Teuila Fuatai: Change rather than apology needed to stop racial profiling in stores

OPINION:

It was supposed to be a fun outing with a spot of Christmas shopping.

15-year-old Aiomai Nuku-Tarawhiti had finished her NCEA exams and was looking forward to hanging out with her cousin Shae Brown, 25. The pair were going to see a movie and planned to buy some perfume for Aiomai’s mum – a special gift for under the tree.

However, when they walked into the Farmers store at Tauranga’s The Crossing shopping centre, it became clear they were not the type of clientele Farmers wanted.

Here are some of the reasons for that stance:

You’ve been flagged by security as likely to not buy anything so it is best for you to leave. You look like you’re going to steal something. If you do want to stay, an employee will accompany you around the store. You look undesirable.

A particularly ugly set of so-called justifications. For Aiomai and Shae, they wanted to share publicly what happened so others would be less likely to go through it. As reaction to their story has shown, theirs is not an uncommon experience. Hundreds have shared experiences of racial profiling in shops, including Government Minister and Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson.

But as Aiomai and Shae found, in the moment, it is often difficult to stand up to that type of behaviour. Do you stop and point out how messed up it all is? Do you ask for help from another staff member? Do you simply leave and vow not to go back? Do you make a formal complaint to the store, or do you just grab what you need and get out of there?

Certainly, calling out discrimination and profiling is the right thing to do. But it’s not easy or straightforward. There are real obstacles rooted in ignorance and attitudes of denial – which shift between situations and people and their understanding of their own biases.

So, let’s take a closer look at the reasons Aiomai and Shae were given by staff, and how to potentially work through them.

First, security had flagged them as shoppers who were unlikely to buy anything. Therefore, they should leave. The most reasonable response to that is: Please, let me know how I’ve been identified as unlikely to buy anything?

Then they were told they looked like they were going to steal. Again, exercising reason, a good question would be: Please explain what makes me look like I’m going to steal.

Next, the pair were given the option to keep shopping (Aiomai wanted to find a perfume for her mum), but they’d be accompanied by a staff member. The question that comes out of this: Please explain why we need to be accompanied by a staff member?

Related to that: Are other customers also accompanied around the store while looking for Christmas presents? Why/why not?

Then there’s the “undesirable” comment directed at Aiomai. To be honest, there’s a bunch of things that should be said about this because the comments are completely irrelevant to the situation. I’d go with: I find that highly offensive and inappropriate and am not sure what it’s got to do with shopping here. Please explain what you mean.

Before you get the wrong idea, I’ve listed these questions to give a bit of insight into how instances of racism and profiling like this work. They’re not a go-to guide to navigating racism in shops. As a customer, there is an inherent imbalance in what you’re able to do in the moment. First, you’ve got to deal with being targeted while out shopping because of who you are and what you look like. Second, there’s the issue of how to practically right the behaviour – especially difficult when you’re not responsible for it.

On this, there is a clear way forward. The employees who dealt with Aiomai and Shae need to reframe the questions I’ve listed earlier so they can identify what was behind their treatment of the pair. From there, they and their employer can address those attitudes, across all their staff and stores. Because while Shae and Aiomai did receive an apology, that doesn’t guarantee change. Stamping out the discrimination and profiling they experienced must be dismantled by those responsible for it – in this case, it’s Farmers and its employees.

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