Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Just cinch it!

I've come up with my fair share of theories in my day. Some... we won't talk about here. But another that I recently conjured up has a lot to do with race and inequality, so this seems like a prime spot to put it out there.

As I think I've said before, I spent a fair number of my 32 (almost 33,) years of working in retail. Along with giving me the skill of expertly folding t-shirts and sweaters (even without the little board, tyvm) I also gained pretty in-depth knowledge of what retailers look for when trying to determine if someone is a potential shoplifter. Well, I guess I should say should be looking for. Because as the story that I am about to share illustrates, some sales associates are poorly trained and let their own preconceived notions get the best of them. But now I am getting ahead of myself.

The thing that might be surprising to know is that a lot of the warning signs of a potential shoplifter are things that might seem pretty innocuous. I am not going to list them all here, in case some criminal is googling "how to shoplift." But I will give one example: talking on your cell phone.

I know, right? I am sure that many of you have talked on your cell phone while browsing in a store.

Because so many of the warning signs are reasonable things like talking on your cell phone, good sales associates quickly learn that you need to have at least a couple of the indicators present before your antennae start going up. Which brings me to my story: I needed to do an exchange at a store recently. I wanted to return a gift that I had purchased for someone that I decided that they probably wouldn't want, didn't need, and might or might not appreciate. It was a total impulse buy. I also needed to get some coffee. I am not going to name the store, so we'll call it the Useless Crap and Coffee Store.

So, I go into the Useless Crap and Coffee Store to do my exchange. I have a bag with the useless crap inside. It is the same bag that I got when I made the original purchase, not some random bag from xyz-mart (that is another signal for potential shoplifting, coming into a store with a bag from another store that is not nearby.) When you come into a store with a bag from that store, good sales associates know that you are most likely coming in to do a return or exchange. WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT I WAS DOING.

So, I come in with my bag and immediately go to the coffee section. As I am perusing the coffee selections, a young sales associate comes up and stands about 18 inches away from me. She doesn't say anything, she just starts touching the items on the shelf in front of her. I would say "straightening," but I really don't think that is what she was doing. I did not turn to look at her or acknowledge her in anyway, because that is what a shoplifter would do. So, I stand there for awhile, decide what coffee I am going to get, pick it up and start to head towards the register. The time that I decide to leave the coffee area is the exact same time the sales associate decides she is finished touching the items near the coffee. As I was heading up to the register, I saw some items on a baker's rack and I picked one up and looked at it. When I put it down, the sales associate decides to touch the baker's rack too. That is when I really started to get pissed off.

But, I just went to the front of the store, did my exchange and left. The woman who checked me out was friendly, which helped me to be less mad. She told me about how coffee gives her diarrhea. Not exactly appropriate cashier/customer small talk, but I appreciated her making the effort nonetheless.

Now I am going to tell you my theory, and then I'm gonna get all deep and hearfelt on your brain.

My theory is that to many poorly trained sales associates, being black is one of the warning signs of being a potential shoplifter. I know that is not some groundbreaking revelation, but let me explain. I am not saying that black people are constantly followed around in stores. I know that is the popular narrative in our society. I acknowledge that it may be the experience of others, but it is not mine. Most of the time when I am shopping, I believe that I am treated like white customers--whether that is good, bad or indifferent.

What I am saying is that if a black person has one of those innocuous warning signs I mentioned earlier, them being black is considered another warning sign, so now they have two. I really don't believe that a white, almost 33-year-old female, that was dressed like I was dressed, and acting the way I was acting would have elicited the same behavior from the sales associate that I did. So basically if I am doing anything out of the ordinary for a shopper, I am going to arouse suspicion. As I typed that last sentence I thought to myself, "Even just walking into these places arouses something, BECAUSE THERE ARE HARDLY ANY BLACK PEOPLE WHERE I LIVE." But that is something of a tangent.

Suffice it to say, most sales people have enough common sense to know that to just start following me around as soon as I walk in the door would be racist, and they dont want to be racist, because racist people are bad. So they just leave me be. But if I come in with a bag --Oh, it's on.

Meanwhile, a white person is gong to have to be acting all kinds weird before someone notices them. That's why shoplifting costs companies billions of dollars each year, because most people don't get noticed.

Now the deep heartfelt part: The bag I had was from the store I was in, so like I said earlier, that shouldn't have even been considered a warning sign. That makes me sad that this girl chose to behave the way that she did.

There were three reactions that I could have had when this was occuring.

1) I could have punched her in the face. That is what my Id wanted to do.
2) I could have calmly turned to her and said, "There is no need for you to hover over me while I am shopping in this store. I am here to do an exchange (then I would have pulled out my useless crap and its receipt.) Your behavior gives the impression that you think I am a common criminal, and I don't appreciate that."
3) I could have acted like nothing happened and gone about my business, which is what I did.

I realize there are proably an infinite number of other reactions I could have had, but I don't have all day here, people.

The reasons I didn't do number one include:

I'm a lover, not a fighter. Additionally, I do not like jail.
Also, punching her in the face would have reinforced the stereotype that black people are violent. I learned in therapy that I can't carry the burden of positively representing the black race on my shoulders, but some things are easier said than done.

The reasons I didn't do number two: I didn't think I would be able to stay calm enough to effectively get my message across. Also, I believed that there was a very high possibility that she would just deny her behavior/the motivations for her behavior, which would have made me even more upset. As Dr. Phil says, "You can't change what you don't acknowledge." And if she wasn't going to acknowledge, there was really no point.

Why did I want to punch her in the face? I have to believe that this is a question that some of you are asking yourselves.

What is the big deal, myblackfriend? I don't really see what she did that was so wrong? It's not like she called you the n-word or something!"

I can see that point. She stood a little too close to me, didn't say anything, and touched some stuff I touched. Not really assault and battery worthy.

And that's when it hit me (no pun intended.) I wanted to punch her in the face for Emmett Till. For Troy Davis. For the reality that people like her get promoted to manager, and teach their associates that this is a good way to conduct business. Because there are people in the 21st century who think that because the name on the application says Shameka, assume that Shameka "wouldn't be a good fit" at Useless Crap and Coffee, and don't even call her in for an interview.

And this my friends, is the crux of the argument. It's also the reason why we have such a difficult time discussing race in this country. I see what happened at the store and Emmett Till as closely connected. It's hard for me to explain how/why, and if you can't see it, that makes it hard for us to dialouge. Not impossible, but hard.

Yes, that was in the past, but SOME REALLY FUCKED UP SHIT HAPPENED IN THE PAST. Oh, and I just remembered a black guy got murdered by being repeatedly run over by a group of white teenagers someplace down South a few months ago. That wasn't the past.

It has taken me about two weeks to complete this post. Everything after me coming up with the hilarious name for the store was written after a long break.

During that time I was thinking, "Just how annoyed was I by that girl's behavior in the store? Perhaps I should attempt to quantify it for my readers." I decided that I was as annoyed as you might be if your friend showed up to meet you an hour late without calling. Not cool, but not the end of the world.

"I wonder if someone is going to try to attribute her behavior to something other than my race?" You can do that if you want to, but I was there and you weren't. Also, ask yourself why you're so resistant to accepting the idea that what I am saying is true.

"Is everyone going to think I am an angry black woman?" Keep in mind, eveything I write about on this blog revolves around this one theme, and it is only one aspect of my life. I don't write about how I had a bomb ass muffin at Mimi's Cafe yesterday, because the subtitle of the blog is not thoughts on delicious muffins . I am generally a nice, positive, happy person and I think most people who know me well know that.

AND, I am angry too. It's the anger Sam Jackson's character talks about in Pulp Fiction. Righteous anger.

Ok, I just googled it and he doesn't say righteous anger, he says furious anger. But he does say righteous in the speech, and you get my point. I have every right to be angry, and the idea that I don't exists solely to keep me (and you) from trying to change things.

I'm gonna end it here. If you have any thoughts that you would like to share--leave me a comment.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The wheels on the bus go round and round...

Today, I wanted to share what I think is a little known fact about the Montgomery bus boycott.

Now, we all know the standard story. One day, Rosa Parks was coming home from work and decided that she wasn't going to give up her seat on the bus to a white guy. She got arrested, and a year long bus boycott ensued. Finally, the bus company caved and decided to let black people sit wherever they wanted. Pretty straightforward, right?

The little known fact part is that Rosa Parks didn't just spontaneously say, "Oh Lawd, I am just too tired to move to the back of the bus today." The boycott had been planned for quite sometime; they already had the mimeographs ready to go publicizing it once she got arrested. They were originally going to have a teenage girl (her name was Claudette or Cassandra or something like that,)  because they thought it would be a good strategic move to have a child get sent to jail. They eventually decided against her though, because she was an unwed mother and they didn't think that would make her the best poster person.

I think this fact is important because it shows that the boycott from the very beginning was a very deliberate, organized act. It challenges the narrative of the sassy, outspoken black woman. Now, there is nothing wrong with sassy and outspoken black women, but it is always helpful to add to the variety of representations of how black women are/can be in the world.

The reason that I think this is a little known fact is because the only place that I have ever heard about it is in an elective class that I took my freshman year of college. There were probably like 15 of us in the class, but for some reason we were placed in a lecture hall that could seat 500. That last part isn't really relevant to the story, but I share it because I always thought it was weird.

I am curious to know if you knew this, and if you did know it, how/when you learned about it. So, if you'd like to share that answer with me, or just talk about anything else that's been on your mind, leave me a comment.

Oh, also Happy Veterans Day and Happy 11/11/11. I made one heck of a wish at 11:11 today, and I hope you did too (: