Shopping While Black

Andrella David is a Black Nova Scotian and a courageous, determined woman. In March 2009, she went to her local grocery store to buy some ice cream – a Sobeys store in Tantallon, Nova Scotia, a suburb of Halifax.

While she was waiting in line to pay, the store manager, Jennie Barnhill, walked up to her and accused her of being a shoplifter. Barnhill said the store had captured the past thefts on video surveillance cameras, and told Ms. David that if it happened again, Sobeys would press charges.

Immediately, Ms. David said that she had never shoplifted and demanded to see the videotapes. While the images were fuzzy, Ms. David could see that the woman on the tape was darker-skinned than her, and smaller, fuller-faced, with a different hairstyle. She told Ms. Barnhill that the only thing she and the alleged shoplifter on the videotape had in common was that “she is Black and I am Black. If you think that girl looks like me you must think all Black people look alike”.

Ms. Barnhill also accused Ms. David of being present in the store and shoplifting on  “cheque day”, inferring that social assistance was Ms. David's source of income. She also said that Sobeys had arrested someone else from Pockwock Road, the Black settlement where Ms. David lives, for shoplifting the week before. Add it up and here's the stereotype: Ms. David is Black, she is on welfare and she steals.

Andrella David got nowhere with Ms. Barnhill and later tried to straighten out the situation with Sobeys' management at head office. But she was told that Sobeys accepted Ms. Barnhill's word over hers. Sobeys continued to back its manager's claim for seven years, even though Ms. Barnhill conceded at the hearing of Ms. David's complaint in 2015 that there was no evidence to support the shoplifting accusation, and, further, that if Ms. David had been white she would not have been stopped.

Sobeys' refusal to acknowledge that Ms. David was not a shoplifter caused not just a temporary harm, but continuous harm.

Ms. David was shocked and devastated by the treatment she received. She never went to a Sobeys store again. She travelled further away from home to shop. She experienced depression, anxiety, shame and humiliation. She was afraid in other stores that she was being watched. Until the complaint went to hearing, she never told her daughter because she did not want her to witness her mother's humiliation and hurt.

Race discrimination complaints are often difficult. One reason is that the response of those who are accused of racism is often so defensive. Any capacity to listen or learn seems to disappear. In this case, even a large and sophisticated enterprise like Sobeys Group Inc., Canada's second largest food retailer, with historical roots in Nova Scotia, could not deal with this complaint with openness and respect.


Instead, Sobeys fought all the way, first to dispute the complaint, despite its lack of evidence, and then to try to keep any remedial award as small and as narrow as possible.

The Board of Inquiry awarded Ms. David $3,000 a year for seven years ($21,000) for the continuous harm caused by the discrimination, and ordered Sobeys to provide training for all its management staff in the province.

But another part of Andrella David's award should be a big thanks from the public for the service she performed by exposing this too ordinary race discrimination, and doing what she could to stop it for others.

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