I go to law school in small town in North Florida. Our local beauty shops are pitiful so most colors I either buy blind or based on online swatches. Even the chain beauty shops are severely lacking so there’s really no hope for seeing new collections in person. This is one of the reasons I was so excited to return to my native South Florida to do my summer internship for the State Attorney’s Office. South Florida is like the nail polish promised land, really.
I stayed with my parents this summer. My mother has come to accept and, even, take pride in my nail polish collecting so she would on occasion humor me by stopping at malls on the way home from work (we carpooled). Most of the time she would go run other errands and let me traipse through beauty shops on my own. For me, beauty shops that carry nail polish are like magical wonderlands, I can easily occupy myself for hours literally – this ability, I’m sure, seems really suspicious to shop attendants. And that’s where the story that prompted this post begins.
Like I said, my mom would drop me off at these beauty shops on our way home from work and since I worked for the State, I wore a suit and a yellow very ‘official’ looking name tag. If anyone had bothered to look closer, they would have seen that my title was “volunteer”. But no one did, so I just walked around looking like someone important. In my suit, I could browse beauty shops forever unimpeded. I rarely buy anything, only because I pretty much refuse to pay full retail for nail polish with few exceptions. But I definitely do buy when there is sale so I like to visit beauty shops often. Most of the time, shop attendants would either be annoyingly attempt to be over-helpful (which is silly, of course, not to sound like an jerk, but beauty shop sales associates are NOTORIOUSLY uninformed when it comes to nail polish and well… uh… I’m disgustingly well-informed) or they would just smile and leave me to my own devices.
One particular shop, which also happened to be the shop that had the most nail polish and required the most browsing, was attended by a small boy with a wispy mustache and red highlighted hair that dangled over his eyes. Think: beauty shop emo.
The first time I went to the store in a suit, he smiled and let me browse. The next time, he asked me, “What do you do for a living?” I replied, “Actually, I’m just a student now, I’m interning with the State Attorney’s Office.” He didn’t know what the State Attorney’s Office was or what they did. Despite my best efforts to explain that State Attorneys prosecute crimes, I don’t think he really understood the purpose of the office or my role at the office. He asked, “Okay, I get that you want to be a lawyer but, like, what do you do right now?” I explained that I interned for the homicide and major crimes division and that my boss was responsible for trying high profile homicides in our area. Shocked, he said, “So uh, you have to look at pictures of dead bodies and stuff?” I said, “Well, yea, crime scenes and autopsies.” Then I looked away back to nail polish.
I wasn’t so much annoyed by the exchange as I was interested in discontinuing the communication in order to further pursue my nail polish browsing. I didn’t really understand why he was talking to me, I figured that he was bored, and that was fine, but my mom would be back soon – the clock was ticking on my browsing time. Then he said, “You know, I could never do that… .” “Do what” I thought as I looked back at him. He said, “Oh no, looking at dead bodies, no no no.” He looked around, then he whispered in an ‘I see dead people’ sort of way… “I’m a… a… sensitive.” My inner monologue was as follows: “You’re a WHAT? – Where is this conversation going? Oh, for Pete’s… geez, really? I just want to look at nail polish – why does something like this ALWAYS happen.” So I let him tell me about his ‘gift’ and I politely listened. He was harmless enough and I told myself I could just come back on another day to browse some more.
And I did, this time, not in a suit because it was a weekend. My mom and I were shopping for sensible work shoes because the ultra high heeled ball-crushers I had been wearing were only cool for about a minute. It took just one walk from the court house to the office to convince me that something less fierce would be more pragmatic. I was wearing my typical weekend type stuff, jeans, shirt, sweater, sneakers, etc. My mother wore something similar. I didn’t look like a complete ragamuffin but it wasn’t one of my more fashionable days. The minute, and I really mean, the exact minute we walked into the store the same attendant moved from behind the counter, where he had stood for the entire duration of our previous exchange. My mother and I made our way to the OPI kiosk and he quickly made his way over to us and began to hover. I worked retail all throughout high-school and part of college so I knew exactly what he was doing – he thought we were shoplifters.
This was offensive to me on so many levels. First of all, I was with my Mother. MY MOTHER. Who on Earth would steal cosmetics in the presence of their MOTHER. Especially my poor dear wonderful Mother, the hardest worker known to man, so innocent in her existence that she gets upset with me when I blaspheme even though we’re not religious. Second, I’m a nail polish is my hobby – why would I ever steal nail polish? Third and most importantly, he hadn’t treated me this way when I was wearing an expensive suit, heels and a fancy yellow name tag. So what the hell?
It occurred to me that he might have reacted that way because of my race – maybe he couldn’t get passed my dark skin unless I was wearing a suit. I attempted to dissuade him by explaining that I like to compare colors because I own so many and I smiled. He gave me an eat-shit-and-die look and continued to hover. Well, at that point he wasn’t hovering anymore, he was just standing over us, staring at us. I understand that guarding against merchandise shrinkage is part of his job. After all, in the past, it had been my job. However, his demeanor was so incredibly offensive and rude that it actually made us feel uncomfortable. I felt like I was doing something wrong. I left the store, feeling almost ashamed of my existence.
Later, I told my Supervising Attorney about the experience, and explained that I’d had a similar experience at a Chanel counter even though I was actually making a purchase. I told him that I felt that if I were white, I wouldn’t be treated that way. He didn’t think it was a race issue – “When you’re in your suit, high heels, and those Gucci sunglasses you have, you’ll never be treated that way even though you’re Latin.” “I know” I said, “that’s because social class trumps race.”
Image from Second City Style.