Racism has a way of hiding in plain sight: Sometimes, it even follows like a silent stalker down the shampoo aisle. In this month’s “Life with the Girls,” Eboné Denise shows through her personal experience how fraught and unsettling a ho-hum errand can feel for a Black woman…and why she’s starting to have hope that things might actually be changing.
“Are you done with all of your other shopping?”
The store associate’s question caught me off guard.
“What? Uh… No, I still have other things to pick up.”
“Okay, well, when you’re done getting everything else, come back and I’ll get the shampoo for you.”
I did as I was told and made my way around the behemoth hypermarket section by section, checking other things off my list. Her seemingly benign request threw off my plan, and it made me feel dejected, but what could I do about it?
When I first stepped into the store, I went straight to the personal care area. I had an organized list and a handheld basket, and I was starting with the lighter items so my arms wouldn’t give out before I finished shopping. I went up and down the aisle looking for my favorite shampoo for natural hair. I checked shelves high and low while avoiding a small crowd at the end of the aisle. I went around to the next aisle, but still I couldn’t find it. Finally, I wedged myself into the little crowd of women and discovered what I was looking for. They were all staring at shampoos and soaps they needed but weren’t able to access.
The ethnic hair care section was locked up.
You’d think a lock and key would be reserved for high-priced or unsafe items—smartphones or guns—but that wasn’t the case. Behind the glass were a bunch of $10 hair and body products. For a split second I was in shock, but then I remembered where I was: the land of the free, where shopping is a different experience for people who look like me.
For the three years before this moment, I had lived in Sydney, Australia. Lots of things were different for me there. For one, I didn’t have to jailbreak shampoo. I’d spent three years feeling comfortable in my dark brown skin and wildly kinky hair. I had three years of people not following me around stores to make sure I didn’t steal. Three years of hearing “I always wanted to be Black,” which I’d never, in three decades of my life, heard anyone say. In fact, I grew up with folks spending lots of time and energy trying to disassociate from being Black, not praying to God that they could be. Essentially, I spent three years feeling like Beyoncé.
In Australia, I was cool and celebrated. Most of all, I was free to roam like a normal person. But I wasn’t in Australia anymore. Nobody thought my brown skin made me exotic or cool; it made me look like a suspect. A criminal. The kind of person who couldn’t be trusted to walk around a store with a $7 bottle of shampoo.
Once I finished my other shopping (which by the way, was full of other items that could have just as easily been stolen), I came back and found the person with the keys. She released my shampoo from its clear chamber.
“I’ll walk you to the register,” she said. The shampoo was so precious it needed safeguarding all the way to the checkout counter.
I’m a tough girl, but this was downright humiliating. And absolutely normal. I had forgotten how it felt to be Black while shopping. I went from being your average carefree woman back to rethinking my every move.
“I’m a tough girl, but this was downright humiliating. And absolutely normal”
Since I was relearning the old patterns, I recognized the great lengths to which I went to seem as unthreatening as possible. I got back into the habit of carrying a very small purse, if I even carried one at all: Tiny purses can’t carry stolen goods. I was sure to keep my cell phone in my hand while walking around: If my hand is filled with my phone, then I can’t be holding something I plan to steal, right? I’ve even purposely pointed my body towards surveillance cameras while looking at items if I got the feeling I was being followed and watched in a store. Video evidence could always prove I did nothing wrong.
Shopping while Black, especially in higher end stores, can be exhausting. I’ve gone out of my way to make multiple, super friendly interactions with associates until I can prove to them that I’m not a threat. I have seen them physically relax.
As people have started to share their own experiences on social media, I realized I wasn’t alone. Somehow, we collectively learned how to shop to show people that yes, we are Black, but no, we’re not thieves.
Walking around in this skin can be heavy. When you see someone grab their kids away from you (yes, that happens), cross the street when you’re headed in their direction (also happens), clutch their purse as you get closer (we all know that happens, right?), it shows people are uncomfortable around me. You make people uncomfortable because of the skin you’re in. And for years, that made me uncomfortable in my own skin.
I’m deeply grateful for the time I got to spend overseas, for how healing it was. I learned to appreciate and love my skin’s darkness, its depth and its history. I learned to appreciate our unique beauty and cultures. Even though it will still come with its challenges, I’ve learned to exist the same way Ruby Bridges walked the hallways of her school, and the same way Earl Lloyd showed up on a basketball court: confidently.
In early June, many stores announced they’d finally unleash Black care items from their shackles. Unlocked shampoo doesn’t fix everything, of course, but it’s a step in the right direction. Someday, I hope to stroll without second guessing my every move, though I know that day will take time. Even with all the weight that comes with it, and the journey we have ahead, I’m proud to exist in my dark brown skin.