I’d like to believe that everyone treats me the same as everyone else in this town, and that’s the case in most situations. People are usually friendly, generous and – most of all – respectful of who I am: a first-generation, Ethiopian-Eritrean, African-American.
However, no matter how “liberal” or “woke” we as a community believe we are, racial prejudice and profiling persists here.
Last month, my Latina friend Evelin Diego – the Opinions editor for the Los Altos High School newspaper, The Talon – told me that she and two of her friends were stopped, harassed, kicked out of and searched at Urban Outfitters at Stanford Shopping Center. She said they weren’t doing anything other than hanging out and shopping, but in one instant, her normal afternoon turned into a memorable moment in her life.
A security guard approached them and asked them to leave after store employees told him to take them outside. That’s where they were told to dump everything out of their bags.
Evelin told me that she believed they were being racially profiled for several reasons. First, she said they were the only people of color inside the store. Second, the store employees refused to give a legitimate answer as to why they were being kicked out, aside from the claim that the Urban Outfitters workers felt uncomfortable with Evelin and her friends’ presence. There were other groups of teens in the store, and Evelin said she and her friends were not being rowdy or disrespectful.
Above all else, she told me that it was the security guard who brought up race, saying that instances like this happen to black and Latino people at the store. She knew at that moment that she and her friends were being kicked out because of their race.
This wasn’t the first time this has happened to Evelin; she said she was involved in a similar incident last year at Sephora, also at Stanford Shopping Center.
As much as I like to remain optimistic, Evelin’s experience and my own experiences demonstrate that racial profiling persists in this area. It’s something that affects all minorities around here, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.
What’s especially frustrating: We don’t do enough to share these stories, because we do not feel like we will be heard if we speak up. Why is there never the benefit of the doubt granted to us? Why do some people assume – purely based on the way we look – that we are going to steal from them?
Evelin is one of the most passionate and inspiring people I know. She contacted several newspapers about the incident and is attempting to pursue legal action against Urban Outfitters. Urban Outfitters did not respond to the Town Crier’s request for comment.
Evelin refuses to accept that behavior and, by speaking up, she hopes to reduce the number of people who get profiled the way she did. But as much as I want to think that there are more people like Evelin who will speak up, she is one of only a few I know who have done so.
I’ve never had to experience such severe profiling in my life. I do get the stares in almost every downtown store I enter, aside from the coffee shops, but that’s about it. It’s most often people sitting in restaurants or shopping at Safeway who look at me as if I’m some unknown specimen, which in many ways I am.
When our school is just 1.8 percent black, why should I be shocked by such a reaction from some of those who have lived in this homogeneous town their entire lives?
The only way profiling stops is if everyone, not just minorities, speaks up. We must call out those who choose to disrupt our lives based on the way we look. I’m not saying that people here in Los Altos, or anywhere in the Bay Area, are going to stop racial profiling anytime soon. But I am willing to continue to deal with people watching my every step on Main Street or going to a store so long as my rights are still protected and I can go along with my day.
Is that really too much to ask? Can I be given the benefit of the doubt and not be labeled based on inaccurate stereotypes about my race? Can I have that much, or am I not going to be able to trust the people of Los Altos to treat me the same as other citizens?
Noah Tesfaye is a senior at Los Altos High School, managing editor of The Talon and a Town Crier editorial intern.