favor of other customers. Such shoppers, however, aren’t likely to be told outright that they’re not welcome.
While overt racism in retail is rarer today because it’s not legal for businesses to turn away patrons based on skin color, biases against black and brown consumers remain. A 2015 Gallup poll found that more African Americans felt discriminated against while shopping (24 percent) or dining out (20 percent) than during police encounters (18 percent). Contemporary retailers have been accused of relying on covert racism, including racial code words, to profile customers of color stereotyped as thieves.
A racial discrimination lawsuit against the high-end fashion brand Moschino accuses staff of using code words for black customers. The lawsuit, filed by a black former employee last month, alleges that staffers referred to these shoppers as “Serena,” in a veiled dig at tennis star Serena Williams, who herself has been the target of ongoing racial microaggressions. The allegations are the latest example of “shopping while black,” the colloquialism that describes how black customers are routinely profiled or mistreated in retail establishments.
The fashion brand is not the only one to be accused of using discriminatory code words in recent years. Similar allegations have been made against the brands Versace and Zara. These stories indicate that the racial microaggressions black shoppers face are widespread, even in the face of research showing that African Americans have a buying power of $1.2 trillion and make up a higher share of customers in many sectors than their 14 percent share of the US population. African Americans are also not more likely to shoplift than other groups. But such findings have done little to shift the perception that black shoppers are undesirable customers, and thus, the complaints about retail racism mount.
Black Moschino patrons say they flashed cash to prove their worth as shoppers
The December 4 lawsuit Shameal Lataillade filed against Moschino alleges that an assistant manager at the West Hollywood store did not just use the word “Serena” to refer to black shoppers but asked store staff to follow these customers as well. Lataillade, who alleges that she was wrongfully terminated from the company in the spring, also accuses store personnel of subjecting her to “ongoing and atrocious harassment and discrimination based on her status as a black, Haitian American woman.” In a statement about Moschino Lataillade gave to Fashionista, she said:
It’s a sad reality that despite the amount of money, time and loyalty that people of colour, especially women, put into luxury brands like Moschino and [Moschino’s parent company] Aeffe Brands, these companies still fail to exhibit basic respect through workplace policies from the boardroom to the boutique floor.
She also named Serena Williams as one of her heroes and called it shameful that staff allegedly used the athlete’s name “to perpetuate hate.”
Lataillade’s 36-page complaint claims that a Moschino manager discriminated against black customers who did not appear to be rich or famous.
“If a potential black client was not a celebrity and did not have an outward appearance of money via diamonds or name brands, defendant [Ranna] Selbak called them a ‘Serena’ to other sales associates and wanted the ‘Serena’ to be closely watched,” according to the complaint.
In this context, the suit contends, black shoppers sometimes displayed hundreds of dollars to store personnel to prove they could afford to shop at Moschino.
Moschino has denied the allegations. In a statement, the company said that it “complies with applicable equal employment laws and values and respects all customers and clients regardless of their race or background.”
Moschino is not the only brand to be accused of using racial code words
The Moschino lawsuit calls to mind other cases of alleged retail racism, including accusations that the retailers Versace and Zara used code words to profile black customers. In 2016, a former Versace employee in Pleasanton, California, sued the brand for racial discrimination. The employee alleged that he was fired after his manager discovered that he was African American.
The employee, who is unnamed in the lawsuit, said the manager gave him a code for black shoppers at a Versace retail outlet in suburban San Francisco. The lawsuit, which has not been settled, accuses store personnel of using the code “D410” for black customers; D410 was reportedly Versace’s color code for black shirts.
This practice, the unnamed employee claims, led him to disclose that he was African American. He said the disclosure shocked his manager, who fired him two weeks later for reportedly not having “lived the luxury life.” Versace has denied the allegations.
Similarly, the Center for Popular Democracy in 2015 accused Zara of using racial code words for black and Latinx customers (which Zara denies). The advocacy group surveyed 251 Zara employees in New York City about the retailer’s practices. Poll respondents said that when the term “special order” was used at the store, employees were to find the location of the shoppers in question and follow them around. Black customers were most often described as “special orders,” according to the survey results.
In addition to accusations of using code words, Zara faced a $40 million discrimination lawsuit in 2015 accusing it of practicing race-based favoritism within the company. The suit claimed that managers treated darker-skinned employees worse than their lighter-skinned counterparts.
Zara denied that the term “special order” had racial connotations, stating that it is “used to designate a common situation in which associates are requested to enforce customer service and zone coverage on the floor.”
While retailers may deny that racism exists on the sales floor, anecdotes from customers and employees tell a different story. Businesses might no longer post signs telling people of color to stay away, but lawsuits, questionable arrests, and police calls signal that “shopping while black” is a persistent and, often, covert problem. It’s not covert enough, though, to go unchallenged — code words or not.
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