Civil Liberties  
comments_image Comments

Discrimination for 'Shopping While Black' Is a Major Problem

When you're dark skinned, even a fancy credit card can't protect you from salespeople who make assumptions. Just ask Oprah and Jay-Z.

You could say I grew up in  Barneys.

When I was a little girl living in Staten Island, whenever my dad needed a new suit, we'd ferry it into Manhattan and head on over to Barneys. There, I'd spend many a happy hour playing in the racks while my dad tried on clothes. Scroll forward a few years: I'm in college and my dad and I are hanging in the city. Naturally, we head over to our favorite store for a little shopping/bonding excursion. I even remember what he bought for me that day: a rust-colored  Norma Kamali one piece. (Hey, it was the '80s.) From those early days, I developed a taste for high-end clothes (thanks, Pops) and an abiding love for all things Barneys.

But now Barneys has a serious  image problem.

Color me conflicted.

Hearing what allegedly happened to  Trayon Christian, a young black engineering student, at their flagship store on Madison Avenue is the kind of thing that makes me want to huff and puff blow the joint down. It's infuriating. Now, he's suing them – and I don't blame him. If Barney's really did call the cops on him simply for  buying an expensive belt that the store assumed he could not afford, then something is serious wrong.

Barneys' image problem doesn't stop there: another African-American shopper has come forward to say that she, too, was racially profiled by cops while shopping there. There's an  online petition demanding that Jay-Z, who is collaborating with them on a  capsule clothing collection, to sever his ties with them. The petition crosses out "Barneys  New York" and writes "Barneys New Slaves".

In a  statement posted on his website over the weekend, Jay-Z said he was being "unfairly demonized" for waiting to hear the facts. He said he would not be making a dime off of his collaboration with Barneys; proceeds would benefit his charity, the Shawn Carter Foundation. He also said he's  no stranger to retail racism.

And now, the retailer, after initially denying the allegations, has hired a civil rights lawyer to review all aspects of the store's operations. To show how serious they are about having "zero tolerance for any form of discrimination", as they declared on their Facebook page, the store's CEO will reportedly meet with Reverend Al Sharpton and his National Action Network.

You know it's serious when Reverend Al gets called in for a huddle.

Now, you could dismiss the brouhaha as nothing more than a case of schadenfreude, watching one luxury retailer with a rep for snobbery take a tumble in the public eye.

But as  Oprah Winfrey would be the first to tell you, this isn't about Barneys. Earlier this year, while shopping in Switzerland, she was rebuffed from buying a super pricey bag. This summer, two former "perfumistas" at Bond No. 9, a luxury perfume shop in Manhattan, sued the retailer for racial discrimination against employees and customers. Whenever African Americans entered the store, the suit alleges, employees were instructed to go on alert and use this key phrase: " the light bulbs need changing".

Yes, Shopping While Black is still a thing.

I have to say, I've always been treated just fine at Barneys. I wouldn't shop there if I wasn't. (And a good chunk of their staff is of color.) But I have been followed all over Lord & Taylor by a security guard squawking into her walkie talkie, tracking my whereabouts. When you're painted brown, a black Amex card can't protect you from a salesperson who takes one look at you and makes a judgment call about the state of your finances – and your ability to pay for whatever it is they're selling.

See more stories tagged with: