Not many people like working in retail to begin with, but according to an article in Vice written by Sharine Taylor, being a Black woman in retail is doubly hard. “For Black women, working retail is particularly excruciating because we are constantly reminded by both coworkers and customers that we are in fact Black women,” wrote Taylor, whose last retail job was a commission-based position at a footwear store.
She recalled one particularly disturbing incident in detail. “I was helping an older white lady find an item. It had the makings of a perfect sale: she selected a high-end brand, there was good employee-customer interaction, and she even agreed to purchase some product care. While cashing her sale she asked, ‘All that hair, is it yours? It looks like it but I’m not sure.’ I didn’t answer. The politics of Black hair are not my responsibility to explain, especially to people that [sic] I don’t know. I instead asked her if she would be paying by cash, credit, or debit. She chose her tender, I put the receipt in the bag and expected her to walk out. She stared at me and asked, ‘So your hair?’ I gave in and said, ‘I wish it was all mine,’ and then she smiled and walked out.”
Having worked in retail in the past for more than 10 years myself, I only once experienced treatment that I thought was a result of being a Black women. This might be due to the fact I was working at a high-end men’s clothing store, which at the time was family owned and most of my co-workers were gay men (white, Black, Hispanic). I worked there part-time through high school, college, and as I got my journalism career up and running. As a salesperson I never experienced racist incidents, either with customers or co-workers, but when I took on working in the money room with the safe I felt I was under more scrutiny than other workers in the room, especially when money once went missing. Despite my then-seniority with the company, I was the immediate suspect. I even had to take a lie detector test. I passed, but the money was still missing and all eyes were still on me. After a two-month investigation it was shown to be a bank error and not an issue with our deposit. Did I quit? No, though shaken, I wasn’t going to quit. In fact, I went on to become the night money room supervisor.
In addition to situations such as that, the pay scale is where the real discrimination often comes in for Black women in retail. “White retail workers earn $15.32 an hour, on average, while African American and Latino retail workers average less than $11.75, according to a recent analysis of government data by NAACP and Demos, a left-leaning think tank,” CNN reported in 2015. And why? “The reason is simple: white workers are more likely to be promoted to manager roles, while minority workers are overrepresented among the lower-paid cashier positions,” reported CNN. What makes this even more distressing is the fact that the retail sector is the second largest employer of Black workers in the United States, yet African Americans hardly ever get managerial positions. “Managers hire people who look like them or someone they know already. They’ll promote them,” said Phil Andrews, Director of the Retail Action Project (RAP) and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. And, unsurprisingly, “Those managers more often than not tend to be white.”