By Liz Brazile
A California woman is suing Walmart amid concerns about a store policy to keep black hair products and styling tools locked away in a glass case.
Essie Grundy took to social media earlier this month to denounce security discrepancies in the Perris, CA store’s hair product aisle. In the video, which has been shared thousands of times on different social media sites, hair products marketed to the Caucasian populace are not placed on secured shelving units while brands catering to Afro hair textures are.
Grundy enlisted the help of a Walmart employee to access a 50-cent comb, who then escorted her to the checkout line before releasing the item to her. Grundy said the employee agreed with her that the store’s practice was unethical but stated that the policy was a directive from corporate. Grundy is being represented by high-profile attorney, Gloria Allred.
Other Facebook users have also posted videos exposing such security disparities at Walmart locations in Las Vegas and Lancaster, CA. Walmart issued the following statement to Business Insider in response to the discrimination allegations:
“We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind at Walmart. We serve more than 140 million customers weekly, crossing all demographics, and are focused on meeting their needs while providing the best shopping experience at each store. We’re sensitive to this situation and also understand, like other retailers, that some products such as electronics, automotive, cosmetics and other personal care products are subject to additional security. Those determinations are made on a store-by-store basis using data supporting the need for the heightened measures. While we’ve yet to review a complaint, we take this situation seriously and look forward to addressing it with the court.”
The situation has garnered a variety of responses from the public, with commentators generally falling into two camps: the first believing that this store policy is a form of racial profiling and the second supporting Walmart’s loss prevention practice.
Phew. Now that the facts are out of the way, allow me to weigh-in for real.
Within the group of people coming to Walmart’s defense, some are saying that the fallout from Grundy’s experience stands to cheapen the impact of actual discrimination. These same folks are laying out examples of items such as razors, condoms, baby formula, video games, and even guns (you don’t say?), that are locked away at their neighborhood Walmart stores. They ask: “How can you call Walmart racist when all these other items require employee assistance too?”
They have a point. Until, of course, you realize that the whole reason this qualifies as racial discrimination is because of the fact that all the hair care brands marketed to black consumers are locked up, yet none of the ones marketed to white folks are. People of all races shave. People of all races have sex. And consequently, people of all races have babies that need to be fed. Not all races, however, are consuming products intended for kinky hair textures. If it walks, talks, and quacks like a duck, issa goddamn duck. And Walmart is duck-passing right now.
Perhaps even worse than the discrimination deniers are the folks admitting that the policy is racist, but defending it; that here must be a good reason for it. I’ve seen this posturing from people of varying ethnicities, including black people. Here’s the thing though: hair products do not rank amongst the “most stolen” items in America, according to a 2015 report published by MarketWatch. Swimwear, sportswear, and lingerie do, however. But when was the last time you saw any of those items locked up in a glass case?
I searched high and low for concrete data regarding the most shoplifted items at Walmart, specifically, but could only find anecdotal information. However, several stories like this one done by TIME in 2016 describe how police departments across the country are overwhelmed by the number theft reports made by local Walmart retailers. It’s gotten so bad that the departments are telling store personnel to stop blowing up their phone lines, and are supporting Walmart’s implementation of restorative justice programs.
One of the places mentioned in the report is Pasco County, with a population comprised of 89 percent white people and 6 percent black people. Most of the other areas recognized in the article have racial demographics comparable to those of Pasco. Only one of the nine towns mentioned in the piece–Portsmouth, VA–has a predominantly black population. Clearly, white people are contributing to Walmart’s theft problem too.
And even if there is widespread theft of black hair products at Walmart, I’m willing to bet the whole damn section isn’t being targeted in the same manner–contrary to the message implied in the store’s choice to keep the whole black hair care area secured. But in the event that people are still chalking the situation up to a fair loss prevention initiative, how do you explain the subsequent walk of shame to the cash register that black customers must undergo?
This Walmart conundrum points to an even larger issue: the implicit crime of browsing while black. It’s not unusual for black people to be profiled and followed during the course of shopping. Many of us are hyperaware of the criminal perceptions we arouse and end up overcompensating to combat these stereotypes. Personally, I make it a point not to pull any belongings from my purse that could be perceived as stolen property. Lips get a little dry while I’m in CVS? Oh well. Whipping out a brand of lip balm that they happen to sell is not worth the potential trouble.
Only time will tell what becomes of this discrimination lawsuit against Walmart. It may hold up in court, or it may not. But in the meantime, I will be calling a thing, “a thing” and will not be patronizing the superstore. Not that I haven’t had a Walmart phobia since I was a child and would rather have my upper lip threaded everyday for the rest of eternity than go inside.