Last month, Demi Colleen went into a Boots in West Ealing to buy some Afro hair products, only to discover that the brands aimed at Black customers were not on display. The products were replaced with “dummy” products that requested customers to go to the till, while others had security tags stuck on them to prevent theft. Colleen noted that other products aimed at white people did not have security tags on them.
The 27-year-old veterinary nurse said in a now-viral tweet that only Black hair care products were stickered, while other products aimed at “white people” did not require a customer service assistant getting it from the stockroom. Colleen said the entire experience made her feel humiliated.
“I had to stand and wait for her [the customer service assistant] to come back upstairs, while everyone else was able to pay freely for their items,” she says now, adding that she felt she and the rest of her community were “made out to be criminals.
“This unfolded stereotype that Black people are more likely to be criminals and steal is something we’ve seen forever,” Colleen tells us. “It’s what has fuelled the disproportionate levels of stop and search on Black men, despite [the fact that] white men are more likely to be criminals and make up a majority of the prison population.”
Antonia Sole, 26, has also been made to feel this way. “I was at my local Boots in Streatham [South London] and the security guard was following me around. I’m totally used to this, but I was with my white friend, who wasn’t.”
Sole’s friend started narrating what they were doing to get the security guard to stop following her. “What makes a Black person more likely to shoplift hair products? It’s the dumbest thing,” Sole says. “It’s so frustrating. What about me gives them a shoplifting profile?”
A Boots spokesperson says the retailer security-tags products so that they remain available for people to buy. In the Streatham store in particular, this includes some self-selection makeup, skincare, baby products and electrical beauty. “This is not discriminatory and is based on the products that our stores notice are being taken,” they told us in a statement.
“We want everyone to feel welcome at Boots and have listened to the feedback around the tagging of these specific products very carefully. As a result, we will explore other ways to make sure that these products remain available. We are also making a lot of progress in expanding and stocking new, more diverse ranges of products so that we meet the needs of all our customers.”
Racial bias is not a new phenomenon in the UK. A 2018 survey of 1,000 people from minority ethnic backgrounds found that they were consistently more likely to have faced negative everyday experiences – all frequently associated with racism – than white people in a comparison poll. The results also showed that ethnic minorities are three times as likely to have been thrown out of or denied entrance to a restaurant, bar or club in the last five years, and that more than two-thirds of minorities believe Britain has a problem with racism.
While this is not the first time Boots has been embroiled in a race row – makeup artist Natasha Wright posted a video online showing rows of Afro hair products sealed with security labels to prevent theft in 2019 – the high street retailer is not alone.
Nathaniel McKenzie, who lives in Brixton, South London, says he’s also been made to feel uncomfortable. “I get regularly followed around shops,” says the 28-year-old. “My local Co-op is one of the worst places for it.”
While he has experienced worse harassment in some parts of North America – where 80 per cent of shoppers report that they experience racial stigma and stereotypes while shopping – his experience has left him feeling annoyed and, most of all, tired.
“I tend to feel guilty about these things,” McKenzie says, “despite not having done anything. I’m so used to being accused of things that I have no involvement in. But once I’m done feeling guilty, I end up feeling both tired and irritated.
“It’s particularly galling that the people who are doing it are so often Black or South Asian men working in security,” he adds. “I think it may be a brief that security guards are given, but it might also come down to internalised racism. Maybe it’s also the culture of the stores and a product of gentrification.”
A spokesperson for Co-op said: “Co-op has a long history of promoting diversity within its organisation and in the communities it works with. Safety for colleagues and customers in our communities is a number one priority, and the use of security officers sits against a backdrop of unprecedented levels of anti-social behaviour and physical assaults against frontline shop workers. Co-op is dedicated to being inclusive in every area of its business and to achieve its vision of ‘co-operating for a fairer world’, [and] it is committed to being anti-racist in all that it does and tackling inequality head on.”
The company says its security guards are employed by a third-party company, Mitie, adding that the organisation is “committed to developing a nurturing workforce that is representative of the communities and customers it serves”.
Last November, 26-year-old Precious Adesina, a Black journalist from London, visited Five Guys in St Pauls when she needed the bathroom. Her friend, who is white, purchased a meal so they could use the toilet. However, when Precious approached the bathroom, the store manager “shouted” at her.
“I explained to [the manager] that my friend had used the loo before me and had purchased a meal. I highlighted to him that he had treated us differently and explained that he should think about how he treats people who look different.”
When the manager responded abruptly, Adesina explained that she was a journalist, which he didn’t believe. So she reached into her bag to collect her ID. “He shouted at me while I was looking for my ID in my bag,” she recalls. “He insinuated that I had something dangerous inside. Then he threatened to call the police.”
Horrified, the journalist told the manager there was no reason to call the police. But the manager persisted and rang them anyway. When the police arrived, they asked the manager and Adesina what had happened, and the two explained their sides of the story. While two female officers apologised to Adesina and explained that there had been no wrongdoings, the third officer told the manager it was “just unfortunate timing with Black Lives Matter”.
“I was stunned and a bit numb to the situation,” she continues. “A white woman went in after me and the manager did not ask her whether she was a customer, which she was not, nor did he ask my white friend. But for me, it was an issue warranting calling the police.
“After the incident, I became a little nervous about whether I looked like a criminal. I felt down for months and decided to get some therapy as it triggered some personal feelings.”
She eventually contacted Five Guys to report the incident, which she says was “clearly racially motivated, whether it was intentional or not”. The restaurant chain apologised and invited her back to the restaurant to show her “how we take care of our customers day in and day out”.
“I felt frustrated,” says Adesina now, in response to Five Guys’ apology email. “They didn’t acknowledge why that incident occurred and tried to offer me a meal at Five Guys, which I thought was a super ridiculous thing to offer me after calling the police on me.”
Whether or not it is, in that trite and insulting comment, “unfortunate timing with Black Lives Matter”, when we’re trying to shop in peace, or simply want to use the bathroom, Black people are still made to feel uncomfortable and unwanted in everyday spaces.
Five Guys UK has been approached for comment.