In today's workplace, it's simply not acceptable to openly mistreat co-workers or customers because of their skin color. That's led some to devise subtle, inventive methods to discriminate, if you believe some workers' allegations -- as in the case of Laurice Rahme, owner of the fashionable Bond No. 9 perfume shop. She's accused of using code phrases to alert security when black customers entered her trendy New York store.
"We need the light bulbs changed" was the code phrase that Rahme, the 62-year-old French-born perfume mogul, used to warn store guards that a dark-skinned customer was about to enter the premises, according to a federal discrimination lawsuit filed by two former workers and obtained by New York's Daily News. The workers are seeking $3 million in their race bias suit against Rahme.
The former Bond No. 9 employees, Veronica Robledo and Karin Widmann, also allege that the racist conduct extended beyond customers. Rahme forbade Robledo, of Puerto Rican descent, from serving white customers because her "skin is dark," the lawsuit claims.
Rahme denied all charges during a telephone interview with AOL Jobs. In speaking to the Daily News, she characterized the pair as "disgruntled" workers.
"I have never had to defend myself against accusations of racism before," Rahme continued in a statement e-mailed to AOL Jobs through her store's publicist. "I will only say this once -- I am not racist." She says that she has yet to see the actual lawsuit, having only learned of it Monday.
In speaking to the Daily News, Robledo said that working at Bond No. 9 was like "torture," and the environment was such that "she was afraid to speak to a black customer. "
In February she decided to complain to Rahme about the culture of racism at the boutique and was joined, she says, by fellow store attendant Widmann. The two claim that Rahme responded by firing them and accusing them of stealing more than $25,000 through credit card fraud. Rahme says that her accusation of theft is true and that Robledo and Widmann used her customers' credit card information for their personal use.
"As a business owner, I must protect my employees and my business," her emailed statement went on to say. "Two of my employees were caught defrauding me, and I owed it to the rest of my employees and customers to take action."
Although Rahme dismisses the accusation of racism being leveled at her, she does concede that she used the "light bulbs" line to warn store workers of suspicious clients. But she says that the term was not exclusive to blacks, although she did tell the Daily News that each time her stores were robbed, the perpetrators were "all African-American."
And as a further defense, she noted how she once had a black boyfriend.
If coded language did hide racism in this case, it of course wouldn't be the first incident of its kind. In a recent case reported by AOL Jobs, a Massachusetts police officer, John Perrault, was fired from the Leominster Police Force in July for telling Boston Red Sox player Carl Crawford, "I hate Mondays." The phrase reportedly is known throughout the Bay State as a way of expressing distaste for blacks by linking them to an unpopular day of the week.
For Rahme, the lawsuit is a sour note in a storied career. Before opening her own store in 2001, Rahme worked as the international training director for Lancome. And in that role, Rahme spearheaded the famed brand's expansion into the Middle East.
In speaking to fragrance website Basenotes, Rahme spoke of how her multicultural experience affected her sensibilities about her business.
"I've learned to never assume that we are all alike. We have different tastes for foods, clothing, colors, for relationships," she said during the 2006 interview. "Beauty products must be adapted to our diverse tastes."
Indeed, it's clear Rahme is comfortable with some colors, at least. In an interview last year with The Fashion Spot website, the poobah of the pulchritudinous is seen sporting a luscious tangerine buttoned jacket.
In that interview, Rahme discussed the roll-out of the latest installation in her line of some 60 fragrances, each dedicated to a different neighborhood of New York. They range in price from $150 to $250. Rahme said she was inspired to launch the series after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In the line, she even included a fragrance for the historically black neighborhood of Harlem. In choosing the fragrance's name, she did however decide to go with a spelling associated with the neighborhood's Dutch roots, New Haarlem.
UPDATE: This story was updated at 2:40 EST on Aug. 14, 2012, with an interview with Rahme.
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