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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Being an Ally Means Speaking Up When Black Customers Are Underserved

young woman shopping in boutique - Allies Should Speak Up When Black Customers Are Underserved

With the 2020s came a wave of much-needed attention on the insidious ways that racism and discrimination infect our society — from the prevalence of microaggressions in the workplace along with biased hiring, promotion and compensation practices, to medical equipment that doesn’t read melanated skin correctly, to police brutality. And while videos of “Karens” going nuts on workers just trying to do their jobs have become a regular occurrence, much less attention has been given to the bias against Black customers.

While structural racism requires structural changes and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies, when it comes to racism in daily interactions, allies have the power and responsibility to call out discrimination when they witness it. In doing so regularly and consistently, perhaps it will be possible to unravel some of the discrimination and injustice that is woven into the experiences of Black people in America and create a better, fairer society for everyone.

While it can be difficult to quantify discrimination in day-to-day customer service interactions, research has done a good job of uncovering a pattern of bias. A 2022 Harvard study found hotel concierges responded less often and with fewer recommendations when information requests came from an email address with a name that could be assumed to belong to a Black or Asian person.

Likewise, an artificial intelligence (AI) assisted dive into response rates from airline customer service representatives to complaints on Twitter found discrimination based on profile photos. A response was 12 percent less common for those appearing to be Black customers — significant enough to prompt the researchers to include the following in their abstract: “This study offers a practical yet powerful recommendation for companies: conceal all customer profile pictures from their employees while delivering social media customer service.” There was no difference found in the rate of response for Latinos, Asians or accounts that gave no indication of the user’s race.

Still, the research does not adequately expose the breadth of these experiences or their lasting, cumulative effects. TriplePundit recently spoke with Zee Clarke, the author of "Black People Breathe: A Mindfulness Guide to Racial Healing" and a corporate consultant on DEI, about the prevalence of bias in travel and its effects on Black people. In our interview, she related numerous anecdotal experiences with customer service in travel and beyond, reinforcing the importance of understanding the full effects on those experiencing racism on a daily basis. And the importance of ally intervention.

So, what can allies do when they notice Black customers being ignored or not offered the same treatment as others? “I would love it if allies would speak up more," Clarke told 3p. "Their voices can do more, unfortunately. Use the white man’s voice." 

As the anti-terrorism campaign suggests, “If you see something, say something.” This could be as simple as calling out a salesperson who is ignoring a Black customer. Clarke discussed one such experience when she could not get help in a shop until a white customer spoke up on her behalf. 

“Shopping while Black is very stressful because we’re not treated the same way,” she said. Between traveling while Black, shopping while Black, banking while Black and on down the line, essentially doing anything as a Black person in America means taking the brunt of someone’s prejudices and ignorance on a regular basis.

But allies can make a difference. “Your voice holds weight," Clarke reiterated. "Your voice can get action done. By standing there silently, you too are guilty.”

Instead of standing aside, pay attention and speak up. Say something to the security guard who constantly tails Black patrons. Don’t stay silent while clerks or salespeople pretend they don’t see Black customers waiting. As Clarke pointed out, small actions can have a huge impact.

In the words of Lynnette Stallworth: “How are you, as a white person, holding other white people accountable? How are other white people doing that for you? Racism is a white problem and it is long past time for you all to do your own work!”

Image credit: VadimGuzhva/Adobe Stock

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

Read more stories by Riya Anne Polcastro