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Nordstrom Rack incident leaves St. Louis teen skeptical about racial bias training

In statements to the news media, Nordstrom Rack spokeswoman said normal procedures for calling police were not followed in the May incident.
File photo

The anti-bias training that closed Starbucks stores across the U.S. for a few hours Tuesday is over. Will it change anything?

That’s what one St. Louisan is asking after he was recently racially profiled at a local Nordstrom Rack. Mekhi Lee, 19, and his two friends were shopping at the store in early May when employees accused them of stealing. Lee said they had receipts to prove they paid for items.

The incident happened a couple of weeks after two men in Philadelphia were arrested after waiting in a Starbucks, an incident that led to nationwide anti-bias training for company employees.

Lee, who is black, is skeptical that the half-day of training will make an impact.

“Black people have been hurt by racial profiling, so just one day, you’re not going to just change the views and just stop assuming. Or get people to feel where we’re coming from in just one day, because it’s been happening for decades,” Lee said.

Lee said forming stereotypes about people starts as children are growing up and develop into perceptions that are a lot harder to change when people are older. He said despite what people assumed about him in the store, he is a teen like other teens.

The DeSmet Jesuit High School graduate is a freshman at Alabama A&M. He studies business management and information science with the hope one day creating his own IT firm. Lee said he felt humiliated by what happened. Nordstrom Rack apologized for the incident.

“It’s been on my mind like everyday,” he said. “I don’t try to think about it, like it’s just in my mind. Like right now. Like I’ll wake up and something about Nordstrom Rack. It’s just in my brain.”

Lee said he wonders if the training Starbucks held this week was mostly just its way of saving face. The coffee chain tweeted Tuesday that it wants “to make Starbucks an inclusive gathering place for all.”

"Heart-wrenching" memories

Lee’s not alone in his thinking. Another St. Louis resident, Nancy Nix-Rice, participated in an anti-bias training session through St. Louis Renewed recently. She worries the training was a way for the company to pat itself on the back for a job well-done.

The Louisiana native in her 60s said she thought she understood discrimination and marginalization; after all, she’s involved in advocacy work through the National Council of Jewish Women. But she said the training moved her to reflect on “heart-wrenching” memories, including one from childhood.

“I grew up in the South during the timeframe after Brown v. Board of Education when the schools mandated to desegregate and were resisting so heavily and we saw films of students outside their high school chanting 'two-four-six-eight, we don’t want to integrate,'” said Nix-Rice, who is white. “I like to look back and think that I was never a bigoted person, even as a child, but there was something just very uncomfortably familiar about that chant.”

Nix-Rice said the training allowed her to expand on what she already knew and inspired her to build on the lessons learned. She went with a group to Memphis to visit civil rights sites, she joined a social justice book club and she’s participating in a racial justice task force through a local Jewish organization.

Moving closer

Human and organizational development specialist Leon Sharpe said this kind of reflection is important for long-term change. Still, he said, there is evidence that educating people about what bias is and where it comes from can help build awareness and lead to change.

“It moves us closer toward what I think our potential is as human beings and what we are really meant to be — the full expression of our evolutionary potential,” Sharpe said.

Echoing Lee’s observations, Sharpe said racial and gender bias, “have developed in our society and within people’s psyches over long stretches of time. They are based on some myths about human difference.” 

Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.

Ashley Lisenby is the news director of St. Louis Public Radio.

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