What to do when witnessing racial profiling? Specific situation.
December 11, 2016 11:48 AM   Subscribe

I saw what to me looked like pretty egregious racial profiling, and I didn't do anything. What should I have done, and what should I do now?

I was shopping at Target; in fact I had just walked and was getting a cart when I heard and then saw a cashier loudly get the attention of another employee (maybe a supervisor?) to double check an order he just rang up. He said it was because it was a "big order" and there was "lots of stuff" and he wanted to make sure he got it right.

The customers were two black women. This Target is in a very white and conservative suburb of the very segregated Milwaukee. (Waukesha, which is officially a different county, but it's basically a suburb of Milwaukee no matter how much they may want to deny it.)

I watched, not sure what to do other than having my phone in hand in case I felt it should be recorded. I don't know why I didn't start recording or what would have had to have happened to trigger me to do so. The second employee accounted for all the items in the women's cart and they went on their way.

Of course it might not be racial profiling. That's always the rub. But as a white lady, I've never, in my life, have had a cashier anywhere, let alone Target, double check what they, the cashier just rang up; that the cashier would for some reason doubt the total with what they themselves just did seems very strange to me. The order itself didn't seem particularly large; there were two carts, but a lot of what they had was larger items (looked like children's gifts).

I was kind of in shock because it seemed so egregious. I was going to post something to twitter, but didn't know if it would have any effect, especially without any sort of proof. I thought about trying to find a manager, but was afraid I wouldn't be taken seriously. So I finished shopping and left.

Today I'm more sure that what I saw was what I thought it was, and that even though it's passed, I should do *something*. I just don't know what. I plan on going back to that Target tomorrow after work and speaking to a manager. I noted the time within 15 minutes of it happening, and the register it happened on. But will that be enough? What else should I do? Should I ask the manager to keep me apprised of what actions they take, and can I expect they will do so?

And what should I have done when I saw it happening, i.e. what should I do in the future if I see something similar?
posted by [insert clever name here] to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
One nice thing you can do is talk to the person and normalize the situation. Ask them about their gifts, ask if they have any kids, make conversation so it doesn't seem so humiliating. And it shows that you don't agree that the person is a "suspicious" type.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:50 AM on December 11, 2016 [8 favorites]

I worked in a store that would pull stuff like this on black customers all the time (also follow them around the store, also hyperscrutinizing and escalating potential shoplifting by black customers). I didn't participate, just saw it happen constantly, especially among a few specific employees who were fond of pulling it as a power move.

I'm with Rock 'em Sock 'em. Insert yourself as a normal buffer to prevent stuff like this from escalating. Show the employees that the person in question isn't suspicious, and show the person being profiled that they're not alone in the situation.

I also think "impatient next person in line" behavior could work well in this situation. Every Target I've ever visited has had security guards posted at the exits who frequently (in a non-profiling way) check receipts against purchases. This is their job. This cashier needs to let the customer move on rather than wasting your time by pulling these power moves on someone they see as vulnerable.
posted by Sara C. at 12:13 PM on December 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I also think "impatient next person in line" behavior could work well in this situation.

I would be wary of this tactic, because the "impatient next person in line" is so often impatient with the customer who they perceive is holding up the line, and not the cashier. You do not want to inadvertently become that white lady blaming the black customers for getting racially profiled. If you do this, you need to make it very clear who you are irritated with.

I would also be very careful, if I wanted to engage them in conversatin, not to appear like I was interrogating them. "Do you have kids" can read as friendly interest. It can also read as "I need you to justify why you have all this stuff." In a stressful situation, it might not be clear to the targeted person why you are asking even if you are very careful, because they will have already been notified that they need to be defensive.

In your situation, this is what I would probably do: Directly ask the cashier why they have to check the totals of these customers, when you have never seen it happen to you or any other person even for very large purchases. It's not a direct accusation of racism, but it does show that you've recognized a double standard.

But unfortunately, this is not a one-solution-fits-all kind of situation. I think that not remaining quiet is important, but the appropriate thing to say is probably going to vary a lot.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:34 PM on December 11, 2016 [30 favorites]

Every Target I've ever visited has had security guards posted at the exits who frequently (in a non-profiling way) check receipts against purchases.

For what it's worth, Targets where I am don't do this, and at any rate you never have to stop for them.
posted by rhizome at 12:39 PM on December 11, 2016 [9 favorites]

I agree that there's often someone near the exit at Target. However, in a Target with less than oh 90% of the customers being people of color, I'd assume profiling if they stopped anyone.
posted by hoyland at 1:00 PM on December 11, 2016

This is extremely common, and I'll bet if you start keeping your eye out for it you'll see it happen way more often than you'd think.

I think it is important to call public attention to the person doing it. Which might mean walking up, and very obviously start recording, and if they ask you what you're doing say "Just making sure you're treating these women fairly, ma'am." Or even just inserting yourself as mentioned above. At the very least--immediately after you witness the behavior go to the person's manager and complain. It is depressing, but your Whiteness will add weight to your testimony.

I am also a white woman, and because I am petty what I have done is target the cashier/security guard who did the call-out and then slow the whole line up by loudly demanding they do the same thing to me. Like "Oh, are you letting me go? Are you sure? Don't you want to get someone else? Because you just did that to the Black woman who you checked out before me, and since you were so conscientious with HER I just thought it was HOW YOU WORKED." I totally admit to having done this even if the incident happened as I was coming in and it's now a half-hour, hour later as I'm checking out, because even if the victim is gone it still forces to aggressor to face up to what they are doing.
posted by schroedinger at 1:02 PM on December 11, 2016 [17 favorites]

It is possible that making conversation with the (presumed) victim will help. But do not ask questions.

This is something being homeless has clued me to. Well meaning, kind hearted, helpful people will inadvertently put all their shitty classism on display when they open their mouths and start asking questions and you may inadvertently do the same with racist stuff you do not know you carry.

I get asked my name, the name's of my sons, whether or not we are homeless etc by people genuinely being kind and generous (like giving me a jacket in cold weather). They would never do that to someone in housing. These are invasive personal questions that include inquiries that boil down to "How much money do you make and where do you live?"

I got similar treatment at my corporate job after giving up my car. People would literally ask where I lived and how long my walk to work was -- I mean from total strangers in the same building, not coworkers. This is also classism because in America, only poor people live without a car (or at least, that is the assumption -- it is extremely rare for people to inquire about why I gave up my car and hear about my major in environmental studies, etc)

If you wouldn't ask it of one of the rich white people in the store that you have never met before, absolutely do not ask it of a black person in your rich white store. Even if you would ask it of a rich white to make conversation in line, be very, very careful with that. There may be assumptions about class and lifestyle contained in your normal small talk that you are unaware of that will feel very othering to a person of color (or even a poor person).

Instead of talking about what is in their cart -- which is an invasive and personal subject -- I might sympathize with the aggravating situation a la "Don't you hate it when you get a new cashier when you are in a hurry? I am sure you would like to be loading your car already instead."

But you need to be careful because while this probably is shitty behavior on the part of the cashier, you may not know the whole story. Similarly, homeless people are often watched suspiciously in stores and treated differently from other customers. But sometimes, it isn't prejudice per se. Sometimes, this specific homeless person has a long history of shitty behavior and what other people are witnessing is the tip of the iceberg.

That lack of knowing the whole story makes it incredibly hard to know what the right answer is, so make your peace with not being sure what to do.
posted by Michele in California at 1:17 PM on December 11, 2016 [24 favorites]

"Don't you hate it when you get a new cashier when you are in a hurry? I am sure you would like to be loading your car already instead."

Sigh. That should probably be more like "I hate it when I get a new cashier when I am in a hurry. I am sure you would rather be done already." in order to not include a question. That makes it possible for them to join the discussion if they like, without making it seem like a requirement.

It also implies the cashier doesn't really know what they are doing. If they aren't new, it politely calls their competence into question -- which is part of the reason I would try to make that sort of comment. It is my experience that making people feel dumb is more effective than questioning their racism/ethics. They may be okay with their racist bullshit, but no one likes being presumed to be dumb and incompetent at their job.
posted by Michele in California at 1:41 PM on December 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm going to be a slight bit of a contrarian here - I didn't see the incident or how the cashier interacted with the customers but your statement that you don't know why the cashier would for some reason doubt the total with what they themselves just did - lemme shed some light on that.

Retail cashiers are under a LOT of pressure to keep cash registers balanced. My wife worked one of these jobs when in college and it was kind of hellish, actually. The cashier may have been new, may have been under probation, may have been TOLD to call a manager under certain circumstances.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:01 PM on December 11, 2016 [17 favorites]

I agree that the situation you witnessed was likely racial profiling and I am very sorry that a) those women had to endure it and that b) you didn't feel like you had something you could do. That the cashier didn't use their walkie to request manager assistance is the biggest red flag to me -- most Targets have transitioned to walkie use and most sales associates should know by now how to correctly alert a manager to a transaction at their register without it being a Thing, even if they are a newbie. I think you should call the store, let them know what you witnessed, and ask them to provide an explanation because you are rightfully uncomfortable with how things went down.

There are certain things at a cash register that may trigger the need for a manager's approval and/or supervision depending on the store, though. At my store, for example, which follows quite a few of the same protocols as Target, once you hit $300, a manager must come and provide a manual override in order for me to finish that transaction. Typically that manager will then stay to supervise the transaction till the end unless the store is busy, especially if electronics make up a big part of the bill.

Additionally, manager approval is required if a guest wants to purchase more than the number of items limited to a single SKU. This happens a lot with children's toys, especially if they're the hot item of the year (like those stupid Hatchanimal things), because guests are only allowed to purchase so many of those in a single transaction or per person. Target's POS system, IME, inconsistently handles this; sometimes the POS automatically detects that you've exceeded the allotted amount; sometimes it doesn't and then the cashier is in the uncomfortable position of having to explain to a guest that you can't ring up any more of that item.

IME Target cashiers decide it's best just to have a manager come look at everything anyway because at the end of the day it's their job to handle those sorts of situations. My system is not as smart and if I mess up and exceed that allotment, I MUST call a manager to explain because you can bet your ass I am gonna get yelled at by the customer I am ringing up. (The worst situation for me is when stuff is for sure on sale at the store but it's ringing up at full price and you don't know whether you're supposed to do a blanket transaction discount or a per item discount, and it's even more lousy for everyone involved if a guest has already tried to buy more than their allotted amount, too. AHHH)

The other possibility here is that the cashier at this register is on probation for a) coming up short on their register, b) frequently getting scammed by guests, or c) some other transaction-related mess up. That means they HAVE to have a manager supervise them after ringing everything up. I've been on registers that are malfunctioning and because of Reasons I can't be reassigned to a working register, so a manager has to come and override stuff. It's so frustrating.

However. You know your store. You know your town. You have the most experience with the temperature of race relations in your area. I personally do not doubt that what you witnessed was racial profiling; I also wonder, though, if any of the above (inane) scenarios were at play, and if those compounded the experience that these women had at the hands of an inept cashier and manager.

TL;DR. Call your store, ask to speak to a manager, relay your concerns, ask for some explanations, and if you don't like what you hear, go on Facebook and leave a message on Target's Facebook Page with a request for guidance on how to report what may have been an instance of racial profiling at your local store. They are super good about replying and their social media support staff takes stuff like this really seriously, so if anything, talking with them about what Target HQ would want you to do might be a good exercise in seeing how you can impact and partake in Target's approach to profiling at their stores.
posted by Hermione Granger at 2:21 PM on December 11, 2016 [18 favorites]

I'm a brown woman, and I strongly disagree with those who say you should start chatting with the women undergoing this. Maybe it's just the sample scripts offered here (like "man, I hate it when I get a new cashier, etc etc") but they sound clueless at best and patronizing at worst. It also doesn't address the apparent racism; it just makes the woman feel even more put on the spot and now she has to deal with your uninvited commentary on the world in addition to explaining her purchases the cashier/supervisor. If I were the woman undergoing this, I would already feel like I was being humiliated; passive-aggressive comments from strangers would only confirm that I was on display for the benefit of the Whites.

A better strategy would be to go directly to the customer service desk and ask to speak with a manager about the cashier's behavior. It's great that you noted the time and the register number -- that will help the manager identify that cashier and speak with them directly. It also starts to build a record, so that if this happens again (hopefully not!) they have documentation of previous incidents and customer complaints.
posted by basalganglia at 2:31 PM on December 11, 2016 [47 favorites]

I was in a 7-11 a couple of years ago and there were two guys in front of me in line, a Hispanic guy and an African American guy (I'm a white dude.) Both of them paid with $20s, and the cashier checked both their $20s with that special pen. When I paid with a $20 it went straight into the till. I was in a mood that day so I asked the cashier why my bill wasn't checked. He just stared at me. I took my change and left and noticed that the African American dude had overheard the exchange. As we exited the store he thanked me for saying something, which made it totally worth it.
posted by COD at 2:50 PM on December 11, 2016 [27 favorites]

If I had the time, I might step out of line and walk around to find a white person with a similar amount/kind of stuff in their cart. I'd get in line behind them, and if they didn't get the same treatment I'd want to ask the casher -- once I got to them, not while the people are still there -- what the difference was (even if it's a different cashier). "Hey, before I saw some people who got the once over with extra help and these people didn't. What might explain that?" Escalate to a manager if they don't know/answer.

We can be fairly sure that everything a checker does has a video camera on it, so the manager is the right person on whom to start pinching that nerve. If they demur about video, you can really press them, "So you're saying if there was some kind of attack here that you would have nothing to give the police?" "Cashiers can just take money out of the till and you'd never have a way know outside of their drawer count at the end of the day? Can I have a job application?" Ask for names and phone numbers for follow up, which may be necessary, and necessary to be driven by you, if you're touching on a corporate or store policy that they're not exactly ready to admit.

I don't think there's a Magic Ally sentence to be had here.
posted by rhizome at 3:07 PM on December 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

First off, who you are as a person is worth acknowledging since you are becoming a rarity these days. I would go with the suggestion of asking, (politely, firmly, respectfully but directly) to the cashier why he/she is doing what they are doing. Keep your voice level (not accusatory), be firm, look them in the eye, do not smile (that gives the impression you are just naive and don't know cos you are not naive and you DO know). Ask the question in a direct manner. Then (after you get the lame answer that they may be ready with), ask them if this is something that every customer has to undergo.
This, would expose the racist behavior and put a spotlight on it. Racism is very subtle (at least it was) and there are many ignoramus who deny it, so your exposing it is necessary, especially in today's world and America. It is really important to not be silent because today, we need more and more people to speak up.
posted by metajim at 3:46 PM on December 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

On further thought, my little plan can be made simpler by you yourself going and getting a cart and filling it up with the same stuff before going to the checkout.
posted by rhizome at 4:06 PM on December 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

As far as speaking or not to someone, you can also follow their cues. If they're looking around for support, support them. You can recognize that by searching for eye contact, half smiling if they get eye contact, talking out loud about their frustration, etc.

If they are keeping their eyes to themselves, or only looking at the cashier, then don't assume they will interpret a friendly word as friendly.

I have been in a similar situation and asked the cashier: "Wow. Do you need to do that for every big order? That would seem like a pain if so. There are a lot of people behind me with similar carts, so I guess you'll do the same then?" That calls out the behaviour ("I see you.") and it also creates an opening for the person to whom it is happening to reach out to you if they want to do so. (Although in the case I'm talking about, it was a case of shopping while visibly poor rather than shopping while not white.)
posted by frumiousb at 7:24 PM on December 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah I mean there's a reason I suggest neutral conversation (use your judgement and social skills to make it neutral-to-pleasant and if they don't seem interested then don't pursue it) instead of increasing the level of conflict or otherwise making the person respond to your clear belief that racism is involved. In some areas of the country asking about kids is totally normal and in other areas you'd have to make a hint about kids or otherwise couch the question in a statement in order to be polite. Again, use your judgment. The greater principle still holds: Don't start a fight on someone else's behalf that involves them, unless you know they want to be involved in a fight. Instead, work to defuse the situation and comfort the person involved, while, primarily, being socially sensitive and tactful. If you can't figure out how to be socially sensitive and tactful then you should default to not putting other people in the middle of fights by not making a bunch of pissy comments or otherwise raising the temperature of the situation.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 10:10 PM on December 11, 2016

Also, there is never going to be a bright-line rule here about what exactly to do. These are social situations involving multiple people, none of whom are known to you. Discretion, sensitivity, judgement, and flexibility will be your friends, and are primarily what you need to handle a scenario with this level of complexity.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 10:12 PM on December 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm from the UK so i'm not familiar with Target. I understand you're talking about addressing situations in-the-moment but do you think Head Office would respond to a letter or email about this? Alternatively, why not have a word with the manager about whether this is typical policy because it appears to be racial profiling? That they deny it is not really that important. What is important is that they know their behaviour is being observed and by people of their own race (I wish other races would do the same). Anything that removes the 'us and them' set-up they have in their heads is a very good thing.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 5:46 AM on December 12, 2016

I don't think I understand how calling over the manager to check the total indicates distrust toward the customers. What is there to check other than the cashier's own work?

I think your gut feeling about the situation is probably the best evidence that there was something going on, but I feel like I'm missing something in regard to the "order check."
posted by cmoj at 11:53 AM on December 12, 2016

To answer, cmoj. One of my therapy clients was a very good department store thief. Tag switching was one of his favorite techniques. He would switch the tag of a lower priced item for a higher price item. If his order was double checked like this, it might show up. However, he was a very good looking, clean cut mid-20s white male when he was doing this and, as he told the story, he was never caught.
posted by hworth at 9:16 PM on December 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

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