Brown Skin Blues

African-American-Woman-SilhouetteWhen the alarmed buzzed as I exited the Urban Outfitters in Soho (NYC) I was confused.  I was leaving the store in the midst of a group of people, so I thought nothing of it. But I was called over to have my bag checked.

Usually I am not bothered by this, if I buzz then there is a reason, but that reason isn’t stealing. But if it is just me at the door and it buzzes, what can I do. However, this time I was surrounded by white people and Asian people, none of who they called back.

And the guard wasn’t nice about it either. I had a Fjall Raven Kanken on, one of many I own (my daughter used to work for the retail store in Soho). This bag is also sold in Urban Outfitters. My bag wasn’t in terrible shape, so did he think I stole it, or was I eyeballed the moment I walked in?

I am a 50 year old African American woman and I walked in to the store with my daughter. She was shopping, I wasn’t, but I looked around until I got hungry so I went to eat outside. But that was delayed.

I angrily opened my bag which had my sweatshirt stuffed on top of my food and wallet.

“OK you’re fine,” the guard announces and dismisses me with a wave of his hand.

“I know I’m fine!” My voice reverberated through the store. I was mortified at the accusation that I was a thief. He jumped at my outburst.

I turned and started back out, but I turned back to the Latino guard and said, “It’s because I’m black. You didn’t single out anyone else.” I was not quiet in my assumption. He didn’t respond.

I stood outside angry, but I couldn’t let the ignorance of others ruin my day. No matter what color the guard was, he was (unfortunately) trained to stop brown skin. 


I wasn’t the only one.  A few moments later some young African-American teenagers exited the store. He must have called them back because I heard one say, “Yo, he wanted to check our bags.” They were laughing, they didn’t stop for him. Were they guilty of theft? I doubt it. They were guilty of SWB (shopping while black).

My daughter came out of the store a few moments later, she wasn’t stopped.  I told her what happened. She said, “Oh, that’s why the guy (guard) looked away when I said ‘have a nice day’.”

Did he know we were together? Or is it because she had a bag that she wasn’t singled out?

Many young people like the teenagers don’t realize that this is racism. They think it is – well I don’t know what they think it is.

A friend told me that her students say they don’t experience racism. I told her that they don’t recognize it, but they experience it.

Do they realize they are followed around the store when they shop?

I wanted to tell the guard I make more than him in a month than he does in an entire year (exaggeration), but what would that prove? Nothing. He is conditioned, and no amount of money in my pocket is going to change a mindset or my skin tone.

About Liz Kelso
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