Finding herself low on hair products, Tarweeh Osman decided to make a 10 p.m. Walmart run on Thursday, Nov. 14. But when she walked into the health and beauty department at the Iowa City Walmart (919 Hwy 1 W), she couldn’t find what she was looking for.
“I noticed that the ‘multicultural’ subsection in the hair products aisle was missing, so I asked one of the workers where it was,” Osman explained. “She said that it was moved to the front of the store. I went to the front of the store and came across the area with the makeup and beauty products — it was locked behind a gate.”
The section had additional surveillance and only one gated entrance, which had already been closed for the night by the time Osman arrived.
“I asked another worker why the area was locked; she said that these items were always stolen, so they had to be locked away,” Osman said. “I then asked her where the multicultural hair products were. She told me they were also in that gated area.”
When Osman asked if she could get her products, she was told she’d have to wait until morning, when the metal gate was unlocked.
The experience was dispiriting, but not entirely surprising.
“This just adds to the long list of hindrances black people face living everyday life,” said Osman, a University of Iowa student and executive with the African Student Association. “It might not seem like a big deal by itself, but this isn’t an isolated event. Stuff like this that disadvantages us always happens. It’s a part of the pattern of how this country treats black people.”
The Iowa City store is far from the only Walmart that has placed black hair products behind lock and key — locations from Long Island, New York to Riverside, California have been the subjects of complaints, boycotts and lawsuits for their segregation of “multicultural hair care” products, which generally cost between $3 and $25.
An employee working in the cosmetics section at the Iowa City Walmart told Little Village that the high-security section is locked up from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. every night because that’s when most of the theft occurs. When asked why black hair products were included in this area, she broke eye contact, stared at the ground and asked if this was about the angry customers, before calling the assistant manager over. He said that corporate policy dictates that he cannot comment, but that the area can be accessed after hours if a customer asks, although some shoppers have reported being turned away.
Walmart’s corporate communications office shared the following statement in an email: “Additional protection from theft depends on the items being stolen, such as electronics, automotive, cosmetics and other personal care products which is determined through data and analytics. Our goal is to ensure we keep the items our customers want on the shelf and prices low. We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind at Walmart.”
Osman finds such assurances close to meaningless.
“Racism and prejudice today is not as blatant as it once was,” she said. “There’s not going to be a sign that says ‘No Blacks’ at the door — that’s bad for business. It’s structural, subtle, brief and harder to make out, but it composes a pattern that becomes blatant to people that are regularly affected by it. Walmart is choosing to perpetuate this pattern. It is indifferent and racist, and we hear you loud and clear.”
Several Walmart employees admitted to being surprised by the move as well, stating that grocery items, makeup and perfume are the items that are stolen most frequently, not hair and skin products.
“I work in the now-locked-up cosmetics section and it is so freaking suspect,” said a store associate who wished to remain anonymous. “There have been so many complaints about it because it’s a dumb system. You can’t leave the area unless you pay for it there, or you have to put a security tag on it or put it in a security box. They say it’s because that stuff gets stolen the most, but most of the time the stuff that’s stolen is food.”
The associate also said that when employees asked for an explanation from management, they were told simply that all Walmart locations are doing it.
Some people believe Walmart’s secure section is merely practical, and shouldn’t be taken personally.
“I don’t want to believe it is an act of discrimination, but instead a way of saying that this is a business that wants to make their money,” said Dayo Ajose, a black UI student and sprinter with the UI track and field team.
An employee at the Waterloo Walmart reached out to this reporter on Facebook with her own defense of the policy.
“I don’t see a problem with them locking up products that get stolen more often than not,” said Gabrielle Breitbach, a department manager at the Waterloo location. “They have to prevent theft, or the department loses on sales. It’s business — that is all it is.”
Cordejah Lewis, another black UI student, went to the Iowa City Walmart to see the new display for herself upon hearing about the relocation of the multicultural hair products. According to Lewis, all the employees she spoke with agreed that black hair products aren’t stolen at a higher rate, so she felt compelled to discuss it further with a manager when he walked by. He told her that small items like makeup are easier to pocket, which is why they have more security, but that black hair products haven’t been shoplifted much.
At its best, Lewis told Little Village, the secured section poses an accessibility issue — as a college student, her time is scarce, and night tends to be the most convenient time for her to run errands. But on a broader level, she said the move sends a pernicious message.
“For me, it feels like it’s a racial bias against ethnic people or minorities,” Lewis said. “Why make the distinction? … What other reason would there be to put it in there, if not to make a clear statement against a group of people?”
Other members of the black community said their concerns are larger than Walmart’s profits and even customers’ convenience. The image of security cameras and gates around products designed specifically for black hair and skin, while other products remain freely accessible, negatively impacts public perception of people of color, they say.
“When others not from our community see this, they will soon have a false pre-judgment on black people which will create a false image on us as a whole,” said Francis Borges, a black UI student.
“It stems from the deep-rooted racism that still exists within the American consciousness, that permeates to every crevice of American society,” Osman said. “Whenever we try to communicate to this country that it’s not treating us fairly, it asks us for proof; when we show them, they don’t think it’s sufficient enough or a big enough deal. Of course, it’s not a big deal when you’re not affected by it.”