ST. PETERSBURG — The city's African-American deputy mayor, Kanika Tomalin, turned to Facebook over the weekend to call out a local clothing store for what she says was blatant racial profiling.
Tomalin said she was shopping at the Central Avenue boutique MISRED Outfitters on Saturday when a clerk asked her and her cousin to prove they were eligible for the store's "Healthcare Appreciation Day Discount." The clerk, Tomalin said, had not asked the white woman in line ahead of them to prove she was a health care worker.
Later that day, Tomalin blasted the store on her personal Facebook page:
"Was I really just blatantly racially profiled while shopping on the 600 block of our beloved 'Burg? Wow. #misreadinmisred."
Store owner Sara Stonecipher wasn't there when the incident took place, but after talking to her clerk, she's convinced that no one was racially profiled. She said she wished that Tomalin, a frequent customer whom Stonecipher said she has a good relationship with, had talked to her first before taking the dispute to social media. MISRED's Facebook page has been bombarded with critical comments.
There's a political tinge to this dispute: Stonecipher and her husband, Nathan, are supporters of former Mayor Rick Baker, who is locked in a bitter election fight with Tomalin's boss, incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Tomalin has since removed her Facebook post but has not said why. She wrote in the post that she wasn't encouraging any kind of retributive action against the store.
Tomalin told the Tampa Bay Times that she has no regrets about posting it. She remains convinced that she and her cousin, who are both African-American, were treated differently from a white customer. She was shocked that Stonecipher was upset that she had not personally contacted her.
"Why is it my obligation to protect her?" Tomalin said.
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For "Health Care Appreciation Day," MISRED Outfitters offered a $5 gift card for every purchase of $25 or more. "Just Show Your Badge!" the ad said. It was displayed 12 times inside the store, Stonecipher said, as well as on social media.
Tomalin said the white customer ahead of her at the register was asked by the clerk if she was a health care professional. That customer was given the deal, Tomalin said, without having to show proof that she worked in health care.
Tomalin said that when her cousin was at the register, she asked for the same discount. Tomalin said her cousin works for the BlueCross BlueShield insurance company. Then Tomalin said the clerk asked her cousin for proof.
When they pointed out the difference in the way they were treated compared to the white customer, Tomalin said, the clerk was "flippant and dismissive."
Stonecipher offered a different version of events from the store clerk, who she said was an 18-year-old Latina. The clerk said the customer did show her identification to prove she was a nurse. But the clerk said she overheard Tomalin and the cousin in line say they didn't qualify, so she didn't offer them the discount.
The owner said they weren't eligible for the deal anyway: They spent $21.60.
"That's really the crux of it," Stonecipher said. "We've always treated everyone professionally and respectfully. Honestly, it's mind-blowing to me."
Tomalin said the dispute wasn't about the deal. She was upset that they were treated very differently, that a white customer was not asked to produce identification and they were.
"The discount was never a variable in our discussions," Tomalin said, "and it's disingenuous to suggest that."
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The Stoneciphers are themselves prominent residents. Nathan Stonecipher is a co-owner of Green Bench Brewing Co. and chairman of the board of trustees at St. Petersburg College. They're listed as hosts for Baker's fundraiser in the Warehouse Arts District on Friday.
Sara Stonecipher said she hoped politics played no role in the dispute.
"I really hope that would not be the case," she said. "I'm very scared right now. I'm a small-business owner."
Given Tomalin's high profile, the store owner said it was unfair of the deputy mayor to subject her shop to online criticism before reaching out to her.
"Kanika has a lot of followers and is very influential because she is the deputy mayor," Stonecipher said. "I'm trying to be what St. Pete is all about. There was no need for this to happen."
Last week, Kriseman urged residents to buy from locally owned small businesses that had been hurt by Hurricane Irma. Stonecipher fears Tomalin's Facebook post will hurt business even more.
Tomalin said any suggestion that her Facebook post was politically motivated was "ridiculous."
"If it was political, I would not have been shopping in that store in the first place," Tomalin said. "It was not politically motivated. I would not ever, under any circumstances, subject anyone in the city to that for political advancement."
Tomalin left a voicemail for Sara Stonecipher, who responded with an email. But as of Wednesday, they had not spoken to each other. The incident has left bruised feelings all around.
"She has a lot of people who look up to her," Stonecipher said. "At the end of the day, nobody racially profiled them. She's got the upper hand in this. I'm just a small-business owner. I don't understand why she did this."
Tomalin said she feels no obligation to stay quiet when she was the one who was racially profiled.
"To be treated in a discriminatory manner while being serviced," Tomalin said. "That is what I experienced."