Working in retail sucks. Not because it requires you to parrot current promotions (even though signs that plaster the entire store say the exact same thing) or because you have to abide by a set of corny acronyms that dictate how you should first approach a customer. 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. We find ourselves in a never ending cycle of having to negotiate the emotional labour that accompanies working in retail occupations. Speaking up about it means deciding whether or not you want to subscribe to respectability politics or be tone policed or fall into the angry black woman stereotype. Alternatively, choosing not to speak up means deciding that you are going to negate your own feelings so that you don't lose your job, hours or seem like a nuisance to management.
At my last retail job, a commission-based footwear store, 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 is not my responsibility to explain, especially to people that 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.
I doubt non-black women are asked, sometimes multiple times in one day, whether or not their hair belongs to them. Both inside and outside of the work place, the appearances of black women—notably with regards to sporting natural hair or protective styles—are policed, surveilled, and enforced under the guise of complying with dress code policies and appearance standards. Comments on hair, often appear in form of microaggressions disguised as compliments that end up turning into extremely invasive experiences. "Time and time again, customers would reach out, with both hands, to grab fistfuls of my hair and tell me, 'I would never need to purchase a pillow,'" shares former retail worker Tia Gordon. "Some customers even went as far as to resting their head on mine to tell me that my hair was so big they could sleep in it."
Even more invasive is when customers ask you to justify or prove your Blackness. I've had co-workers tell me that I wasn't a "typical black person" on the grounds that I could "articulate myself well." Martika Jabari, who has worked retail since her mid-teens recalls a similar experience and mentions, "The most uncomfortable conversation that a customer has brought up to me was about my appearance and how I don't look black. Then while explaining where both my parents come from, their response was, 'Oh, so you're not that black.'"
This is also layered with the fact that as a resident of Toronto, a city that has been branded as diverse and multicultural, customers often come in with "knowledge" they've acquired through interacting with other black individuals or from going to various cultural events like Caribana, AfroFest, JerkFest, etc. Shanice Wilson, a former employee at fast fashion chain, shares, "When I [told customers that] I'm Jamaican, that open[ed] the ground for white customers who have a Jamaican friend, or a Jamaican [significant other] to feel as if they can relate to me and my experiences. Although, if you're working commission, this can be a great selling point if you can handle them telling you how much they love jerk chicken and continue saying 'Yah mon' after every sentence."
With all the knowledge I've garnered since, I regret choosing silence as a way to handle that particular customer and comments from co-workers. Jamz, an employee at a high-end luxury store, has taken the opposite approach: "The truth is most people know better and wouldn't get away with it with me at all. They still fear the possibility of me being an 'angry black woman' and I love that it keeps them from trying me to be honest," she says. "I refuse to deal with any kind of fuckery at work when I'm dealing with clients. I have no issue giving stern responses and silencing the noise. If they have an issue with how I respond I welcome them to speak to ANY manager in my store. I'm loved and supported by upper management. I don't fear consequence when I'm defending myself or preserving my comfort."
Even when making the decision to confront management about concerns, you may be subject to receive the same treatment you are complaining about. Wilson recalls a conversation with her manager after confronting an employee about following a black customer around the store. "I told her what had transpired and she told me I shouldn't run around just accusing people of being racist; that it's a very 'serious accusation'. She also agreed with my coworker and said he had every right to feel the way he did… [and] then proceeded to tell me I should try and wear a little makeup to look more appealing to customers; that I look tired and washed out."
Though going to work may seem like a mundane activity, much like going on Tinder or buying a jacket, there are obviously other concerns for black women that transcend what they are immediately doing. Worrying about whether or not you'll be dehumanized in some capacity by a customer or co-workers is a reality that could ultimately affect one's attitude towards the workplace and other employees, and even more so when, in some instances, there is little to no help from management to ensure that comfortability is priority. At that point, full- or part-time employment in retail can easily become a dreadful experience.
Rules of employee conduct and the invisible barrier between customer and employee won't stop offensive comments and behaviors from occurring. Let's just hope that while residents of cities like Toronto continue to make claims towards accepting diversity and multiculturalism, that it doesn't stop while they shop.
Follow Sharine Taylor on Twitter.