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.


  1. Back when I was younger I was always stalked in stores by the people working there and boy oh boy did it make me angry. I have no idea what I did either. Oh well.

    Then there was this one time when Joey was still a baby (both kids may even have still been in diapers) and I was carrying an old college backpack as my diaper bag and the security guard at the grocery store I was trying to shop in (with both kids and my husband too) took me by the arm and escorted me out of the store and said, 'backpacks are not allowed'. I tried to tell him that it was just a diaper bag but he wanted to hear nothing of it.

    I was flaming mad and sent an e-mail to the chain and was given a weakish apology.

  2. ....Oh oh oh...and I totally want to hear your take on that North Carolina 9 year old boy who was kicked out of school for calling his teacher cute. Well he told a friend on the playground that his teacher is cute and another teacher over heard the conversation so the boy is in trouble for sexual harassment!! Grrr!!

  3. Anonymous9:29 PM

    You have every right to be angry.


  4. Righteous anger!

    I have the delicious muffins covered.

  5. Anonymous4:25 PM

    Yeah, I think you have a right to be angry. No disclaimers needed.

  6. Anonymous5:54 PM

    This type of behavior has been going on for a while now. When I was a teen (we won't talk about how long ago that was) I worked in a retail store and the manager would occasionally tell me to "watch that one". The only constant was that the people were always black; no big purse, not always dressed scruffily, no shifty glances, no groups of kids, etc.

    I never confronted my (white) manager because I was black and didn't want to get fired or have his opinion of me change. "Watch that one": that customer or that black person? Still makes me frustrated.

  7. That happens to me all the time! I thought it was just me! Thank goodness. Sorry but honestly it's just a major pain. It's like i spend my hard earned money here just like any other person so buzz off.
    You are such a better person than me, because i would have confronted that lady following you.

  8. I just did a training session with a partner on microgaressions, and this would have been a good example for us.

    What makes it different for me is your awareness and ability to not be enraged, and your reporting on how you processed it in the moment. Congrats on that Zen attitude!

    And I am amazed that white folks still haven't even heard of this. In almost every diversity training I've seen "Following Black Folks in Stores" is talked about. I mean, like its been so talked about that I thought white people would censor the behavior, or be trained not to do it by supervisors. Stores have been sued!

    Maybe you could have asked to speak to her supervisor, and when she denied it, you could have suggested that she better avoid even looking like she were, and alluded to suing. Why have any deference and end up dealing with the self-doubting emotions? Export those feelings, let them carry them. Let them learn to be careful how they are seen!

    Thanks for sharing your story DeAnna!

  9. Anonymous1:45 PM

    Racism has existed since there became more than one race on the earth. Probably even since someone gained a different hair or eye color from someone else. Unfortunately, it will continue to exist long after you and I are dead and gone. The fact that it consumes you so much is sad. Do I think you're an angry black woman? No. I think you're just angry. Period. This just happens to be a convenient and prevalent avenue for you to vent. Also sad. When all is said and done, at the end of your life, are you really gonna reflect back on other people's ignorance? It took you days to finish writing this? Really? Get over it. Better still...get over yourself.
    Just in case you're wondering if I'm a white racist "attacking you back", I assure you, I've been considered Negro, Black, African American, Black American and whatever else we've been considered for the past 55 years. Life is way too short to let something like a person's color or another person's reaction to my color take up a single moment of my life. Honestly, I feel sorry for you. Not because you were followed in a store, but because you let being followed in a store consume you. Shame.

  10. yourwhitefriend4:26 PM

    I would like to thank you, myblackfriend, for continuing to write and share thoughtful, insightful, and intelligent posts about your experiences as a black woman. I appreciate the fact that you ask these questions of us, your readers. The fact that you haven't "gotten over it/yourself", as Anonymous recommends that you do, allows us to talk about racism openly when you share it here on your blog. These things do happen to you, whether you want them to or not, and pretending like they don't happen is one of the many reasons that racism still exists in this country.

    I'm white. I'm guilty of being "racish" occasionally. I'm not proud of this, but the more I read things like your blog, the more I'm able to recognize racist behavior in myself and others, and the more I'm able to do something about it--call myself out, suggest alternative thought patterns to myself and others, etc. We as a culture may not ever "get over" racism entirely, but not letting yourself be bothered with it at all sure as heck isn't going to get us any closer to a solution.

    Thanks for fighting the good fight.

  11. Anonymous11:20 AM

    I think my black friend is your white friend.

  12. excellent post, dear. i'm doing some catching-up on your blog since it's winter break for the kids and i work at a school. i know i've exhibited some suspicious behavior in stores recently - and have been aware of it and was actually expecting an associate to hover over me but no one ever did (it's those blasted reusable shopping bags that i can fit in my purse...totally suspicious. yeah.)... i was thinking that maybe no one was tipped off because i was a young white woman, well-dressed, shopping in a discount store. no, not saying this because i think i'm better than anyone, just stating the facts (because i'm 100% sure i was well-dressed that day :-P) you've got every right to be ticked off. and btw i don't think you're consumed by it, as anonymous stated above.

  13. Anonymous11:29 AM

    That is how advertising works. They find out details about you and use them to tailor their advertising towards products that would suit you. Would you prefer if they tried to sell you shampoo for soft, blonde hair? I doubt it...

  14. This has happened to me more times than I can count, especially in my teens. I think your feelings are incredibly valid and your anger is indeed righteous.

    I appreciate your willingness to open yourself up and dialogue about things like this. Your intelligence and honesty are absolutely refreshing.