Working retail sucks; this is a given. You make $9 an hour hanging up clothes made by people who make 90 cents a day so that people like Dick Hayne of Urban Outfitters and Mike Jeffries of Abercrombie & Fitch have not just millions but billions of dollars to throw around on Rick Santorum and plastic surgery. But working retail wouldn't be the worst job in America if not for the unreal ratio of reality TV-esque attitude: The high school cliqueyness; the insane pressure to blow your whole paycheck on clothes; the district managers who determine you have "the look"; the airhead clotheshorses who get promoted... all are burdens endured by retail employees so that we, as customers, can feel sufficiently fat and insecure while shopping. Welcome to "I Work Retail," a column about the stupid shit many people deal with in the name of acting out some insane person's idealized "lifestyle." We invite your submissions, and will pay $200 to those we post. Today, Intern Maria, a former employee of everyone's favorite feminine boho-chic retailer Anthropologie, tackles the issue of racism. Hey, it's not just for Abercrombie!
You know that really annoying suburban white kid from your freshman year Poli Sci class who was always declaring that racism didn't exist anymore? Yeah, that kid never worked retail. That kid especially did not work for an overpriced corporate lifestyle brand purveyor like "bohemian chic" retailer Anthropologie. Because one thing that you learn within one week of working at Anthropologie (or "Anthro" as the drones that work there prefer to call it) is that the only "real way" you can tell if a customer is planning to shoplift is if they are black. Is that well-dressed woman browsing through duvet covers black? She should be followed. Is that elderly gentleman waiting for his wife to try on cardigans black? Follow him too, but at a distance; he might have a gun.
No, seriously. I once got a call from a store in Connecticut trying to "alert us" to a possible shoplifting situation. Usually we would get these calls from stores in our area (i.e. not Connecticut) and usually they were after someone had come and stolen a massive amount of merchandise and gotten away with it (usually sweeping clothes off of tables in gym bags and bolting) or after someone tried to pull a receipt scam. I asked the girl what the situation was and she told me that three "blac—er, African-American people" had come into the store wearing matching army fatigues and were "looking around the store."
"Oh," I said, "and they stole something?"
"No, but they just looked really shady."
For clarification, "really shady" was Anthrospeak for any black person that came into any store who wasn't Beyonce or some other incredibly recognizable and wealthy black person. This term could also be applied to anyone who came in with a vaguely dark skin tone who didn't immediately start throwing hundred dollar bills around the store. Michelle Obama. Kerry Washington. Whatever.
There were, of course, as is common throughout the minimum wage workforce, people of color working for Anthro. There was a gaggle of Hispanic-y girls who were willing to hide the accents in their names, and one or two black sales associates (out of a team that ranged from thirty to fifty during the holidays). There were also a few hipster Asian girls on the visuals team whom we rarely saw. Almost any man who worked the store and was not white was assigned to the stockroom or put on the "loss prevention" team which meant that he stood at the front of the store, looking nonwhite (and therefore extra-aware of the shoplifting prowess of fellow nonwhites) for eight hours straight.
Minorities are not, of course, the only disenfranchised class at Anthropologie. Any girl who wore pants a little too often and might have given off the impression that they were just a smidge lezzie was also put into working the stock room or given "stock hours" when she was supposed to be working the floor. God forbid you let those lesbians work the fitting rooms! There was a very strict "Anthro image" managers had to follow when doling out the more prominent positions for employees, and that image was straight, white (or at the very least, white-washed), and always light and pretty.
There was one male manager who had gotten hired (despite his Hispanic heritage — an Anthro breakthough!) that was always getting shit from the other managers. (Managers have to go through a long training process where they are basically treated like slaves by all the other higher up managers: They're given insane hours and expected to clock out falsely when they "go over" the allotted 40 hours and continue to work, and pretty much just have to bear the brunt of the over-inflated egos of the "aspiring" actors and actresses that make up the main managerial team.) The sales team loved him but all of the other managers always had it in for him, for reasons unknown to everyone. Usually when the managers had a problem with someone (and they couldn't come out and say "they aren't white!") they would say that they "just aren't Anthro enough." "Anthro" was the adjective of choice for all things white, boring, and safely 'bohemian.' Eventually the Hispanic manager got transferred to Urban Outfitters, where all of the hires who mysteriously make it through the hiring process despite thei difficult-to-pronounce names seem to end up. He relayed his tale back to everyone at our store, where no one was really all that surprised.
For all the bitchy, racist, corporate-agenda-pushing people who worked at the store there were also a few good and decent people who were there because they needed jobs. Usually they would stick it out as long as they could until all of the "lifestyle marketing" got to them and they quit, encountering other former-employees at bars with the same "Oh god, aren't you glad you go out of there?" smalltalk.
But really, for anyone who's glanced at a few of Anthropologie's catalogs it is obvious what the company is trying to shoot for: almost-middle-aged white women whose escapist fantasizing might be interrupted by the sight of a token Asian or black model gracing the pages, but never converted to full-fledged liberal guilt over the idiocy of it all. When I was there, anyone of color who shopped at Anthro was seen as a suspected shoplifter and "shadowed" by a tiny blonde associate who would take everything they picked up to "hold behind the register" (which as any good retail slave knows, is code for "I think you are a shoplifter"). [This happened to me! At the Rockefeller Center store! Ugh. -Ed.] Anyway, the big lesson is that corporations like Anthropologie don't want to trust minorities who shop from them or work for them, or really, anyone who steps out of the lifestyle mold that they have fabricated. Which is a shame, since, hello, those lifestyles don't fucking exist.