In her upcoming book, tentatively titled Shopping While Black: Minority Experiences in Consumer Marketplaces, Professor of Human Development Michelle Dunlap details highly personal stories from 20 consumers of various backgrounds about the risks and realities for people of color engaging in the American marketplace.
CC Magazine: You have called this book a “project of passion.” Why?
Michelle Dunlap: It grew out of an experience I had at the mall over 20 years ago. I witnessed a minority child, who looked no older than a first- or second-grader, surrounded by police and security guards, being arrested over a pack of baseball cards. It broke my heart, and it has always stuck with me.
CC: How common is it for people of color to have negative experiences while shopping?
MD: I grew up having a lot of anxiety
shopping. I didn’t yet know that not
everybody experiences it. Pretty much every minority person who hears about my book wants to tell me their story or stories, and even many white people have a story to share about a person of color they know. I don’t want to overdraw assumptions, but it seems clear that something is going on that makes the marketplace more complicated for the least privileged people in our society, and especially people of color.
CC: What do you mean by “more complicated”?
MD: Through my research, I have discovered there are three major issues with which minorities struggle: being overly monitored, receiving inequitable treatment and experiencing traumatic incidents.
CC: What do being monitored and inequitable treatment look like?
MD: Being overly monitored is about being watched and followed and scrutinized, almost like there’s an expectation that people of color are disproportionately more likely to steal or do dishonest things than white people. Inequitable treatment comes in many forms. It could be that a white person is able to return something outrageous like a rug at a grocery store without a receipt, for example, whereas a person of color without a receipt can’t return something that’s actually a grocery item. But there are many different ways that people are consumers, and these inequities extend to the structural operation of housing, insurance, automobiles and travel consumerism as well.
CC: Some recent traumatic incidents have been highly publicized in the news and on social media, such as the two black men arrested at Starbucks after asking to use the restroom. Is the prevalence of cell phone cameras helping to highlight these issues?
MD: It does make it more difficult to deny when something has happened. But I’m not sure everyone is taking it seriously yet. Despite how frequently these stories are in the news, some people seem to think they are still isolated incidents.
CC: What impact do these experiences have on individual consumers?
MD: I talk in the book about vicarious trauma. When someone goes into the store to buy a bag of Skittles and an Arizona tea, and they never make it back home because of some neighborhood vigilante—as was the case with Trayvon Martin—it traumatizes other vulnerable people. They realize, “It could be me; it could be my child; it could be my grandchild, my niece, my nephew, my neighbor, my student. It could be any of the people I care about.” There’s vicarious stress, vicarious trauma and I believe a vicarious health impact.
CC: Does this affect the way people of color consume goods and services?
MD: There’s a lot of documentation about all the instructions that black and other minority parents and caregivers give their children when they are going to the store or to the mall on how they’re supposed to walk, supposed to talk, supposed to wear their clothes, where their hands should be, how many other youths they can walk with.
Research shows that black consumers and other minorities use online shopping at a greater rate than white consumers, and I think it very well could be related to the tensions that surround the shopping experience.
CC: A few of the stories are told by white people who didn’t experience marketplace inequity themselves, but witnessed it. Why did you decide to include those?
MD: Minorities are so used to hearing white people deny black life experiences that sometimes we’re surprised when we hear white people honestly acknowledge that they have been able to see these things with their own eyes; that it’s not in our imaginations. And speaking up about it is one way to fight back. It makes you an ally.
CC: What do you hope readers take away from your book?
MD: Ultimately, I hope these true stories give people insight into what could be, what shouldn’t be, and what their roles are to make things more comfortable and more equitable so that everyone can enjoy public spaces without anxiety and vicarious trauma.
Shopping While Black will be available in July from Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. Portions of the proceeds from the book will benefit the Florida Education Fund’s McKnight Doctoral Fellowship Program to support the doctoral studies of underrepresented students.