Back in April 2019, SZA said in a viral tweet that she was racially profiled at a Sephora store in Calabasas, California.
The music artist, who is Black, said a Sephora employee she identified as “Sandy” called security on her, to make sure she wasn’t trying to steal anything from the store.
“We had a long talk. U have a blessed day Sandy,” SZA tweeted.
Two months later, Sephora closed all of its US stores, distribution centers, and corporate offices for an hour of diversity training informed by experts on race.
Around the same time, the beauty retailer commissioned a national study on racial bias, in collaboration with Cassi Pittman Claytor, an assistant professor of sociology at Case Western Reserve University, and David Crockett, a marketing professor at the University of South Carolina.
Their research examines the entire process of buying a product, from the moment a consumer realizes they need to make a purchase to the moment they complete it, and how racism played a role in each phase.
“For example, the market might privilege white male consumers, and their experience is more pleasant or more favorable, more satisfactory, if they are perceived as the ideal or most favored,” Pittman Claytor said in a recent interview with Business Insider. “Race can positively impact consumers, and it may negatively impact others.”
The goal for the ongoing Sephora-commissioned study is to reach conclusions that could apply to consumer experiences no matter the retailer, helping businesses to reduce the possibility that racial bias would happen in stores.
Pittman Claytor said that racial bias would be nearly impossible to eliminate altogether, but that retailers can pinpoint strategies to make sure that all of their customers, no matter their race, can have a better experience.
Sephora once again closed its stores for racial-bias trainings in July. The two-hour trainings took place on Blackout Day, when Black people and other people of color were encouraged not to spend money except at Black-owned businesses.
Sephora was also the first retailer to publicly announce its support of the 15% Pledge, which asks businesses to devote 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. West Elm and Rent the Runway are among the companies who have since joined the movement.
Pittman Claytor said signing the pledge is a good first step, but it needs to be part of a broader strategy.
“A lot of companies can do a lot better,” she said.
‘Not everyone pays the same toll’
A retail store is unique in that it’s a place where people of different races and statuses come into contact with each other. That mismatch means that shoppers tend to make snap judgments about others based on how they look and dress, Pittman Claytor said.
She said that Black consumers report experiences like not being greeted when they enter stores, receiving inferior service, and feeling that they are being associated with theft and that they are being watched by store workers.
On the other side of the equation, Black retail workers say they have been bullied or referred to in derogatory terms by customers.
“It’s a pervasive problem,” she said. “There’s the idea that it’s a toll, but not everyone pays the same toll.”
Pittman Claytor said that in addition to the financial toll — leading Black people to often end up paying more for the same product, including cars — there’s also an emotional one, “the stress and strain” that comes from being treated as if you were inferior “when you’re just trying to spend your hard-earned money.”
And during the time of the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black Americans, wearing a mask in public has complicated interactions further.
“People of color do a lot of work with their body language to convey that they belong, that they’re not going to steal anything,” Pittman Claytor said. “[A mask] effectively makes it more difficult to communicate with your smile … It’s often a tool we use to disarm people.”
Racial bias also shows up in the types of products that are made and how they are advertised. In beauty, for example, there may be dozens of shades of beige makeup marketed but only two of brown.
“Questions about who the store is for need to begin at the corporate level,” she said, adding that companies need to be getting insight and feedback from a diverse set of people.
Black buying power is on the rise
Blacks’ economic clout continues to grow in America. According to the most recent study on Black consumer habits by Nielsen, Black buying power has grown from $320 billion in 1990 to $1.3 trillion in 2018. It grew 114% from 2000 to 2018, compared to 89% growth in white buying power.
Pittman Claytor, who was named to Business Insider’s list of the 100 People Transforming Business for 2020, examines how middle-class Blacks navigate historically white spaces in her new book, “Black Privilege.” Her sociological research touches on topics like how Blacks navigate the corporate world, how they choose where to live, and why buying from Black-owned businesses is important to them.
She said that middle-class Blacks often experience racism more frequently than those of a lower socieconomic status because they’re more likely to be only one of a few in their position.
“Unlike whites, no matter how high blacks climb, they continue to confront societal racial hierarchies that place blacks at the bottom, preventing them from capitalizing and cashing in on all the benefits that their credentials and class status should afford them,” she writes in her book.