You’ve Been Served: Black Folks & Customer Service

“Have you even ever stayed in a hotel?” the Twilight manager at the W Barcelona, questioned – with a tone of arrogance and a dismissive smirk – after we challenged why he was telling us that there were no rooms available although we had a confirmed reservation and platinum Marriott rewards status.

Moll de Ponent i Oriental de Barcelona

Have you ever even stayed in a hotel before, is what he said.  I heard: You are nothing.  I don’t even see you. I only see your race — Black – and I am assuming that you have never experienced anything as nice as this hotel; I can talk down to you without fear of any repercussions (I would never talk to a White male this way).  I don’t see that you are dressed well or that you are speaking perfect English, or that you are a platinum Marriott’s reward member.  All I see is your Blackness—and that tells me that you don’t belong here.

Have you ever even stayed at a hotel before?

Indignation spread through me like a hot drink on a cold morning:  First, I felt the heat of it in the back of my tightening throat; then it quickly streamed through my veins causing my internal temperature to rise.  With my ears burning and my face undoubtedly red, I had to resist the impulse to pull out my 2nd almost full passport, to take him through my Instagram pages documenting my travel adventures, to take him to my LinkedIn page to show him my degrees and career accomplishments: I felt the strong desire to prove myself.

I’ve felt that way before –many times, in fact.  I’m not alone.  Regularly, people of color are made to feel as if we are unworthy of good service in an establishment that is specifically designed to provide service to customers (all customers).  Companies make tremendous efforts to prove to White customers that their products or services are worthy.  But for Black customers it often seems the exact opposite; that we must prove to the companies that we are worthy, that our money is worthy.

People of color should not feel as if we need to prove our worth; justify our presence in establishments; feel compelled to prove that we can afford to purchase products, eat in restaurants, stay in hotels; be obvious in our movements to illustrate that we aren’t stealing; explain more than others our presence in certain lines (like 1st class) or our desire to see higher-end products.

The fact is –sadly- that before we walk into an establishment – most people of color have consciously or unconsciously already taken steps to prove that they are worthy of being there.  For years, Black people have been conspicuous consumers (outwardly displaying their wealth) in an attempt to gain entrance into or avoid harassment when visiting establishments. We go to shopping centers dressed well in hopes that we don’t get followed by security and so the sales staff trusts that we are able to buy things; Black men oftentimes wear suits to work when most of their colleagues feel comfortable dressing causally; we rigorously monitor each other—becoming very upset when we spot a Black boy wearing sagging jeans or a Black woman whose hair is unkempt.  I don’t think that White parents are as concerned when their kids for instance, wear pajamas to school, dye their hair a not-traditional color, get piercings or tattoos or dress scantily because there is little concern that their appearance will affect the treatment they receive.

But we Black folks try with the clothes we wear, the bags we carry, cars we drive, suitcases, and so on we to announce to the world, to every establishment that we visit — that we are worthy.  We do this, as our parents and our grandparents did, because life and ancestors have taught us that we must be exceptionally presented to get decent service (or any service).

Consider the men who marched in oftentimes very hot conditions, for equal rights during the 1960s in full suits with signs that declared, “I Am a Man.”  There is no doubt that they thought wearing suits would further legitimize their message; yet they were still hosed with water, had dogs sent to attack them, spit upon, yelled at and arrested.

Just as Black people, despite, being dressed well, having earned gold statuses in loyalty clubs, act respectfully – yet are daily being asked questions such as:

Have you ever stayed in a hotel?

1st class???

Can I see some id please (though the 5 other customers before weren’t asked for I.D.)

These bags start at $1,500

This line is for premiere members only

These macroaggressions—these questions and treatment—aren’t just discriminatory—they are abusive.  Unquestionably, it does psychological harm, when a person is repeatedly put in the position of not feeling seen, respected or worthy.  It is way past time for us, our money and our business be respected equally.  This can be achieved by instating policies that reflect the fair treatment of all customers; conducting regular classes that address bias and provide practical not just theoretical guidance; a system where customers can easily report unfair treatment; and real consequences when an employee has displayed discriminatory behavior.

The last few months of videos of poor behavior at business is just the most recent evidence of this longstanding and widespread problem.  Corporations should pay attention to these issues or their bottom lines will ultimately be affected.  People have grown weary of feeling indignant; and are now angrily insistent – on real change.  I know I am.


Until companies establish and implement their own training programs specifically designed to ensure all customers are treated fairly, I will set-up my own training program.  People act in self-interest.  Employees treat Black people poorly oftentimes because they believe that they can get away with it–that there will be little to no repercussions.  Let’s be honest, oftentimes, they are right.  At most, we will loudly complain and tell a few friends about our bad experience. We are hurt, so we handle the issue as if it’s personal. No more. Going forward, we should handle these types of situations professionally. This is business;  and we must make it that poor treatment hurts their bottom line (reputation, number of customers, poor ratings, bad press, profits) if they do not make aggressive efforts to ensure that people of color are not mistreated by their employees.

Should an employee treat me poorly, he (and his company) will now be trained by me.   I will get names, write letters, rate them on sites such as Trip Advisor and Yelp, use social media to spread the word of my poor treatment, videotape the interaction, etc.  Providing me with poor customer service will be a more painful experience for them than it was for me; so that the next Black customer has a better chance of having a better experience.  I can’t make someone think that I, a Black woman, is worthy; but I can make an employee and a company understand that treating me well is worthwhile.

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About Randi B.

Randi is a diversity and inclusion strategist, speaker, trainer and writer, focusing on making connections and cultivating empathy in this diverse world one trip, speech, article, book and conversation at a time.

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