Being a Black Security Guard Made Me Terrified to Shop

Suspicion isn’t just a radio code in a department store — it follows you everywhere you go

Over a period of five months in 2008, everything changed. I lost my big mama, finished graduate school, got married, and moved to a new city — Pasadena, CA. Despite my broken heart over losing the woman who had raised me, I was excited about my new adventure. I had used up almost every dime that I had to get our apartment in the busiest part of Old Town, and it didn’t take long for my $10,000 in savings to nosedive. I had to figure something out quickly, or this new life that I had created would vaporize instantaneously.

The apartment was two blocks away from Colorado Avenue, the main drag; you could shop, eat fine cuisine, or enjoy the fresh air that Southern California had to offer — which we often did. On one of our walks, my wife discovered Loehmann’s, a department story that’s like a higher-end version of Marshall’s.

Seeing a “now hiring” sign, she immediately told me to apply. Funds were getting pretty low at that point, so like any good husband, I listened and reluctantly applied. It turned out that the position was for a “loss prevention detective.” I had no idea what the hell that meant, but I needed something.

I began to overthink everything, from the clothes that I wore to the way I browsed the aisles. Should I even look around when I get in the store? Maybe I should search online for whatever I need. Maybe I should try to turn my head less and just buy what I need as fast as I can and get the hell out of there.

I ended up getting the job, and within the first couple of weeks my role became clear: Don’t let anyone steal the expensive stuff, and follow anyone suspicious. The first part was easy, but I didn’t know what the hell a “suspect” looked like at the time — and I had a problem with following people who didn’t give me a reason to follow them.

Our radio code for a suspicious-looking individual was “925.” My immediate team was diverse — a Latinx man, a White woman, and our manager was a Black man — but their usage of it wasn’t. Every time I heard “925” and looked up, the supposedly suspicious people were Black men. In all honesty, there probably were some suspicious-looking Black men in that store. But there were also White, Asian, and Latinx men who looked suspicious as well. So I refused to call out any Black people as a “925” until they gave me a reason.

The moment that I became a loss prevention detective at Loehmann’s was the moment I became terrified and paranoid in almost every retail store I entered. Of course, I had seen racism throughout high school and college, but I never really experienced how Black men were viewed from the outside looking in. Once I had seen Black men through the eyes of a retail security guard, though, I knew that I was automatically looked at as a “925,” regardless of my intent.

I was scared to browse a clothing store because I could feel security watching me, just waiting for me to steal something and run. Sometimes it was only in my head, and sometimes it was painfully evident that my fears were warranted. Some security guards didn’t even mask their actions; they would come as close as three feet away from me and look me in the eye as if they dared me to steal something. Even when my wife accompanied me, security would hawk me; it was frustrating for both of us.

I began to overthink everything, from the clothes that I wore to the way I browsed the aisles. Should I even look around when I get in the store? Maybe I should search online for whatever I need. Maybe I should try to turn my head less and just buy what I need as fast as I can and get the hell out of there.

It went on for years but slowed down once I had children. Think about it: My “shopping while Black” anxiety has improved because of my family. In my opinion, when you walk into a retail environment with your family, you look softer in the eyes of security. A Black man on his own is considered suspicious, but when you see him with a wife and two little kids, he is less of a threat. I have my son’s and daughter’s innocent looks and my wife’s class when I walk into a store, and they’re a security blanket of sorts — my “shopping while Black” anxiety plummets when they’re with me.

I understand that not every Black man feels like a target in retail stores. But then again, not every Black man has worked as security at a high-end clothing store. Those who don’t feel like this may be strong enough to ignore the fact that security may or may not follow them, or they just don’t care. Many of us find ways to deal with it daily. We already have to deal with the stigma of being a “violent threat,” to society, and it doesn’t help when we take a harmless trip to a clothing store and hear radios crackle with “925” as soon as we walk in.

The code “925” doesn’t only exist in retail environments; it’s everywhere you’re a Black man. We’re “925” when we walk into banks, take a stroll in an upscale neighborhood, drive beautiful cars, and even when we sit in our homes.

Unfortunately, until we fix this as a whole, you will continue to hear “925.” And when you look up, you’ll see a frustrated Black man wondering how he can continue to be himself and enjoy life with the odds stacked against him.

Tony Jones is a freelance writer that covers race, culture, music, and sports across multiple platforms.

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