'Shopping while olive': Racism at the mall

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Shopping while not white, I've learned, is to expect the un-expected when you walk into a store to spend your money on what you need or want. I'm not talking about the usual poor customer service or dealing with a cranky sales associate. Shopping while not white is being treated in a bizarre -- often discriminatory and humiliating -- way in a store because of your looks, skin colour or accent.

I've learned that my skin colour in Canada is called olive although my "true match" compact says light ivory. My Mediterranean olive skin combined with my dark curly hair signifies to sales associates that I'm an immigrant, which in my case is factually correct. I was born in Egypt to an Egyptian mother and a Lebanese father. I moved with my also olive Egyptian husband to Canada 12 years ago.

As an immigrant, no matter how long I've been living here, or how much money I make, I am a racialized shopper. How I'm treated and how my husband is treated depends on the sales associate's views and stereotypes on race, class and immigrants.

Immigrant means poor for some sales associates. So I get comments implying that I can't afford a product or some associates try to turn my attention to other cheaper items. I often get the dismissive unhelpful attitudes of some sales associates assuming that I'm entering their store to waste time. My immigrant face says I can't afford to buy anything.  I watch the surprised sales person's face when I actually buy the pants I tried.

Immigrant and olive mean less classy and less refined than a white shopper. So I've grown accustomed to the snarky looks and condescending tone of sales associates. Looking ethnic means that cashiers can order me and boss me like a child when I'm making a purchase since obviously I don't know how to put the groceries on the conveyor belt properly.

It took me and my husband a while to understand that our immigrant faces can elicit a wide range of subtle racist treatment in stores. Subtle racism can be confusing to recognize and even harder to prove. Our guards aren't always up when we go shopping, but we've become more experienced at recognizing the signs of being racially profiled when shopping.

A few weeks ago I was excited that my husband got a job interview at a prestigious Canadian health centre. I suggested that after he gets off his work we pass by a mall in Kingston, Ontario to get him a new dress shirt, while our eldest daughter is in karate class.

We walked into an empty men's store that my husband used to shop at when we lived in Edmonton, Alberta.  My husband told the middle-aged sales associate he was looking for a white or a light purple shirt and that sometimes slim fit doesn't work for him. In this large store with several brands, the store associate basically told my husband he has only one shirt option in either white or purple. It coincidently seemed to be the cheapest shirt they carried.

When my husband explained his size fluctuates between two sizes, the sales associate aggressively replied that he has to pick one size. He then told my husband he isn't allowed to try on the dress shirts, explaining that's the store's policy. My husband replied that he can't buy a shirt without trying it. I interjected that this policy sounds very strange since my husband has shopped at this chain store before and tried on everything. 

The sales associate then opened one size of the shirt and gave it to my husband to try but on the condition that he has to buy it. The shirt was too big on my husband and the sales person kept condescendingly telling him that's how the regular fit looks. The sales associate was talking to my husband as if he has never bought a dress shirt before. That's despite the fact my husband was wearing a dress shirt and pants.

The sales associate continued doing whatever he can to make us feel unwelcome and get us out of the store. We spoke to each other in Arabic about how rude this sales associate is acting and we decided to walk out of the store without buying the big shirt ofcourse.

I remembered looking at what I was wearing when I walked out the store trying to make sense of what has just happened. I was wearing the usual skinny jeans, boots, and winter coat, so an average middle class look in an average mall, at a store that sells Calvin Klein -- not Armani. I recall my husband questioning what was so repulsive about us to treat us this way?

It wasn't what I'm wearing or what my husband was wearing that was repulsive, it was what's underneath. Our immigrant olive skin was just too repulsive for this middle-aged white sales associate at a men's store. It's humiliating that a store associate has the figurative power to put us in our place as immigrants, which is outside the middle or upper middle class space. Perhaps it's the sale associate's not so subtle message about where he thinks we belong as immigrants in Canadian society.

I don't necessarily encounter subtle racism every time I go shopping but I've experienced it often enough to know it's real.  The conversation about how non-white people receive different treatment in Canadian stores finally went mainstream on the latest CBC's Marketplace special "Are we Racist?" The show used hidden cameras to show how a Black and a First Nations shopper were followed and interrupted more by sales associates compared to a white shopper who's similarly dressed.

The show invited Canadians to share their stories about what's called consumer racial profiling using #FaceRacism, which trended in Canada. Starting a national conversation on subtle racism feels like a vindication for "people like me." It's an acknowledgment that our experiences in stores are real and not imagined.  

In the spirit of #FaceRacism I called the chain store's customer service. I asked if indeed they have such a policy to restrict all customers from trying on dress shirts -- and no, they don't.  I didn't bring up the issue of subtle racism in my complaint, at first. The store manager called after he got a message from his district manager. He acted surprised on the phone by the sales associate's actions. The store manager even says they had about six dress shirts in white, and not just one, when I asked if they only had one white shirt in the store.

I found it is tough to bring up the consumer racial profiling part on the phone. But I knew to truly face racism we sometimes have to have uncomfortable conversations. The manager seemed to agree with me that it was a strange and a weird encounter.  I mustered my courage and offered my explanation for this perplexing experience. I told him the only thing that was wrong about us when we entered the store is we're olive. He immediately answered that they have a non-white lady that works in the store!

One final twist to my #FaceRacism story, the manager's voice suspiciously sounded so much like the sales associate. With some quick googling I found the manager's picture on his Twitter account. The manager seems to be the sales associate we encountered!  So, in a way I had my closure. I got to face him with his actions, even though there was no admission or confirmation that it was indeed him. I hope he got my not so subtle message about consumer racial profiling.

Dalia Thamin worked as a radio and TV producer in Canada and the Middle East for 13 years, including working for CBC Radio in Edmonton for 10 years. Thamin is currently a freelance writer and a graduate student in cultural studies at Queen's University. 

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Image: Flickr/Angel Ortega

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