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Stores like Sephora need a lot more than one hour of diversity training

As a black woman, shopping for makeup can be fraught even when my shades are available.

A woman walks past a Sephora store in Washington, DC, on June 5, 2019.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

In April 2019, SZA tweeted about a Sephora employee she referred to as “Sephora Sandy,” who she said racially profiled her and called security while the singer was in the store.

Following SZA’s tweet, comedian Leslie Jones also tweeted about her makeup artist’s experience of racially motivated mistreatment at Sephora. And after the resulting backlash, Sephora called for all of its American stores to close for one hour so all employees could attend “diversity and inclusivity workshops.” (The company said this training had been in the works before the incident.)

Sephora hasn’t yet released numbers regarding how many employees attended the training, who taught or facilitated, or how many employees were absent; I reached out for comment and will update when they send along information. I suspect, however, that this one-hour training may have been more about Sephora making a move to salvage its image than about it actually changing anything.

But this isn’t just about Sephora and SZA, Sephora’s underreaction, or what should have happened to create lasting, meaningful change. This is about beauty businesses finally accepting that while shade ranges might be expanding, the minds of employees don’t always follow suit.

Every single person of color has likely had the experience of being followed around or, at the very least, watched by a person working in a store who assumes they will shoplift. It goes beyond simply following and watching; it goes beyond invading privacy or impeding a shopping experience. Sometimes it ends up involving the cops — even if the customer hasn’t done anything wrong.

It happened to me, a black woman, at a Sephora after the diversity training. My local Sephora chose a Thursday in early June as the day it placed a new eye shadow palette I was excited about on the shelves. Of all the visits I’ve made to any beauty store, this is the one where I’ve had the fewest negative experiences (although I have had a few). After a couple of years of regular shopping, the employees now know my name and smile at me when I walk in the door. They treat me like a customer and a friend, they remember things I’ve said to them during previous visits, and we catch up on each other’s lives.

I also chose to visit that Sephora because I’d been unsuccessful elsewhere. Four days before, I’d visited an Ulta in the same city, thinking it might already have the palette available. But from the moment we walked in, my husband and I felt utterly alone. We weren’t greeted, and every employee we tried to ask for assistance brushed us off. We shopped for close to an hour and, around the 30-minute mark, confirmed with each other that we’d seen the same employee in almost every aisle, and that each time we’d met her eyes, she’d immediately turned back toward the products.

Like many customers who visit a beauty store and cannot find what they really wanted, I’d picked out a few hundred dollars’ worth of consolation products. At checkout, we were asked to register for Ulta’s rewards program. I asked more about it and was told that we were “welcome to make any purchase at Ulta” but, unless we registered, would not be able to return or exchange any products.

Feeling like something was fishy, I turned to social media a few hours after we left and publicly commented on Ulta’s Instagram about the odd return policy. While the verified account never answered, two people who claimed to be current Ulta employees in the comments sections did say, in now-deleted replies (my query was also deleted), that the you-must-register move is something Ulta employees pull when they suspect a person has or will shoplift, or is attempting to “scam” the company.

To be clear, it was only two unknown people making this claim, and when I later spoke to Ulta’s customer service about my experience, the supervisor was extremely apologetic and told me I had received totally incorrect information both at the store and on Instagram.

However, it all felt connected: what happened in the store, the replies on Instagram, and the reaction I got from a manager the next day when I went back to return all the products — my own personal protest after finding out we had been duped regarding the return policy, for whatever reason that might have been. The manager not only brushed me off but laughed in my face when I said I felt I had been racially profiled by the cashier the day before. It all made me accept that, sadly, I had likely experienced yet another instance of Shopping While Black. But like many people of color who regularly deal with the fallout from SWB, I shook it off and went about my life.

A sign announcing the store was closed hangs on the door of a Sephora store on June 5, 2019, in Chicago.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Until Thursday morning, when I visited Sephora. My two favorite employees were working but busy when I walked in. After waving and smiling at both, I meandered over to the skin care section where an employee I’d never met was stationed. I perused Clinique, Sephora, K-Beauty, Drunk Elephant, and Ole Henriksen, and, each time, she was fewer than five steps away from me.

I chose a Lancôme honey cleanser and mistakenly picked up the tester to put in my Sephora-provided shopping tote. About 10 seconds later, the employee walked up to me, grabbed the tester from the bag while holding out a bottle, and tersely said, “Maybe you want to pick up a bottle you can buy?”

I’d known what was happening almost right away, but when I’m in a beauty store I’m on a mission, so I finished loading up my tote with products. By the time I made it to checkout, the employee was just a few steps behind me — nervously straightening things whenever I looked in her direction.

I put my tote on the checkout counter and found that one of my favorite employees would be checking me out. The woman who’d been following me stood next to us while I casually opened my bag, grabbed my card, and paid for a few hundred dollars’ worth of skin care and my new eye shadow palette.

This interaction is notable because of one simple detail: The employee saw that I was known. The moment she figured it out, I could actually see her physically relax. She knew then I wasn’t a shoplifter — only a black woman with a bare face who came in to spend too much money on too few items.

I reached out to Sephora and was told someone would contact me regarding the company’s diversity training. When I reached out to Ulta regarding my experience, I was immediately transferred to a supervisor who filed a report about it. Less than 24 hours later, I was contacted via phone by the regional manager, who apologized and promised they were working to make Ulta comfortable and inclusive to all customers.

This brings me to what Sephora and other stores could do to effect substantive, lasting change: let all your employees, from entry level to upper management, get to know and respect people of color. As Julia Belluz wrote for Vox following an incident where two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks, the solution isn’t racial bias training, which can be ineffective and can even backfire. Instead, it’s important for companies to make a conscious effort not just to hire one token light brown employee, but to make sure each location employs multiple people of differing races, body types, ages, genders, and sexual orientations. Working alongside people who don’t look exactly like each other can only help employees open their minds and view the world in a different way. To quote every health or weight loss program, like, ever: It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle.

One day isn’t enough. One hour damn sure isn’t. One seminar isn’t enough to get people who aren’t familiar with human beings who don’t look like them comfortable enough to realize that most shoppers are just shoppers, and the best way to limit loss and shoplifting is a genuine and immediate greeting to every person who walks through the door. Customers want to feel wanted and respected. One can only hope the beauty industry and its stores will someday reflect the reality of the beauty community: a spectrum of colors, ages, and genders of people who simply want to feel their best.

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