Sephora's racial bias report acknowledges profiling truths we can relate to as black South Africans

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Guest attends SEPHORiA: House of Beauty – Day One at The Shrine Auditorium on September 07, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Presley Ann/Getty Images for Sephora)
Guest attends SEPHORiA: House of Beauty – Day One at The Shrine Auditorium on September 07, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Presley Ann/Getty Images for Sephora)
  • In June 2019, LVMH-owned international mega beauty chain Sephora - which also houses Fenty Beauty by Rihanna and Pat McGrath Labs - closed its U.S. stores, distribution centers and corporate offices for diversity training for all employees.
  • This came after Grammy-nominated singer SZA, called out an incident of racial profiling at the Calabasas Sephora.
  • This month, the beauty retailer released their racial bias report and a new action plan after finding five key statements to be true regarding racial inequality between retail experiences of various ethnic groups. 

In June 2019, LVMH-owned international mega beauty chain Sephora - which also houses Fenty Beauty by Rihanna and Pat McGrath Labs - closed its U.S. stores, distribution centers and corporate offices for diversity training for all employees.

This came after Grammy-nominated singer SZA - who previously worked in the store's skincare department before her music career took off - called out an incident of racial profiling at the Calabasas Sephora store a month prior. 

A tweet to which the Sephora Twitter account responded to, reassuring the 'Good Days' singer that they would address the matter:

According to The Guardian, Sephora's spokeswoman Emily Shapiro told Reuters in an email that they "take complaints like this very seriously, profiling on the basis of race is not tolerated at Sephora".

READ MORE: Gucci is finally doing something about the big problem they have with racism 

The spokeswoman reportedly further expressed how their diversity training "had been in progress for several months and that a broader campaign called 'We Belong to Something Beautiful' had been in the works for at least a year". 

Fast forward to January 2021, and the French multinational personal care and beauty retail brand has released a new study (based on U.S. shoppers) acknowledging racial inequality between retail experiences of white people versus those of black people. 

"New" study, huh? 

New to the store perhaps, but overall... hardly. Black people and people of colour have long been telling the world that our shopping experiences have never been the same. 

Case in point, Teen Vogue recently wrote about Sephora's racial bias report which found five key statements to be true regarding retail racial inequality.   

In the report's preamble, Jean-André Rougeot, President and CEO, Sephora Americas, says; “At Sephora, diversity, equality, and inclusion have been our core values since we launched a new kind of beauty retail destination in the U.S. over 20 years ago – but the reality is that shoppers at Sephora, and in U.S. retail more broadly, are not always treated fairly and consistently." 

All those shades of makeup on your stands, yet various shades of brown 'threaten' you.

Anyway, we've summarised the racial bias truths acknowledged by Sephora as follows; 

1. Lack of racial diversity in company management/marketing 

"A lack of racial diversity within companies (both in-store retail workers and employees at the corporate level) results in exclusionary treatment that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) experience before they even walk into a store, meaning the majority of people notice a lack of diverse representation in marketing and think stores fail to stock products that represent a variety of shopper needs and preferences." 

2. Black and POC shoppers are racially profiled by floor staff 

"The study also found that BIPOC shoppers feel they are judged due to their race by in-store employees, who often cite behavioural attributes rather than race as the reason for their judgment." 

3. BIPOC shoppers employ preventative measures against racial profiling 

"BIPOC shoppers use coping mechanisms while shopping to minimise or avoid mistreatment from employees and fellow shoppers. Unfair treatment (such as being accused of shoplifting) often occurs when BIPOC shoppers are browsing in-store, and many are likely to dress up nicely, chat with store employees, and avoid touching samples to lessen the risk of that treatment.

"Some shop online to sidestep mistreatment altogether." 

4. Three in five BIPOC shoppers are unlikely to return after in-store discrimination 

"The majority of BIPOC shoppers who have negative shopping experiences do not voice their concerns to retailers, even though twice as many BIPOC than white people say they have been treated unfairly due to ethnicity while shopping.

"That results in even less diversity within stores; three in five BIPOC shoppers are unlikely to return to a specific store after experiencing discrimination there."  

5. Meaningful and long-term action is important to shoppers

"BIPOC shoppers are three times less likely than white shoppers to say the retailer addressed their experience with a change in store policy (34% vs 11%).

"And while a majority (81%) of retail employees recognise the importance of being able to service diverse shopper needs, fewer than one in three (27%) feel confident they can meet them extremely well, with many expressing a desire for more training and education to address these gaps."

READ MORE: ANALYSIS | 2020 Lyst of hottest fashion labels released, but how fiery are they about race matters? 

So what are they going to do about it? 

In this racial bias report, Sephora declares that they have "designed a preliminary action plan to tackle bias across all aspects of its organisation via three key areas," namely;

- Marketing and Merchandising 

- The In-Store Experience and Operations

- Talent and Inclusive Workplaces   

In addition to the above efforts, Sephora has stated that they "will continue to communicate its progress against these actions on a bi-annual basis via a new D&I dedicated section of Sephora.com."

"Sephora also aims to make learnings and opportunities transparent to other U.S. retailers who may wish to enact systemic change within their own organisations. Lastly, Sephora will be partnering with leading trade and diversity organisations Open to All, RILA and Diversity Best Practices to ensure dissemination to interested retail leaders," the racial bias report concludes.   

READ MORE: Is Cape Town more racist than other parts of SA? Our users respond

Despite being a majority black country, SA's experience of racial bias is no different. 

I mean, it was just 2019 when a 23-year-old woman was arrested in Sea Point, Cape Town for taking selfies while waiting for her job interview. 

And then there was the Clicks hair advert that triggered a (warranted) national furore in 2020. The Cabinet described this advert as "profoundly offensive and racist", News24 reported.  

And while the U.S. had their Starbucks, Moschino, and Sephora incidents all less than five years ago, our collective sad reality is that this is not a problem unique only to these companies - it's a retail problem - and black consumers bear the burden of racial profiling whenever they decide to colour outside the lines of what is deemed appropriate for their assumed tax bracket. 

This is an example of how the black customer's access to luxury and the like is only theoretical, despite South Africa's emerging black middle class

Of course, this growing black middle class is hardly an achievement to shout on suburban rooftops about - it's simply worth the acknowledgement that black people who can afford to do more than merely survive are no longer an anomaly and should therefore not be treated as such. 

Are we only good enough for our money, but not decent service?

However, whenever we enter a clothing boutique, high-end store or sometimes even any mega retail store, we immediately become suspects of criminal activity. A shop assistant is prompted by their white manager to meander between the rails a few steps behind us as we browse, adjusting hangers we've touched almost as if to confirm that the items are still really there. 

READ MORE: How racism, and the refusal to acknowledge it, destroyed my dream to work in Thailand

Ask any black person, they'll tell you they've had this unwelcome one-man entourage while they shop. Ask any black retail employee too - they're racially profiled from all angles.  

I can think of many a high-end boutiques where the black store assistants' role is to tend to black customers, while white staff hobnob with their 'real' customers. 

I remember one time in particular when I bought a pair of shoes at a popular boutique and at the counter, the owner left the box and paper bag for me to pack it myself as soon as my payment was approved.

It begs the question; are we only good enough for our money, but not decent service?

This was an example of one of the not-so-subtle ways in which racial stereotypes are enforced while shopping. It also plays out on the other end of the spectrum, where we enter a store and are offered no assistance, while a white customer who enters minutes after you, is given five-star treatment. 

Unfortunately, black staff also does it to fellow black customers sometimes. It usually plays out in the form of being given unenthusiastic, begrudging service (if even at all), while they drop everything including their lower lip to reveal a smile that was never afforded to you, for a white customer. 

Training or internalised servitude?  

Much to think about.

Anyway, two black women I spoke to can also attest to the phenomenon of racial profiling at clothing stores:

Personally, I avoid going into boutiques and stores in general because of how uneasy store assistants and clerks make me feel, unless I know exactly what I want. I find going into boutiques particularly daunting when I’m not dressed up, reason being, store assistants tend to look at you accusingly, follow you around and keep a close eye on you because they assume based on your race and the way you’re dressed, you won’t be able to afford the items the store/boutique has to offer. - *Lerato
Each time I walk into a store, especially a clothing shop or boutique, I’ve almost always had a shop assistant watch or follow me until I leave the store. Some shop assistants will ask if they can assist me with something, but most of the time they just lurk around or mysteriously find something to pack near me. When I started noticing this I thought maybe it was because I was a student (carrying a school bag), but this still happens to me years after I’ve left school. I remember when I used to work in a retail store during my varsity days, my then manager used to identify people we sales assistants should keep an eye on. Needless to say, those people were always black people who didn’t look wealthy. - *Noxolo

Incidents such as the above go beyond boutiques - restaurants and holiday accommodation are quite notorious for restricting access to black people.

The only difference is that while places of dining and slumbering are able to deny you over the phone, retail stores' implicit limited access can mostly only be implemented once you've physically popped by. 

*Names have been changed.

What's your experience of being racially profiled while you shop? And has it discouraged you from shopping at places you actually like? Tell us here.  

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