A workplace consultant whose former job was to scrutinize certain shoppers is presenting a report on the issue of "shopping while black" to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) Wednesday as the organization looks to develop a new policy on consumer racial profiling.
"Shopping while black" is a euphemism to describe an informal marketplace practice whereby customers are routinely followed, questioned, or ignored while shopping because of the colour of their skin.
Tomee Sojourner, a former security guard and now a Master of Law candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School, has seen the effects of the practice from both sides firsthand.
Sojourner appeared on Metro Morning to share both her work and her experience of consumer racial profiling with host Matt Galloway.
Galloway: "You worked as a security guard. What was your experience profiling shoppers like?"
"One of the things that I realized in that process is that as soon as I took off my uniform, I was the person being profiled and watched." - Tomee Sojourner
Sojourner: "Part of my work, working as a SG, was basically to look for quote unquote for 'suspicious behaviour.' You look for a person's mannerisms, the way they dressed, do they look suspicious in terms of how they were engaging with products.
One occasion of specifically being told to watch young black people happened in Ottawa when I was working as a security guard. Being a person from the black community I found it very problematic. I still followed through on my job but one of the things that I realized in that process is that as soon as I took off my uniform, I was the person being profiled and watched."
Galloway: How did this work? Someone explicitly asked you to keep an eye on black folks coming into the store?
Sojourner: "This mall that I was working in, there was a high school nearby. A lot of students would come in, and the store owners would worry that people congregating in large groups would cause disruption. It was interesting that at that time, it wasn't formal, it wasn't written policy, but a site supervisor had said to me watch those watch those groups of youth – in particular black youth. I followed through my job but I was mindful of what that meant in terms of the broader issue."
Galloway: "As you say, if you took your uniform off, you would have been one of the people who could have been profiled."
Sojourner: "Exactly. So I have the lived experience of being profiled but I also have the professional experience of understanding from the perspective of a security guard the things that you need to be mindful of."
Galloway: "Is there any legitimate reason why one group of people should be followed over others?"
Sojourner: "I would say if you're singling out that individual or that group because of the colour of their skin, because of their racial or ethnic origin, no – it's inappropriate. It leads to a sense of tension.
The idea of going into a store – you're told to be there because you're welcomed. It is the exact opposite when you're providing a customer experience when that customer is profiled and seen as someone committing a wrongdoing by the virtue of what they look like."
Galloway: "Looking at this report you've pulled together, how common is this?"
Sojourner: "When I look at this from an anecdotal perspective, it's scary how much it can be part of an everyday experience. You put on your jacket you go to the store, you pick up groceries you talk to ... people not just in the black communities and [you're followed], asked for extra identification when [you] went to pay with a credit card.
What we don't have is hard data. And that's a part of research and academic work. How do we get the numbers and evidence to say this phenomenon is something, in a Canadian context, that we have to deal with."
Galloway: "Part of the OHRC's role is to take a look at this but it is also on the individual stores as well."
Sojourner: "Exactly. Part of the work for individual stores is really looking internally at their policies and procedures. One of the things I've been putting together is a consumer racial profiling audit where you go and do an assessment; get an idea of what's happening on the ground. The next step is to look at if we need training and how do we bring members of diverse communities into this conversation."
Note: This interview has been edited for length and brevity.