Nathalie Fanfan has been a fashion stylist and personal shopper for a decade. The 36-year-old Malden resident has worked with companies such as Boston Scientific and Stride Rite, as well as some of Boston’s top business leaders. Here, she shares her experiences with retail racism. —As told to Katie Johnston
For most people, shopping for clothing and accessories is something they do occasionally, with no reason to be wary when they go into stores. For me, it’s different. As a Black stylist and personal shopper in Boston for a decade, I’ve encountered retail racism more times than I can remember.
Most days, I shop for or with clients, pulling (essentially renting) clothing from small boutiques to high-end department stores for photo shoots, or coordinating with stores for promotional events. Being vigilant and on guard while navigating retail stores has long been an uncomfortable normal for me.
My experiences with retail racism have forced me to develop specific approaches to shopping. On busy days of pulling clothing from boutiques or luxury department stores, I almost always carry a small-to-medium-size crossbody bag and clothing with minimal pockets. I do this for a couple of reasons: It’s practical and I can move around more quickly, grab items I need, and check out.
To deflect suspicion, my hands are always visible to store associates or owners, who may be watching me more closely because I am a person of color. I adopted this technique early in my career to avoid raising suspicion if I happen to be racially profiled by store managers and associates who automatically assume I am in their store to steal.
I know it may sound silly, but I’ve become accustomed to mentally and physically preparing myself for negative or confrontational experiences in stores. The days when I am able to just do my job and avoid any uncomfortable interactions are great. I almost feel lucky when things go smoothly. I always try to call ahead to tell managers and staff members that I’m coming in with clients. The goal of those phone calls or e-mails is twofold: On the practical side, some stores will prepare space for us to work, but I also am trying to gauge the tone of the staff member on the other end of the call and establish my credibility in the process.
I can recall plenty of times retail racism has affected my attempt to do my job. Recently, I was with a Black male client in a store. We were being followed closely by a sales associate, and never offered any assistance. On a return trip to the same store with a white male client, that same associate was incredibly helpful. Unfortunately, this experience is typical.
I had a particularly embarrassing experience while shopping with a client in a high-end Boston store when an associate spouted insults and tried to discredit me in front of my client ― even going as far as to tell the client she didn’t understand why she valued my opinion. Luckily, my client, a white woman, was well aware of what was happening and decided she no longer wanted to purchase anything from the store because of how I was being treated. I walked out of there that day extremely upset and embarrassed. It made feel as though I was unable to do my job. The tough thing about dealing with retail racism, especially when it is your job to shop, is to keep your composure. As difficult as it is, I never lose my cool in these situations.
The experiences of “shopping while Black” can include everything from slights and being ignored in favor of white customers to serious attacks on my dignity. While losing my temper is something I do not do, if I start to experience racism in some way, I make sure to speak up. That could mean immediately asking to talk to the manager or owner or asking the person committing the offense to explain their behavior. If owners and managers don’t address my concerns right away, I make it a point to tell my clients ― and as many other people as I can — not to shop at those stores.
A recent viral story about how the nickname “Nick” was allegedly given to Black customers at Anthropologie stores resonated very strongly with me. It obviously made me angry and sad, but it also validated what I, and countless other persons of color, had complained of for years, only to be told we were being dramatic or imagining things. One of the saddest things is that persons of color who are store associates apparently had to use the term against their own people, or else risk losing their jobs.
It is time for companies and store owners to ban the practice of tailing Black customers around stores, and calling the police on Black customers because a sales associate concludes they are suspicious. It is also time for companies and boutique owners to truly value diversity. I really want to see more Black managers and executives in the retail world.
I believe most store owners and managers value having a business relationship with fashion stylists and personal shoppers. I just wish that being Black wasn’t a hurdle I need to jump over at the beginning of that relationship. The result of the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations and protests has shown me that people are listening, and indicating that they want to educate themselves and look inward at what positive changes they can make personally.
This is the first in an occasional series of personal essays by people of color working in the Boston area. To tell your story, contact workplace reporter Katie Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org.