A friend of mine (approx 30 year old black man) was racially profiled at a Chicago area Walgreens. This is his story in his words. I thought I’d share it because it’s a first person accounting of something that happens far too often and can serve as a subtle but poignant reminder of the effects of the disease of racism. The real tragedy to me is the self-doubt and paranoia we often experience due to the very real possibility of racism infecting our lives.

January 5, 2009, at 6:45 pm, I went shopping at my neighborhood Walgreen’s in Chicago’s West Loop. I had an interesting hour long shopping experience. I shopped with my own green re-usable bag as I do most of the time. For 40 minutes, I was followed in each and every aisle by store employees.

I thought I was paranoid. For the first 30 minutes, no employee ever came up to me and said may “I help you.” I started shopping in the body wash aisle. I noticed a clerk in aisle re-adjusting the body wash prices. I stopped shopping for body wash, and I politely asked whether she would also adjust prices for the lotion in the same aisle. She replied no — I said ok and shopped for lotion in the same aisle instead. I found my item and placed it in the bag.

As I transitioned from aisle to aisle, I noticed a clerk presence at end of the aisle, sometimes east, sometimes west. The frequent passing with no task appearing to be accomplished led to my initial suspicions. I decided at first that I must be over-reacting. I moved on to the next aisle and noticed the same thing. When minute 30 struck, a store clerk finally did ask, “may I help you?” By this point, I had already gathered nearly 10 items. While we chatted about light bulbs, another customer asked a question of the same clerk and the employee dashed off without saying a word to me.

As soon as he left, a 6 ft 6″ Chicago Police Officer walks by and says “You aren’t stealing anything are you?”


I looked at the Officer as if he was crazy, recalled that Chicago Police are known for excessive brutality, and wondered if a snide remark was appropriate. Unable to think of a stinging retort, I simply said, after a short pause, “Not in the least.” The Officer proceeded to the front of the store and said something to store employees up front to which everyone then turned and looked at me.

Much more after the break.

I continued shopping, and was still being followed, from aisle to aisle. At one point, I stumbled upon “green” environmentally sound garbage bags. I searched the package for the manufacturer, found a website, and punched in the web address on my phone. During this series of actions, despite the fact that I was looking down, my peripheral vision allowed me to see a clerk pass by the aisle, pause, continue forward, then come back within seconds and to watch me.

Finally, I stepped in line to consummate the purchase. While ringing up my dozen or more items, the clerk says “I’m sure glad you proved them wrong.”

Maybe I did or maybe I did not. Regardless, I’m sure this method of “security” will continue.

Mind you, if I had gone through the “trouble” to purchase items, I would still have to pass by the security gates at the door. So, if you want to stop the criminal who purchases items (and shoplifts simultaneously), all you have to do is position a clerk or guard at the door and wait for the alarm to sound.

I decided to speak to the manager immediately. (I also had an item to return.) Upon meeting the assistant manager at the customer service counter, and initiating the return of the item, she asked me if I “purchased every item in the bag.”


At this point, I calmly pointed out that I had been followed in the store for 40 minutes, a police officer offered a retort less than polite, certainly presumptive, and out of line. All the while, she knew it was happening and seemed to do little to stop it. Furthermore, her silence, especially in position as assistant manager condoned the employees hawking me throughout the store. She went on to state that typically, the store asks customers to use the baskets and shopping carts. I mentioned that NO EMPLOYEE over 40 minutes of time said a word to me about such a suggestion. The underlying issue is whether that is true, and does the store pick and choose whom to provide such a statement, or is it completely random. I’m all for security but was this the best way to treat a customer?

Unsatisfied with the conversation with the assistant store manager (though she was quite polite and attentive during an uncomfortable exchange), I asked for the Store Manager’s contact info and called him the following day. He reiterated the “basket and shopping cart” sentiment offered previously and went on to say that someone had recently attempted to steal irons from the store, caused a ruckus when approached, and tried to run over employees to get out of the store. Is this profiling? I’m all for security but what does that have to do with me?

I concluded the call with the Store Manager requesting a tangible indication of change to store policy or security procedures so that I may know that my neighborhood Walgreen’s will enact security procedures that will not degrade customers. He responded that he did not know or cannot think of something that will suffice. We agreed to chat again after he speaks with his employees. (The manager was also polite and attentive despite the discomfort of the subject matter. In addition, I reiterated that this is not a situation where heads need to roll or jobs need to be lost. My intent is for the most constructive and progressive solution as opposed to empty symbolism and rash reaction. )

In light of what is happening in Oakland and Houston (an unarmed, innocent, black youth was shot by police while on the ground), how do we ever know that a complaint will lead to change? I guess you never do, but if you don’t push, if we don’t act, if we don’t speak up, I can guarantee that nothing in fact will change.

But who should speak up? I think each of us should consider speaking up. Silence is permission. We do not protest as a human race or a united society when events like the Oakland Bart shooting occur or the Sean Bell shooting occurs, or the recent shooting in Oakland. We don’t protest in as a unified society when we see others treated poorly whether on the basis of race, gender, class or no basis at all.

We each have personal freedom and personal choice. I think, though, when we choose to do nothing, we choose a world where awful things like the Oakland and Houston shootings can take place.

I put this story out there for several reasons:

I think my friend is right that we must speak up. With our incoming president, we have so many people who want to put the race conversation behind us without actually dealing with it, but we all know the world doesn’t actually move that quickly.

As I mentioned in the intro, I thought this story was a good reflection of the paranoia many of us face when judging human interactions. Am I being followed? Do they really want to help? Are they even looking at me? Did I do something wrong? All these questions are additional overhead that people of color bear in the day to day transactions of life, and there’s a cost to our mental health for this burden, not to mention the possibility, even remote, that we might be injured or killed.

Finally, I’m interested in your own stories. Have you been profiled recently? Have you thought you were, but it turns out you were wrong? For our white readers, what’s this like on your end?

As always, debate and discuss.

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