Friday 29 June 2007

"Racing to push my trolley"

Some people think that there are certain subjects we shouldn’t talk about. I don’t agree. Taboo subjects sometimes need to be addressed head on. For instance these days most of us have started openly discussing sex as part of the fight against HIV/AIDS. By confronting the issues honestly we can probably achieve some good.

There’s a slightly taboo subject that customer service people don’t like discussing.


No, not desert races, I’m talking skin colour.

A couple of weeks ago we heard from a group of black shoppers who had been to a popular restaurant in Gaborone and came away feeling that their skin colour had led to them being given second rate service. Well, actually no service at all. Meanwhile a white couple who walked in after them were served instantly.

When we reported on this issue on YaronaFM the reaction from the restaurant wasn’t quite what we expected. Did we get a heartfelt comment that such things were unacceptable and loathsome and that a full investigation was going to be undertaken? Did we get a fulsome apology and would the shoppers like to come in for a chat with the manager over a cup of free coffee?


Instead we were accused of setting the store up, of sending in “stooges” and of making utterly baseless accusations. We had not, incidentally, done anything of the sort. These were senior managers from a local company who went away feeling abused. We were told by the restaurant that as the managers of the restaurant were themselves (white) Batswana discrimination was impossible. I’m not quite sure how the logic behind that works but never mind.

Of course it’s perfectly possible that this was just an unfortunate experience and the skin colour of the people in question was irrelevant. This may be the case but that doesn’t excuse not treating the complaint with respect and instead dismissing it out of hand.

Anyway, back to the issue. Are black and white shoppers treated differently? If you ask around you get a mixture of reactions. Some people I’ve spoken to said that of course there is discrimination. Others said that it was unthinkable in this day and age and particularly in the country founded by Seretse and Ruth and which has a future President of mixed-heritage and that has a zebra as a national symbol. Others said that I shouldn’t even talk about it.

Too bad, it’s too important not to discuss.

I heard a debate on the radio recently about a hairdressing salon that was only capable of doing white women’s hair. They didn’t employ anyone capable of doing black women’s hair. Along with the presenters my instinctive reaction was that this was somehow wrong, but I couldn’t exactly say how. Then I wondered whether there is any difference between that and a car showroom that only sells BMWs. Maybe it’s not discrimination; it’s just that they are “specialists”.

A few months ago someone called us and suggested that at a certain supermarket white shoppers had their trolleys pushed for them more than black shoppers. Always up for a challenge we decided to investigate. We sent one of our mystery shoppers to sit across the road from the supermarket for 3 whole days with a notebook and count the shoppers who emerged and categorise them by sex and skin colour. The results were curious.

About a quarter of black women who emerged with trolleys were being assisted. Exactly the same proportion of white women was being assisted. Again, exactly the same proportion of black men was having their trolleys pushed. So far, no evidence of discrimination. Then we got to the white guys. None of the white men who emerged were being assisted. This was a bizarre result, nothing like what we expected. Our conclusion is that either white guys are the victims of cruel and heartless trolley-oppression or perhaps, more simply, white guys just don’t like having their trolleys pushed.

I think at least part of what we see is what we expect to see. If I go into a store expecting to be treated badly then I’m probably more likely to see just that. Clearly I’m not saying that discrimination doesn’t occur, I believe that it does to some extent. I just believe that much of it is to do with expectations, confidence and assertiveness.

I have two female colleagues who are like twins. Both are intelligent, attractive and fun to be with (such a hard life I lead), the only difference is that one is black, the other white. My experience is that they both get identical service. Neither of them would, for a moment, put up with anything less than respect and courtesy. Nobody in their right mind would dare to treat them badly and hope to get away with it.

So what do YOU think? If you are white do you get better service? If you are black are you treated badly? Any more badly than your white friends? If you are somewhere in between what happens? Give us some evidence and we’ll send out the investigators.

In case you’re wondering, no, nobody EVER pushes MY trolley.

This week’s stars!

  • Segametse at Nandos Game City for friendliness and going out of her way to help.
  • Arnold and the team at Supreme for actions “above and beyond the call of duty” in solving a customer’s credit problems.
  • Daisy recently of Land Utilisation, Grace from the Bee Keeping Unit and Mr Ellard from the Forestry Section, all in the Serowe Regional Office of the Ministry of Agriculture.

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