The Etiquette of “Shopping While Ethnic”

The Etiquette of “Shopping While ‘Ethnic’ ” (a.k.a. “Shopping While Black” [Latin, Arab, Muslim, Transgender, etc. ])

Most civilized nations of the world have public accommodations laws that prohibit entities that serve the general public from discriminating against members of the general public based on, for example, race, color, ethnicity, age, creed, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, and, increasingly, gender-identity. But despite those proscriptions, some public accommodation entities—typically based on prejudice and racist notions—are known to routinely single-out certain groups of people or certain individuals for disparate, substandard treatment.

The incidence of discrimination in places of public accommodation is particularly egregious in the housing, retail, restaurant, and hospitality industries. Some retail associations even have mobile phone Apps that allow members to notify each other of “suspect individuals” so as to be on “retail alert.” Therefore, when a gentleman—especially one who does not summarily fit the prevailing “preferred” prototype—goes shopping for goods and services, he may experience disparate treatment. And he must know how to handle such unfortunate incidents like a gentleman when they occur.

While there are legal remedies for mistreatment that rises to the level of violations of law, a gentleman’s primary reason for going shopping should be to purchase desired goods and services, not to have to defend himself against or ferret out discrimination. The general public is entitled to an “expectation of equal treatment” in establishments that serve the general public. The onus of rendering courteous, unbiased service is on the management and staff of the establishment. Customers should not be required to “prove” or “demonstrate” their worthiness of polite service.

When discrimination rears its ugly head, it sometimes does so subtly, at other times blatantly, but always odiously: When a gentleman requests to see a leather briefcase but is instead informed of its price rather than being presented with the item for his perusal; when, in a practically empty, no-reservations-necessary restaurant, a gentleman and his date are ushered to the establishment’s least desirable table (the one next to the incessantly swinging, squeaky doors of the kitchen); when a store clerk, sitting at her desk in her Madison Avenue boutique, excitedly looks up from her work upon hearing the doorbell, only to realize that at the door is an “undesirable type,” thereafter totally ignoring the gentleman at the door—despite his three subsequent buzzes, aware that he has been noticed but is being disregarded; when, upon approaching the “Please Wait to be Seated” sign, a gentleman is met by a waiter suggesting that the gentleman “have a look at the menu before being shown to a seat”; when a transgender customer is not allowed to try on clothing of his/her liking in the dressing room that corresponds to his/her gender-identification, or when he/she is refused a makeup demonstration at a cosmetics counter in a major department store; when a taxi bypasses a hailing gentleman only to pick up another a few yards away; the store clerk who asks certain customers (but not certain others) for a picture I.D. when proffered a credit card for payment; the waiter who invokes the “gratuity added” option for certain diners while allowing other diners to tip at their discretion; the online rental apartment that “was just booked” when a person with an “ethnic-sounding name” requests the apartment, but that very same apartment is somehow magically “available” when the normal-sounding-name friend of the person with the “ethnic-sounding name” requests the same apartment 30 seconds later; the five-star hotel with an on-site beauty salon that can only style “certain types” of hair….

When a gentleman feels certain that he is being singled-out for substandard, disparate treatment, he should immediately raise his concerns with the establishment’s management. If the matter is not immediately resolved to the gentleman’s satisfaction, he should immediately file an official complaint with the establishment (if an internal grievance/complaint procedure exists), being sure to document the date, time, factual specifics, name(s) of the employee(s)/manager, etc. The names and contact information of witnesses, if there are any, should be secured. When complaint/case/file numbers are issued pending actual copies of complaints, the reference numbers should be safeguarded for evidentiary purposes. (When no internal grievance procedure exists, the gentleman should document the specifics of the incident for his own record-keeping). If after exhausting the establishment’s grievance procedure the matter is not resolved to the gentleman’s satisfaction, he should contact an attorney and commence legal action against the establishment. Systematic discrimination remains rampant despite the existence of decades-old anti-discrimination laws and public awareness of the inappropriateness of such behavior. So to the extent legal proceedings will engender compliance, a gentleman should have his day in court.

Alternatively, or in addition to, a gentleman may elect to report the incident to a “Better Business Bureau,” the local Chamber of Commerce, the appropriate trade guild, or the equivalent of the Department of Consumer Services, for example. And, of course, there are the options of exposing the details of the incident on social media and internet-based review sites. To a large degree, the method of conflict resolution may depend on the degree of the indignation and the desired remedy–from monetary compensation to public apology to sensitivity training for staff to charitable donations, for example.

But legal wrangling and official complaints can be  time-consuming, expensive, frustrating, and fraught with uncertain outcomes. For some gentlemen, therefore, comporting themselves in such a manner as to preemptively minimize (at least in theory) the incidence of prejudicial and racist treatment is a more “practical” approach. Whereas persons of the “preferred profile” are afforded courtesies based on their mere existence, certain other persons have to “look the part” in order to be granted basic respect. Just as a well-made suit and tie can convey a certain “authority” in the legal and banking professions, dressing with a certain “casual chic” may unfurl the proverbial red carpet in the retail and service industries. The adage, “One never gets a second chance to make a first impression” rings true at Madison Avenue boutique doorbells. As such, there are certain “tricks” to increasing one’s chances of receiving proper treatment. Store clerks tend to render better service to shoppers carrying shopping bags from upscale stores. A gentleman planning on passing his afternoon shopping on New York’s Madison Avenue or Paris’ Avenue Montaigne, for example, may want to shop preliminarily at Saks Fifth Avenue or Galeries Lafayette. Dark sunglasses; a shirt of crisp white linen; a good pair of jeans nonchalantly combined with a good pair of loafers and a high-quality belt; a well-made, well-fitting blazer; a Panama hat in the summer or a fedora in the winter are all known to jointly and severally convey a certain je ne sais quoi conducive to receiving polite service.

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