Bud Kennedy

‘Shopping while black’? Rene Syler’s daughter tagged ‘shoplifter’

Former WFAA/Channel 8 and CBS anchor Rene Syler with daughter Casey Parham.
Former WFAA/Channel 8 and CBS anchor Rene Syler with daughter Casey Parham. Coutresy Rene Syler

A good friend’s daughter wandered into a gift shop for a wallet and found only hatred.

Almost the moment Casey Parham, 19, picked out a quilted Vera Bradley wallet in a South Carolina resort shop, she says, a middle-age white woman turned to a fellow clerk and said out loud: “Shoplifter.”

I’m sure clerks have said that before. But not to someone whose mom can tell the world.

“Here’s this bright, shiny college girl with a great smile, and that’s the first thing they think?” said Rene Syler, the former CBS and WFAA/Channel 8 anchor now writing online at goodenoughmother.com.

“Every African-American can remember an experience where the innocence was lost, where the color of their skin made a difference when they were just walking, or driving, or shopping,” she said by phone.

“I never expected that here.”

The family lives in New York but has a home on Kiawah Island, a beach resort south of Charleston. Parham and a white friend rode up on bicycles to a Carolina Girls gift shop.

The Charleston-based company’s website says the stores are for “true southern ladies.”

When Syler told the story on social media, the store’s original response was truly Southern: “We are very sad to see these comments,” plus an apology “for anything … that upset your daughter,” as if Facebook or Parham were somehow at fault.

(Later, the company blamed another shopper and the owner asked to meet and “offer healing.” Syler said the girls didn’t see anyone else.)

Syler’s Facebook post tagged #IStandWithCasey was shared more than 1,000 times.

“They acted as if nothing happened and nothing was wrong,” Syler said.

A spokeswoman for Indiana-based Vera Bradley contacted the family to apologize directly, along with officials from other fashion lines sold in the store.

“The idea that somebody would say something like that out loud and laugh — that’s what bullies do,” Syler said.

Then, when Charleston TV stations reported the incident, the online unsigned comments were — well, you can imagine.

On the social media site Yelp, brand-new reviewers popped up criticizing Syler and her daughter under what appeared to be fake names such as “Shanequia” using recognizable photos of African-American celebrities.

“This is my personal opinion,” she said, “but I believe the current political climate has become so coarse that it allows us to say things we would only have thought.

“Look, ‘shopping while black’ is a real thing, OK? It’s not in somebody’s imagination. Just because it doesn’t happen to you doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”

Parham is headed back to music studies soon at the University of Florida.

“Originally, I thought this where Casey lost her innocence,” Syler said.

“It was the first time she’d been profiled, the first time she’d been followed in a store. But this also was the first time Casey found her voice and learned the value of her dollars. She put the wallet down and the store lost a $12 sale.”

That was not the only lesson.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.