Less than a year after arriving on South African shores, American sports apparel brand Under Armour is embroiled in an alleged racial profiling incident.
Lulama Mali says she and her colleagues were the target of an Under Armour employee’s bigotry when they visited a pop-up store in Muizenberg on March 24. Mali alleges that Under Armour’s regional brand manager Brent Venter told her group to leave the store because he felt “unsafe”.
Mali, an avid basketball player, says she and some colleagues had arrived at the store just before 2pm and were among the last people in the store. It was then that an employee she had seen on previous visits to the pop-up store, began to hurry her. Mali says she assumed it was because it was nearly closing time.
She said the employee, who was later identified as Venter, told her, twice, that he was “feeling unsafe with all of us there”.
Venter allegedly said: “There’s more of you than there are of us, if anything were to happen, you could overpower us. So, I am feeling really unsafe.” Initially, Mali says she ignored him, but when he repeated himself it was then that she confronted him.
According to Mali, when Venter realised she was not going to back down and planned to escalate the matter, Venter began to minimise his statements and making apologies.
In the US, “retail racism,” or “shopping while black” are terms used to illustrate what happens when black customers are treated differently to their white counterparts through a variety of subtle but effective slights such as subpar service, false accusations of shoplifting or being reported to security guards or the police over a perceived infraction.
On April 12 this year, two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were led out of a Philadelphia Starbucks in handcuffs. The incident sparked a nationwide uproar after a video of what happened was posted online. A Starbucks employee had reportedly complained the men were trespassing, but they maintained they were waiting for a friend.
The viral video prompted a personal apology from the Starbucks CEO, Kevin Johnson and to counter the backlash of the incident, the coffee shop chain promised to close all 8 000 company-owned stores across the US on May 29 to train employees about unconscious bias.
The Mail & Guardian tried without success to get in contact with Under Armour International through its Media Relations email address. Kelley McCormick-Jenkins, who is listed as the senior vice president of Communications, initially responded to an email query saying she would get in touch telephonically, but is yet to get back to the M&G.
In South Africa, managing director Gareth Kemp and Venter, both declined to comment. Instead a statement sent by marketing head Lorrianne Cloete to the M&G reads: “Following the outcome of an internal investigation, Apollo Brands (Pty) Ltd has requested an independent hearing through the Human Rights Commission in South Africa in order to establish the most appropriate course of action. Following this outcome, the company will respond with a resolution that is in line with our company policies and that honours the principles of our democracy and the South African Constitution.”
Apollo Brands has been the official distributor/partner of Under Armour in South Africa for the last two years. Apollo runs six of the American brand’s stores and manages nearly 200 wholesale retail relationships in the country.
An employee from Under Armour who spoke to the M&G on condition of anonymity, says this incident does not surprise her as staff in the South African head office are “racially tone-deaf”.
Mali describes the incident as humiliating, disrespectful and discriminatory. She has since approached the South African Human Rights Commission to get the company to apologise to her publicly. The SAHRC confirmed it had received her complaint, adding that the reason for its delay in attending to her complaint is a large volume of complaints this month.
Mali says all she wants from Apollo Brands and Under Armour is an acknowledgement that the incident occurred.
“I don’t want to be bribed. I can afford the stuff. All I want is an acknowledgement that this happened, a public apology and for them to explain what happens to Brent next because I doubt this is the first time this has happened,” she said.
“Why are they protecting him?” Mali asks.
The Under Armour brand was founded in 1996 by former University of Maryland football player Kevin Plank.
Since the publication of this article, Kelley McCormick-Jenkins has gotten in touch with the M&G and issued this statement from Under Armour:
“On March 24, 2018 at an Under Armour store operated by the company’s distributor Apollo Brands (Pty) Ltd in Capricorn Park Muizenberg in South Africa, there was an alleged incident of discrimination and disrespect between a customer and an Apollo Brands employee. This is an allegation that Under Armour takes very seriously.
Under Armour has evaluated the results of an internal investigation conducted by Apollo Brands, and has spoken with and apologised to Ms. Mali on behalf of Under Armour. Additionally, Under Armour has informed Apollo of its desire for, and support of launching an independent hearing through The Human Rights Commission in South Africa in order to establish the most appropriate course of action. Under Armour is committed to finding a resolution that is in line with our values, which includes standing for equality. We stand against discrimination, disrespect or racism in any shape or form.”