I’ve had a bit of blogger’s block (say that three times fast) over the past few weeks. I blame Houston’s current spate of janky weather. The lack of sunshine, frequent showers, and the soul-sucking humidity have sapped my energy, creativity, and — on especially gray days — my will to live. I’ve been doing a lot of reading though, training to write, if you will. As Stephen King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I’m nailing the first part!
The other day, I lifted out of my funk enough to start a post about some submission rejections I recently received. After an hour or so, I took a break from working because I realized one of my favorite department stores kicked off their sale this week and there were a few things I’d been eyeing. Priorities! Am I right?
When I got to the store, I entered through the men’s department. As far as I could tell, I was the only customer in that particular area of the store. A saleswoman saw me pause to look at a display of sport coats, but she never acknowledged my presence. After awhile, another customer walked up to look at clothing on a rack next to me. The saleswoman immediately greeted him with a smile, asked how he was, and inquired whether he needed assistance. He told her he was only looking and moved on. The saleswoman glanced over at me but still didn’t offer a greeting, a smile, or any other indication she’d be interested in helping me. She then walked several yards away and stood looking around the room, presumably for someone worthy of her assistance.
So I walked over to her. Because I was having none of it.
After I reminded her I’d asked her to show me “the tuxedo shirts,” and not “the least expensive tuxedo shirts,” we had a brief exchange about the bow tie selection. Again, she was short and unhelpful. I thanked her (through gritted teeth) and left her where she stood. I was fuming.
After I left the store, I met up with some girlfriends for drinks. Still steamed, I recounted the incident. Joking, I said, “Maybe she didn’t think I could afford to buy anything because of how I’m dressed.” I was wearing yoga pants, a tank T-shirt (which actually cost more than the tuxedo shirts I’d been shown), and Adidas. My hair was covered in a chic, leopard print scarf. My aesthetic was West LA, not Skid Row.
“Hasn’t that woman seen Pretty Woman?” one of my friends said.
Laughing, we all held up invisible shopping bags and said in unison, “Big mistake. Big. Huge!”
Later, I thought maybe I should give the saleswoman the benefit of the doubt. I had, after all, initially asked about sale items. But no. Once I made it clear I understood none of the shirts were on sale, but I still wanted to see what they had and she offered to only show me ones in a price-point she determined fit my means, well, no. Just no. And let’s not forget she tripped over herself to help the man browsing next to me, but ignored me even though I was there first. Finally, factor in her dry attitude throughout our entire interaction. Simply put, she didn’t want to help me.
Now some sales associates are plain lousy at providing good customer service. And sometimes sales associates are simply having a bad day and don’t want to help anyone, no matter who they are or what they look like. I’ve worked retail. Lord knows, I’ve been there. Sometimes sales associates are simply angry their name was on the schedule that day. I get it. I don’t want them to take it out on me, but I get it. Maybe, just maybe, I could have chalked up the saleswoman’s behavior to indifference or poor customer service skills if in this particular instance I hadn’t had a variable. The man was treated well. I was not. And it wasn’t a sexism thing.
Nor did the woman’s behavior toward me have to do with my casual clothes and sneakers. The man she’d offered to help had been dressed almost as casually as I was. Not to mention, workout clothes are the attire du jour of the majority of women I usually see shopping in the middle of a weekday, and often in that very store. No, it wasn’t what I was wearing. It was what those clothes covered. It was my skin.
I’m convinced my skin color influenced what the woman thought when she saw me as opposed to what she thought when she saw the white customer next to me. He was worth her time. I was not. I know this because similar situations have happened to me before. Not in this particular store, but in other retailers. It’s also happened at restaurants. In the 23 years I’ve been navigating the world as a black adult, I’ve become pretty adept at recognizing racial bias and prejudice when I encounter it. It’s par for the course for us minorities. And ironically, discrimination doesn’t itself discriminate. I’ve been treated poorly in high-end stores as well as low-end stores, in hoity-toity restaurants as well as fast food chains. It doesn’t matter if I’m wearing workout clothes or dressed to impress. While I don’t experience blatant discrimination on a regular basis, it happens often enough that I’m not surprised when it does occur. It’s just the unwelcome side effect of being me.
The next day I determined to put the incident out of my mind, to file it away with all the other indignities I’ve experienced being a black woman in a society which sees my blackness first (and sometimes sees only that). I sat down to finish the post I’d started before my #ShoppingWhileBlack adventure, but I couldn’t concentrate. My mind started rewinding to what happened when I set up my first Airbnb account earlier this month.
I know, I know — hold up, wait a minute! Yes, I’m just setting up an Airbnb account. What can I say? When I travel, I’d much rather stay in a hotel (I simply must have my amenities, dahling). However, my husband, Matt, and I have been talking a lot recently about making our dream of living overseas a reality sooner rather than later — not only #IfTrumpWins, but definitely #IfTrumpWins. When we reconnoiter in the foreign cities on our list, we’ll mostly forgo hotels in favor of rental properties so we can better acquaint ourselves with specific neighborhoods and local life. A lot of our friends swear by Airbnb so we wanted to do a sort of test run for our next trip.
Setting up the Airbnb account was quick and effortless. In fact, what took the most time was selecting a profile picture. I finally found the perfect photo, one of myself where I looked like a kind, responsible human adult who would never in a million years trash a residence or renege on a contract. I uploaded the picture and started searching for properties. As I clicked through the ones that fit my criteria (Entire home? Yes, please! Pool? Duh!) the back of my mind was whispering to me. Are you sure you want the account under your name? Maybe you should set it up under Matt’s name instead.
I was worried, you see. Worried that somewhere out there, someone might deny me service based only on my picture. That they would see me, a black woman, and think: No. Never mind that I can afford my stay, or that I am an educated writer and a world traveler, that I am passionate about literature and the arts. I had put those details in my bio, of course, but I knew some people wouldn’t bother to read it. They wouldn’t even look past my picture. If I'd encountered discrimination to my actual face, there was no way it wouldn't be an even bigger issue virtually, where bigots are protected by anonymity and distance.
I clicked out of the search and returned to my profile. I considered changing the account name to Matthew, my gender to male, and replacing my picture with one of my white, red-haired husband. But I didn’t. As far as I knew, none of my non-white friends had confronted racial bias using Airbnb. Perhaps I was creating an issue where there was none. Instead of changing my profile name, I replaced my selfie with an image of my husband and me. I told myself it was because we'd mostly be using the site for trips together, and it was only fair to the property owners that we both were pictured. But the uncomfortable truth was, I added a picture with my husband because I thought having him there would help. Having him there might make someone who might otherwise turn me away think twice.
I stared at the picture of us on the screen and felt ashamed, and also angry about the fact that it was even something I felt compelled to do. But the thing was, I knew it could work. In the 12 years we’ve been married, I’ve lost count of the times we’ve walked into a restaurant or a retail store and the staff, not realizing we’re together, greet him, but not me. Then once they realize we’re together, they’re all smiles and graciousness toward me. It's the white privilege trickle-down effect.
Too demoralized to keep searching for properties, I shut down Airbnb for the day. The next day, I told Matt how I’d debated changing the profile and ultimately decided to change the picture. He said if he had set up an Airbnb account, it never would have occurred to him that his picture was more than a picture, that it sent a message other than he’s a middle-aged man with glasses and red hair. It never would have crossed his mind someone could turn him away based on the color of his skin. “I would have just put up a picture and been done with it,” he said. “But then again, I have white privilege.”
Don't I know it.
I left our picture on the profile and put in a request for my first choice out of three properties I liked. I had an acceptance within the hour, no questions asked. The day after booking, this blog post about an interracial couple being denied Airbnb properties popped up on my Facebook news feed (Coincidence? Or more evidence of Facebook’s Big Brother algorithms? You decide). So my worry was valid.
Racial discrimination when using Airbnb while black happens so often it has its own trending hashtag. I found numerous tweets and articles from and about people who found themselves trying to #AirbnbWhileBlack. People who were told properties were booked, although the calendar on the app showed a vacancy. People who felt they had no choice but to use racially ambiguous names on their profiles, or to remove pictures of themselves altogether in order to secure a rental. Others were denied bookings when they used their own picture, but the very same property owners were happy to welcome them after they tried to book with a fake profile depicting a white person. This man even filed a class action lawsuit alleging Airbnb allows racial discrimination on its site.
Given all this, I’m relieved my experience with Airbnb has been positive thus far. But I am also hyper-aware it may not always be the case. The incident at the department store and others like it remind me discrimination is still an issue; the possibility of it happening to me is never far from my consciousness. I’m glad my first attempt at booking through Airbnb went off without a hitch, but I'll never know if I have Matt’s whiteness to thank for it. While I’d like to believe it played no part in the homeowner’s decision, I still can’t help wondering if the outcome would have been different if I hadn’t changed my picture.