Tatiana Denson thought carefully about what she would wear the morning she walked into PNC Bank in Tampa, FL last August to meet with a bank manager. Sporting a skirt and a collared shirt, Denson purposefully pulled her hair back into a ponytail.
“I didn’t want my hair to be too distracting,” she told theGrio. “I wanted to make sure that I was presentable because I’m coming in for business, and so I dressed accordingly.”
As a 40-year-old, Black woman, who previously ran for political office in the Florida House of Representatives, Denson knows it only takes a split second for people to judge you. Denson had experience addressing the past when old misdemeanor infractions emerged during her campaign, and although the bank wouldn’t be prying that deeply, she needed the meeting to go off without a hitch.
Denson was there to open a business checking account for her newest venture, Tatiana Denson Brands, a talent management agency she started after the end of bad relationship, which nearly destroyed her financially.
“That business checking account was more than just a business checking out. It was going to be the economic step I needed for me to get to the next level,” said Denson.
Unfortunately, within 15 minutes of entering the bank, she says the branch manager began a “humiliating” interrogation.
“Why did you set up your business this way? “Why would the IRS give you a letter?” Denson said the branch manager asked skeptically and looked intently over the articles of incorporation she had her lawyer prepare for the meeting.
“He just kept doing everything to discredit the presentation of my business,” said Denson. “I already know again the prejudice that exists, but it seemed like I wasn’t good enough to open a business checking account when I had everything I needed?“
After the manager began to ask what “kind of people” Denson’s talent agency managed and what genre of music they would explore, she expressed her dissatisfaction and requested to speak with a different representative.
According to Denson, the manager refused and told her to leave his office or he would call the police, snatching her phone as she tried to record the incident. Denson said he then shouted out to the lobby, “Someone call 9-1-1!”
Who you gonna call?
It’s an all too common action taken against Black citizens who find themselves in confrontational experiences with those who are not Black. It is also what inspired Denson to file a racial discrimination lawsuit against PNC Bank last week.
“It was like I was having an out of body experience. I had to ask myself, is this really happening? I was more than humiliated. Do you think he would’ve called the police on a young, White girl who was opening a bank account?” asked Denson.
“And, not to mention, there was a Black security guard stationed right outside of his office…I wasn’t irate enough for that security guard to tell me to leave the bank, but I was irate enough for him to call the police.”
Denson’s lawyer, Yechezkel Rodal, has represented other Black bank customers who also profess to being racially profiled during their attempts to cash checks or get basic banking services.
“I don’t refer to it as racism. It’s an implicit racial bias and a lot of studies [have] been done on this, especially in the law enforcement context where it’s not overt racism and it’s even worse,” Rodal told theGrio.
“Based on years of Hollywood movies, and shows like ‘Cops,’ American culture has been bred to believe in this implicit racial bias that Black people are violent and lazy,” he explained.
Rodal is using the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1866, Section 1981, meant to ensure citizens of African descent have “the same right that a white citizen has to make and enforce contracts” and prohibits discrimination based on race. It’s considered by experts to be America’s first civil rights law to provide equal protection under the law for Black people.
For people in positions with the power to open or close doors of economic opportunity for Black people, it’s a law that creates accountability.
“These people will tell you, ‘Well, we have Black friends.’ They may even have Black family members,” but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have this implicit racial bias when you have one-on-one interactions,” said Rodal.
He also believes that the use of 9-1-1 to control and remove Denson from the bank is undoubtedly racialized.
“This is also about bringing awareness to the weaponization of calling 9-1-1, which is a growing epidemic in this country including Corporate America, whether it’s Starbucks or Wells Fargo…doesn’t matter. They just call the police and that in itself can have very dire consequences,” said Rodal.
“And if you listen to the 9-1-1 call, they had no idea why the woman at the bank was even calling. She couldn’t answer any basic questions and had to give the phone to the manager. That in itself shows that there was no threat.”
Denson said that when the police officer arrived, he almost immediately dismissed the incident.
“He didn’t even ask for my name because that’s how calm I was,” Denson recalls.
After Denson complained to PNC Bank about the August 28, 2018 incident, Matthew Peterman, a company client relations manager, sent Denson a letter dated March 13, 2019, saying that she “became irate” during the conversation, was not allowed to record in the bank branch and “race was not a factor” in the incident.
In an email response to theGrio, PNC Bank issued a statement in response to the recent filing of the lawsuit stating: “We currently are in the process of reviewing the facts of this case.”
The branch manager named in the lawsuit did not reply to theGrio‘s inquiry for comment at the time of publication.
Denson wants surveillance footage of the incident pulled to prove that she was not a threat to anyone and calling the police was simply unnecessary. She is also calling on banks to change their interview protocol, and stick to a uniform script for asking all customers the same questions when they open accounts.
“I chose PNC because they said that they were focused on women business owners and minorities,” said Denson, who ultimately opened an account with TD Bank instead. Still, the pain of rejection and humiliation linger.
“I’m a business owner so I took that seriously. And, let’s just say I wasn’t. I’m still a person. I’m still a human being.”
UPDATE: On 9/6/19, a representative for PNC Bank updated the company’s response to the lawsuit, stating: “We take the allegations made very seriously but disagree with the facts alleged in the complaint, and we will respond appropriately in court.”
Do you have a horror story about #BankingWhileBlack? Contact theGrio’s Deputy Editor Natasha Alford at @natashasalford to share your testimony.