After George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder, the talk everywhere was focused how different life is when you’re white vs when you’re not white. Because I’m not an asshole, I got that. I understood that. At least in a way that acknowledges this difference.
But one thing I kept hearing repeatedly was how people of color get followed in stores. I’ve heard this throughout my life. And if I’m honest, I’ll admit I only sort of half believed it. I just believed it as a kind of example that’s not really prevalent but sometimes happens and it’s a representative example situation of something doesn’t happen to white people. I mean, being followed in stores is so creepy. It’s really hard for me to imagine that happening to someone regularly. And it’s even harder for me to imagine that people would actually do that. It’s like the most cliche racist shit. If I worked in a store, I’d probably think to myself, “Wow, you know what would be horribly predictably racist and everyone would hate me if I did it? Following black people around.” Following people is creepy. It’s imposing. It’s terrible customer service. It’s your I’m-an-obviously-super-racist-piece-of-shit tell. Who would even frequent an establishment where employees did that? Who would not fire employees who do that? That can’t be a thing that happens.
Yet, every black person’s story I was hearing about how different our lives are involved a statement about how they get followed around in stores. Not “I was followed when I was a kid.” “I get followed.” Now. In the present. Regularly. And how sometimes that following is less horribly creepy-stalky if they’re dressed in business attire.
It was the first time that it struck me that following is something that HAPPENS HAPPENS. This is not an experience I can even begin to fathom. My experiences as a white woman are so different that these other experiences don’t even make sense to me.
And I spent a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to be in a store as a white woman. I’m often asked if I need any help finding what I need and I either say yes, and get that help, or I say no and I’m left completely alone until I indicate I would no longer like to be left alone… or at least until I look lost or sick.
I know that cell phones used to set off the shoplifter alarms by doors at stores. I know this because for years, I would walk out of a building, an alarm would go off, I’d turn around and look at an employee and they’d say “That’s just your phone.” And they’d wave goodbye to me. No one really ever asked to see my phone, and only occasionally did anyone even ask if I had a phone at all. No one has ever checked my purse or pockets. I’ve never once in my life ever had to talk to security to clear up a situation where an alarm went off.
Hell, I’ve returned home from the mall to realize I had security tags still attached to my clothes.
I’ve gotten gifts with security tags still attached, and I’ve walked into the store without a receipt, told the staff that I got this gift and I needed the sensor removed. And they did it. But what’s more telling is that I know how to remove a security tag from clothes safely because I’ve had to do it enough times since going back to the store always seems like too big of a hassle.
Not only do people not care if I could maybe be a shoplifter, they don’t even care when there’s good reason to believe I probably am in the process of shoplifting.
It’s fairly common that no one bothers to check if I am under the maximum item limit in a dressing room. And usually no one counts how many items I’m bringing in anyway. They ask. I say five or whatever and they hand me the little tag that says five then I give it back to them when I’m done.
These experiences are so hard to reconcile with a world where Barack Obama is followed around these same spaces. And I think it was the first time I really got how blinding white privilege can be. I mean, I knew these things happened. I believed the people who talked about it. But I still kind of envisioned it as the type of thing that happens to young men of color who look like they like rap, not justifiably mind you, but I could at least fathom that. Or occasionally. And mostly by racist asshole in corners of the South. But this happening everywhere? Every day? This makes no sense. This is not how you treat people. It’s so far from the white lady world I live in.
I just can’t understand.
Are you ever forced to think about how your every day experiences are completely colored by how people perceive you? Have you ever had a hard time understanding someone else’s experience because it was so far removed from yours even if you believed them? Are you ever shocked at how other people are treated compared to you?
The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET.