Gomeroi. This is MY truth.

On Shopping While Black

Recently I spent a week in Sydney. And it was a wonderful week. I had job interviews, commenced  my diploma, caught up with some amazing friends, met a lot of awesome new people and enjoyed myself immensely. Then something happened on Friday afternoon that cast a dark cloud over my entire week.

I was shopping in Newtown and remembered I had to renew a script for stomach problems that I have blogged about before. I went into a chemist and was immediately struck by how crowded it was, with very narrow aisles. I made my way to the back of the store to put in my script all the while incredibly aware of the security guard that had followed me down the aisle.

I stood and waited for my script, even though I would liked to have browsed the shampoos and hair treatments aisle with all their yellow sale tags. Buying hair products comes a close third in my list of favourite things. I resisted though, because by now the security guard wasn’t even pretending he wasn’t watching me, the intensity of his stare could have burned holes in paper.

At last my name was called and I was given my script in a clear plastic puzzle box to take to the front of the store and pay. The line to the cash registers was long enough that its end was a little down the aisle on the edge of the store. I took my spot in the back of the line and it was at this point the security guard realised he couldn’t see me, so he actually came and stood next to the man in front of me. It was around this point that I started to get angry. I could feel it spreading in my chest, an overwhelming need to clench my fists.

Finally the line snaked forward enough so he could go and take his place by the door, yet still see me. I gave my puzzle box to the register operator, paid for my purchase and walked towards the door behind a lady slowly pushing her walker and the man who was in front of me in the line. The security guard ignored these people, and asked to search my bag. I sighed inwardly, this is something I am so used to doing that I didn’t even think twice, With my jaw clenched I opened my bag and let him snoop.

This is when the fun began. If your idea of fun is being embarrassed in front of a whole store full of people. I carry a pack of zantac with me everywhere, and have done for quite a while. About a week before my trip to the chemist I bought some cod liver oil capsules. Someone had recommended them to me and they were on special at a supermarket I was visiting so I grabbed them.

The security guard wanted to see receipts (even for the medication I had bought not 60 seconds before). Luckily I had the receipt for the zantac buried way down deep in the bottom of my bag, it took me almost 15 minutes of going through a hundred scraps of paper to find it, but I found it. Not so lucky for the cod liver oil capsules though. I explained to him that I had bought them weeks ago, no I didn’t have the receipt. The smile on this mans face when he realised I couldn’t provide proof of purchase for the vitamins was something to see. I imagine people look like that when they win the lotto.

By this time my anger was making itself felt by kicking up my heart rate a few notches. There are stores here in my hometown that I refuse to even enter because being followed and having my bag checked does not an enjoyable shopping experience make. If I had known this chemist had an incredibly eager security guard I would not have set foot in it.

A woman wearing what I assumed was the stores uniform, who had been watching this exchange for quite some time came over and asked if there was a problem. Yes, I told her, this man is accusing me of stealing. The security guard waved the cod liver oil capsules at her, and she said, we don’t carry that brand here. I imagine people who are just one number away from winning the lotto have the same expression on their faces as the one that flickered across the security guards face.

The security guard did not apologise, he didn’t even look at me when he said, I’m just doing my job. I asked him if his job was to follow black people around his store and make them feel uncomfortable. No answer. The woman who intervened didn’t apologise. No one apologised for embarrassing me, making me feel like a criminal or for falsely insinuating that I had stolen from them.

I can’t even figure out why this particular incident upset me as much as it did. I am used to having my bag searched when I leave stores. It’s not as if this is something that has never happened to me before. This upset me so much that instead of leaving Sydney on Saturday, I changed my travel to Friday night, breaking plans to do something I was looking forward to all week.

Truth be told, I am still angry about what happened. I’m angry that while this man was following me around, and searching my things, he paid no attention at all to other customers in the store. This man assumed because of the colour of my skin that I would be the one who he would follow. And what exactly would have happened if the brand of cod liver oil capsules I had bought the week before were stocked at that store? Would the police have been called? Would I now have a shoplifting charge against me?

I keep asking myself, when does it end? When does my colour stop being the reason I get harassed and treated with disrespect? I am no longer a young woman. Lines have begun appearing on my face. Every line a mark of wisdom learned from a journey that has never been smooth. Outward signs that denote maturity and a deeper understanding. Every line hard come by and every line loved and cherished. I am now a woman. And in becoming a woman I had somehow thought this would mean I would be accorded respect. Wishful thinking in this instance. Because it doesn’t matter how old I become, I will never be accorded the respect of the benefit of the doubt when I walk into a store, I will always be singled out, followed and have my bag searched.


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34 thoughts on “On Shopping While Black

  1. Sorry to hear about your negative experience in Sydney, and Newtown of all places 😦 I was born and raised in this city and I hate hearing these things, seems you were able to maintain composure, good on you for speaking up to the staff.

  2. Jason Ozolins on said:

    Reading this makes my blood boil. I was followed once that I know of: I was checking out a silver wine stopper I meant to buy for my parents-in-law, and I was in a crappy t-shirt and off-brand jeans that somehow shouted “not a guy who should be shopping here!”. Really unpleasant feeling, and it would be horrible to have this happen as a default when I went into a shop. I think I’d start asking the security people following me to carry my bag as soon as I walked in the door…

  3. Lorraine on said:

    I just read this out to my husband and his first response, which mirrored what I was thinking, was that you should publicly name and shame the chemist shop! I have been in a similar situation in a chemist shop. My husband was seriously ill, I was sleep deprived, I was getting a script filled for him and I was pulled up because my handbag, according to the security guard, was oversized. I stood my ground and refused to open my bag and he threatened to ring the police. I told him to go ahead that he had no right to search my bag and was not going to open it. He finally backed down and I walked out. By this time I was in tears and shaking but was not going to give into a bully who had no reason to search my bag. However, even though I had done nothing wrong I was made to feel guilty. With all the security tags on everything these days there should be no reason to continue this sort of harassment!

  4. Six years ago I used to work at Big W, one of my jobs was being that annoying person at the door who checked bags. We had two main tasks: check all bags of people leaving and report suspicious individuals to the LPO. The LPO (loss prevention officer) was a plains clothed security who would go around the store following “suspicious” individuals. One day when I was still new at the job, the LPO comes over to me and says “Did you notice anyone suspicious just enter?”. I said no, there was a family, a man and a young girl. She then said ” a young ABORIGINAL girl, that’s the sort of suspicious person you have to tell me about”.

  5. qrhuggies on said:

    Sounds like an over zelious prick. You should make a formal complaint with the management of the pharmacy involved.

    Sure they may reserve the right to check your bag but you also have the right to refuse.

  6. Genevieve Sinclair on said:

    I’m so sad this happened. How awful to be treated in this way for something that you can’t change about yourself – for just being the person you are.

  7. I’m so sorry this happened to you. I’m fuming for you.

  8. Samantha Page on said:

    Thank you for sharing this story, It makes me sad and angry that this has happened to you and continues to happen to so many others. But we need to feel that emotion (shock, frustration, embarrassed that this still happens here in 21st century Australia). I sincerely hope that our next generation of Australian’s will not know such prejudice and discrimination, black or white or any other colour I hope it would never occur to them to behave the way this security guard did. I hope to see that in my lifetime and in yours.

  9. Karen Mathis on said:

    I’m so sorry this happened to you. Thank you for sharing. Here in America, we hear stories like this all the time, but as with many things, we tend to forget (or never even realize) that it happens in the rest of the world, too. We forget that this is a human problem, not just an American one. Hopefully, one day, it won’t happen to anyone, anywhere.

  10. I know this store. It’s never comfortable shopping there because of their security guards. Sorry this happened to you too. I think we should complain. Then complain again. Then never shop there again.

    • I think not shopping there would be a win for the security guard’s bigotry. He doesn’t want “the problem” in his store. The reality is that he is the problem and it’s his attitude that needs changing. Education is the only answer. His employer needs to be brought into the conversation and some sensitivity training needs to be had. It’s not a good society when people let bigotry stop them from shopping in the shops they find convenient to attend. That said, there may be more effective ways of making a statement and perhaps not patronising the store is one of them, but it would be better to send the store’s proprietor a note indicating this decision, to let them know their security guard’s attitude is turning away business.

    • whymyeye on said:

      Which store? I know King st a little.

  11. My “like” button didn’t load. But if it did, I would have clicked it

  12. Absolutely no excuse for that. I bet the same treatment happens to first Australians at job interviews etc too. This sort of stereotyping is disgraceful.

    I grew up playing football and going to school with Aboriginal kids. When we were 13 years old we took a car from Brisbane to Rockhampton. We got caught. When we got back we went to court and my two mates were sent to Boystown and was released without conviction. I had to ask my mum why. She told me I only walked because I was white. Made no sense then. Makes no sense now. If my crime was minor enough to walk why wasn’t theirs?

    How are we supposed to move forward together as a nation if Aboriginal people can’t even go to the chemist without being treated like a criminal.

    Truth be told Aboriginal people know more about theft than anyone else. Land, kids, culture, wages and freedom. All been stolen. We really are in denial here. Australia would be one of the few countries that doesn’t teach its native language let alone rich culture in schools. My school history books started at Captain Cooks arrival.

    I really hope this never happens to you again. You must be so angry. I can’t even begin to understand how you feel . I guess we all need to keep calling people like that security guard out. Thanks for sharing your story.

  13. i’m so sorry this happened to you 😦 i haven’t been in that type of situation before but i can imagine (hopefully) how horrible the feeling is to be accused due to race =( Sydney is full of racist, small minded, privileged folks (who dare I say, are mostly white).

  14. Sorry this happened to you. I remember learning of a Nyungah friend , a conservatively dressed office worker who looks to me like she could be a bank clerk or accountant, not the sort of person you’d ping as a thief , that she gets searched almost every time she leaves a supermarket . Me, I look like a deranged biker, *ID* search me, but I’m white and I havent been searched since I was a teenager in the 80s. In fact it had been so routine to my friend it hadnt even registered to her that all her white friends where spared this embarassment.

    We did go after the main culprit supermarket with some legal threats and forced them to ammend their behavior, but it shocked me that it happens at all. This must be devestating to the self esteem.

  15. I’m so so sorry! I can’t imagine how this must feel. Ugly ignorant broken people who have no idea of what is good and right… please forgive us …

  16. I feel angry reading this. What an pair of ignorant idiots

  17. Gillian on said:

    I’m not black but I do have coloured skin. I’m a heavily tattooed young(ish) female and I used to live in Newtown. I know exactly the security guard you speak of because he has done the same thing to me.
    I feel awful for you and that this happens to you. It infuriates me that they, as you say, ignore other customers and focus all their attention on you just because they’re decided you must be trouble. It embarrassing and who keeps receipts for every little thing in their handbag??
    I hope you complain to that chemist management and even link them to the comments here. Each of those franchise stores have a security guard out the front and maybe sometimes they do get a trouble maker but it’s vile the way they target people.
    Newtown can be a lovely place, and it’s meant to be an accepting and cultural community. I’m so sorry this happened. I won’t be shopping there again.

  18. whymyeye on said:

    I read your post with such a sense of shame and loathing. It always shocks me when I hear someone say “I’m used to having my bag searched…” It’s not good enough that for a part of my society this is the norm. You clearly are a normal, decent woman. You absolutely deserve respect. You absolutely are better than that sorry excuse of a human being.

  19. whymyeye on said:

    Reblogged this on Whymyeye's Blog.

  20. This makes me so angry and breaks my heart at the same time.
    For all that Australia does well, we still haven’t managed to make everyone understand that skin colour does not define a person, nor does their heritage, faith, sexuality, gender or address. Why is that so hard?

  21. I know the store, I’ve been harrassed by security there too but never to that extent. Formal complaint, it’s amazing how far complaining can get you.
    If you need a chemist in newtown again you should go to bob’s chemist near wilson st. Always friendly and helpful, and on several occasions have given me better advice than I’ve got at the medical centre across the road.

  22. Pingback: The Seventieth Down Under Feminists Carnival | Zero at the Bone

  23. Julie-Ann Lowe on said:

    you’re an amazing and sassy woman with fire in your belly and I thank you for writing a blog so that your wisdom and experiences can be shared !!

  24. Jane Greenwood on said:

    I am so sorry this happened to you. Thank you for sharing your story. I hope it makes many white people angry enough to watch out for such bigotry and help to overcome it.

  25. I’m so sorry this has happened to you, in this instance and past instances! I felt rage just reading it, I can’t even begin to imagine how you must have felt. I’m so sick of people telling me that people of colour constantly “use the race card” whilst ignoring these very real and distressing experiences.

    I’m going to avoid pharmacies in Newtown when I visit Sydney in future :/

  26. Poochymumma on said:

    I reckon I know exactly the chemist you’re talking about… Is it Chemist Warehouse in Newtown? That’s my local. The plastic box they locked your meds in isn’t mandatory… as in, they only do this to ‘risk’ customers. I’m so sorry this happened to you. I will never ever shop there again.

  27. suzanne louden on said:

    Being a white australian I feel shame and sadness reading about your experience, sadder and more ashamed knowing it is the norm.
    So much rhetoric out there on equality but we all know it’s not true. Whilst indigenous people are kept poor, they are then discriminated against for their poverty. I’m not implying that your poor lovely woman, just hate the insidiousness of this viscious cycle of demeaning and keeping people down. I live on the edge of Redfern and it’s my favourite suburb because the wanky yuppification hasn’t overpowered the people there yet. It’s the only part of Sydney where a chat to a stranger on the streets is frequent and normal instead of a surprise.
    Wish was in that chemist, think I know the one, could have stood beside you against humiliating racist discrimination.
    Keep your head up don’t let the vile people win. Admire your restraint, well done don’t know if I could have held myself with such dignity

  28. My Rue

    Razor sharp can the truth be
    Epic hard it slaps us across the face
    This monumental ugliness we hide within

    What’s the cure I scream at sky and rain
    A sky in my mind, rain down my eyes

    For I want to let it out – for all to witness
    Stare the beast in the eyes till it starts crawling
    Mortified and wrong it must walk away
    That toxic reptile – prompted the guard
    To follow a black woman all across the floor
    Floor of the store she’s assumed to steal from
    How unapologetic regardless dark gesture it spurred?
    The toxic creep that ruining us in and out

    Can’t get you justice O dear Koori woman
    My heart wishes humbly I just could
    Way we roam with our ignorant ungratefulness
    In a land settled and owned by you
    See, I’m in a fix of my own as well
    But not remotely as thick and blunt as yours
    I stand still and try comprehending
    How sharp can it hit us to the core?

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