This morning, after I dropped the girls off at school, I donned my mom uniform (jeans, t-shirt, flip-flops, purse and sunglasses) and went out to run some errands. I needed to get them done and get home before noon because this weekend has the potential to be just ridiculously crazy-busy. I need to get prepared. So, off I went.
Image Credit: Consumerist Dot Com via Flickr
On my list of things to get were gift bags and birthday cards for the three (yes! three!) birthday parties that we are attending this weekend. Also, laundry detergent (for my never-ending piles of laundry), a wreath for my front door, some shorts for the girls and whatever else tickled my fancy. Clearly it was time for a stop at my favorite big box store, which I am not going to mention by name (although, if you read my blog, Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter often, I'm sure that you will be able to figure it out) because the occurrence that I'm about to describe to you isn't specific to this store. It just so happens that this is where it happened today.
Once in the store, I got my cart, and headed toward the gift wrap. As I approached I noticed that they had expanded the selection to the first two aisles. I started down the second aisle and saw a male customer standing in the area that I wanted to browse so I decided to start on the other side to give him a chance to finish. I found one bag then rounded the corner to the second aisle and the man was still there. I smiled and said "Excuse me" as I walked past looking at the gift bags.
He returned the smile and said, "No problem," but he was checking me out. Noticeably... like head to toe! For a moment I thought to myself, "Yes, Chica, you still got!" I know, and by now you know, that I'm a nut. Not to mention that once I looked at him, I realized that he was young enough to be my son younger brother, so, he probably was not there to try to pick me up; but he kept looking at me very intently. My phone rang in my purse and he looked at it very carefully; he was studying me. I was uncomfortable. I finally found the right sized gift bag appropriate for a soon to be 8-year-old and apologized for walking in front of him so many times. He smiled politely and I walked away in search of birthday cards. And Starbucks.
With my decaf, iced Americano with cream and classic in hand, I went to pick up the detergent then strolled right down the aisle toward garbage bags, and there was the guy from gift wrap again. I picked up my garbage bags and walked past, neither of us acknowledging the other. The girls needed shampoo and conditioner, which I picked up and then went to find them some summer shorts. On the way, I passed the mystery shopper three times. Apparently we were shopping for the same things? Except, I realized that he had no cart nor any merchandise. I had a pit in my stomach and my head was killing me. A clear sign that I was becoming stressed. When I got to the girl's clothing, I bent over to pick up some shorts on a lower shelf and stood up just in time to see the mystery shopper walk by and then I knew. I knew exactly what was happening. I was being followed by security. I had been profiled.
This was nothing new. It has happened before in different stores, and I dare say that it happens to most people of color at some point in their life. It's kind of like being pulled over for Driving While Black for Black males. It's a fact of life. It's uncomfortable and infuriating, but most of the time I ignore it. However, today was not a day that I could ignore it. I have no idea why, but you know how on some days somethings just gets under your skin and you can't let it go? Today was that day.
I get it, honestly. I think. Once, when I was in elementary school, my mom and I were in an upscale store when an over zealous security guard made the mistake of making himself a little too noticeable while following us around the store. Mom was irritated, but as I recall, we were searching for something specific that I needed for Easter -- shoes or a dress, perhaps. When we went up to the register with our merchandise, the sales lady made it a point to tell my mother that the selection was not on sale and would be full price. That was when my mother "blessed her soul" which is a polite way of saying that she put the sales lady in her place. She pointed out that not only could she read, but that she could definitely afford what she was purchasing. "Furthermore," Mom said, "You wouldn't have said that to a White woman and the security officer wouldn't have followed a White woman around the store! Now do your job and ring me up, please." After that we left, and I felt so ashamed, Not ashamed of my mother, but ashamed that the store employees had assumed that we were "less than". Being Black meant that we were "less than". And apparently, it also meant that we were perspective thieves.
This morning, I was alone -- my younger kids at school and my older ones wherever -- so I didn't have to worry about embarrassing them. On the other hand, I did think that what was about to happen could have been a very powerful teaching moment for all of us. You see, I had moved past just wanting to call out someone's BS. I wanted to have a positive impact on a really negative situation. As I headed toward the check out, I passed by my friend and stopped directly in front of him. I introduced myself by name and asked him how long he had been working in security. He was genuinely flummoxed. I almost laughed because I couldn't believe that he honestly thought that he was being sly. I then asked him what about me made him follow me around the store waiting for me to steal something? "Did I do something during our first encounter in the gift wrap aisle that made me seem suspicious?"
He said, "Not necessarily."
"So, what about me made you follow me?" I continued. By now he was a deep shade of red and I almost felt sorry for him, but not really. He told me that he pays close attention to all of the customers in the store. "You follow all, each and every customer around like that?" I asked.
"No, not really," he agreed with me. Yet, I pressed on as to what about me could have made him so suspicious. He would have rather been anywhere else, but standing there with me. That's when I asked him to talk to the manager with me. Not to get him in trouble, but to clarify some things.
Ultimately, this is what happened: I explained how I thought that I had been profiled as a potential shoplifter based on the color of my skin, the affluent neighborhood and the time of day. They gave some weak rebuttal, apologized profusely and eventually admitted that there was some validity to what I had just said. I then pointed out some of the dangers in their approach, the most obvious of which is that there may be shoplifters that don't fit that profile who go unnoticed and uncaught. Additionally, they are perpetuating a stereotype of African-Americans not belonging in certain neighborhoods, not being able to do their shopping like any other SAHM (during the day) and just being prone to being a thief. They saw me as being "less than". However, unlike when I was a kid, I wasn't ashamed. I was angry, and this time I had the opportunity and wherewithal to push back. Momma would be proud.
Hopefully, the next time that security officer observes another potential shoplifter, it will be through new eyes and with a new approach. I want to believe that I did some good here, and that one day my young children will not be faced with this situation. I'm doubtful, but hopeful.