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Actress Gabourey Sidibe Describes Troubling Chicago Store Encounter: 'I Suspect It's Because I'm Black'

By Rachel Cromidas in Arts & Entertainment on May 9, 2017 7:45PM

Gabby Sidibe. Photo via Getty Images

This post has been updated

In a recent essay, actress Gabourey Sidibe describes a troubling experience she had in an upscale Chicago store, which she attributes to racial profiling or fat-phobia, or a combination of the two.

The essay, "My Money Is Green," was published this week in Lena Dunham's regular email newsletter Lenny Letter. In it, Sidibe describes the experience she had trying to buy Chanel eyeglasses in Chicago, where she lives while shooting for the TV show Empire.

Sidibe, who has spoken out about racism, body-shaming and fat-phobia in the entertainment industry, said the Chanel store employee treated her like she didn't belong in the store, even though she was dressed in designer clothing, and suggested she shop at a discount store instead, until the employee realized Sidibe is famous.

"I was wearing new ankle boots and my prescription Balenciaga shades, and I had a vintage Chanel purse on my shoulder, over my winter coat with a fur hood. I looked as though I were in a Mary J. Blige video. Just how I like to look!" Sidibe wrote.

Sidibe said the Chanel sales clerk "locked eyes" with her as soon as she entered the store, came over to her and told her the store didn't sell eyeglasses and that she should go to a discount frames dealer across the street instead. Sidibe questioned the woman, but she just told her, again, to go to the store across the street.

"Just to be sure of what was happening, I made her tell me to leave, in her pretend-polite way, three times," she wrote. "I knew what she was doing. She had decided after a single look at me that I wasn’t there to spend any money."

Sidibe, 34, said that interactions like the above have been common throughout her life, before and after she became a recognizable actress, because she is black: "No matter how dressed up I get, I’m never going to be able to dress up my skin color to look like what certain people perceive to be an actual customer."

It wasn't until Sidibe stayed and continued to shop inside the Chanel store, she wrote, in order to buy sandals for her co-star Taraji Henson, that employees of color who were in other parts of the store noticed her and recognized her. The, the original saleswoman explained that she technically could buy eyeglasses at the store, too.

"Just like that, I went from being an inconvenience to a customer," she wrote.

Sidibe writes that she debated whether or not to complain about the interaction in an online customer-service survey after the fact—she didn't want to jeopardize the woman's job, and she also wasn't sure what her problem was: was she given bad customer service because she is black, or because of another troubling reason, like fat-phobia?

To be fair, I don’t know why that saleswoman didn’t want to help me. I suspect it’s because I’m black, but it could also be because I’m fat. Maybe my whole life, every time I thought someone was being racist, they were actually mistreating me because I’m fat. That sucks too. That’s not OK. I’ve felt unwelcome in many stores throughout my life, but I just kind of deal with it. As a successful adult, sometimes I walk out of the store in a huff, without getting what I want, denying them my hard-earned money. Other times I spend my money in an unfriendly store as if to say “Fuck you! I’ll buy this whole damn store!”

...does it matter whether my waist is wide or if my skin is black as long as my money is green?

Updated 5/10/17:
House of Chanel sent Chicagoist a statement in response to the story, saying the fashion house "expresses our sincerest regret" over the customer service Sidibe received:

CHANEL expresses our sincerest regret for the boutique customer service experience that Ms Sidibe mentioned in the essay she published on a website. We are sorry that she felt unwelcome and offended.

We took her words very seriously and immediately investigated to understand what happened, knowing that this is absolutely not in line with the high standards that CHANEL wishes to provide to our customers.

We are strongly committed to provide anyone who comes in our boutiques with the best customer service, and we do hope that in the future Ms Sidibe will choose to come back to a CHANEL boutique and experience the real CHANEL customer experience.