Stopped and searched: the humiliation of being profiled
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A recent news story about an Indigenous man being flagged as a shoplifter at a Canadian retail chain in Winnipeg hit close to home.
That’s because I’ve been profiled while shopping, too.
It was Dec. 17, 2018, my partner’s birthday. I had stepped out from the office, located near Polo Park, for a late lunch to do some holiday browsing without small kids in tow.
When I stopped in at a Polo Park-area retailer, I wasn’t going in for anything in particular, but I still had a pile of gifts to buy before Christmas.
I saw some heavily discounted bed sheets that piqued my interest but I decided not to get them. I looked around for a few more minutes, but didn’t find anything I wanted.
When I tried to leave without purchasing anything, it was awkward because there was no clear way of exiting unless I walked through the lineups of customers at the registers to get to the doors.
I found the shortest line and made my way to the exit.
When I got there, a security guy stopped me and asked if everything was “all right.” I told him it was.
He then told me he wanted to look in my purse.
I have been followed and watched at stores, but this was a first for me.
Sadly, this is a very real and normal experience for many Indigenous people and people of colour.
I remember the humiliation, shock and anger that washed over me. It was one of those “is this really happening?” moments.
”I remember the humiliation, shock and anger that washed over me. It was one of those ‘is this really happening?’ moments.”
My face got hot, like there was a giant spotlight on me.
I asked him if he normally checked people’s bags, and he made some comment about the size of my purse. Never has the size of my purse been questioned at another store.
Then he asked again to look inside.
I stood there, embarrassed and dumbfounded, as I opened my purse and showed him the contents: my wallet, notebooks, a novel, gum, pens, headphones, an old cookie, cracker crumbs, wrappers, and a change of clothes for my toddler. When he was done searching my private property, I asked if I could speak to the manager.
When he arrived, I told him I felt targeted and the practice of searching customers was unacceptable. I told him how embarrassing it was to be singled out and searched in front of other customers — and I was livid at the security person’s demeanour that I perceived as smug.
Nobody else was stopped. Just me.
The manager told me I could have refused the security officer when he asked me to open my purse, but I didn’t know that was my right. It’s also intimidating when a security officer wants to search you.
The manager apologized, but then excused the search by saying the store had had problems with theft that day.
While I wasn’t satisfied with the response, I was embarrassed and wanted to leave. It was clear the manager didn’t understand my situation.
I filed a complaint with the retailer and went back and forth with a case manager about the incident.
In the end, I got a $10 store credit, which I did not accept.
I did not get an apology.
I never went back to the store.
I am grateful for Indigenous people and people of colour who share their stories about these experiences. Let’s hope by doing so, change will come.
Columnist, Manager of Reader Bridge project
Shelley is a born and raised Winnipegger. She is a proud member of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.