On Shopping While Black
Recently I spent a week in Sydney. And it was a wonderful week. I had job interviews, commenced my diploma, caught up with some amazing friends, met a lot of awesome new people and enjoyed myself immensely. Then something happened on Friday afternoon that cast a dark cloud over my entire week.
I was shopping in Newtown and remembered I had to renew a script for stomach problems that I have blogged about before. I went into a chemist and was immediately struck by how crowded it was, with very narrow aisles. I made my way to the back of the store to put in my script all the while incredibly aware of the security guard that had followed me down the aisle.
I stood and waited for my script, even though I would liked to have browsed the shampoos and hair treatments aisle with all their yellow sale tags. Buying hair products comes a close third in my list of favourite things. I resisted though, because by now the security guard wasn’t even pretending he wasn’t watching me, the intensity of his stare could have burned holes in paper.
At last my name was called and I was given my script in a clear plastic puzzle box to take to the front of the store and pay. The line to the cash registers was long enough that its end was a little down the aisle on the edge of the store. I took my spot in the back of the line and it was at this point the security guard realised he couldn’t see me, so he actually came and stood next to the man in front of me. It was around this point that I started to get angry. I could feel it spreading in my chest, an overwhelming need to clench my fists.
Finally the line snaked forward enough so he could go and take his place by the door, yet still see me. I gave my puzzle box to the register operator, paid for my purchase and walked towards the door behind a lady slowly pushing her walker and the man who was in front of me in the line. The security guard ignored these people, and asked to search my bag. I sighed inwardly, this is something I am so used to doing that I didn’t even think twice, With my jaw clenched I opened my bag and let him snoop.
This is when the fun began. If your idea of fun is being embarrassed in front of a whole store full of people. I carry a pack of zantac with me everywhere, and have done for quite a while. About a week before my trip to the chemist I bought some cod liver oil capsules. Someone had recommended them to me and they were on special at a supermarket I was visiting so I grabbed them.
The security guard wanted to see receipts (even for the medication I had bought not 60 seconds before). Luckily I had the receipt for the zantac buried way down deep in the bottom of my bag, it took me almost 15 minutes of going through a hundred scraps of paper to find it, but I found it. Not so lucky for the cod liver oil capsules though. I explained to him that I had bought them weeks ago, no I didn’t have the receipt. The smile on this mans face when he realised I couldn’t provide proof of purchase for the vitamins was something to see. I imagine people look like that when they win the lotto.
By this time my anger was making itself felt by kicking up my heart rate a few notches. There are stores here in my hometown that I refuse to even enter because being followed and having my bag checked does not an enjoyable shopping experience make. If I had known this chemist had an incredibly eager security guard I would not have set foot in it.
A woman wearing what I assumed was the stores uniform, who had been watching this exchange for quite some time came over and asked if there was a problem. Yes, I told her, this man is accusing me of stealing. The security guard waved the cod liver oil capsules at her, and she said, we don’t carry that brand here. I imagine people who are just one number away from winning the lotto have the same expression on their faces as the one that flickered across the security guards face.
The security guard did not apologise, he didn’t even look at me when he said, I’m just doing my job. I asked him if his job was to follow black people around his store and make them feel uncomfortable. No answer. The woman who intervened didn’t apologise. No one apologised for embarrassing me, making me feel like a criminal or for falsely insinuating that I had stolen from them.
I can’t even figure out why this particular incident upset me as much as it did. I am used to having my bag searched when I leave stores. It’s not as if this is something that has never happened to me before. This upset me so much that instead of leaving Sydney on Saturday, I changed my travel to Friday night, breaking plans to do something I was looking forward to all week.
Truth be told, I am still angry about what happened. I’m angry that while this man was following me around, and searching my things, he paid no attention at all to other customers in the store. This man assumed because of the colour of my skin that I would be the one who he would follow. And what exactly would have happened if the brand of cod liver oil capsules I had bought the week before were stocked at that store? Would the police have been called? Would I now have a shoplifting charge against me?
I keep asking myself, when does it end? When does my colour stop being the reason I get harassed and treated with disrespect? I am no longer a young woman. Lines have begun appearing on my face. Every line a mark of wisdom learned from a journey that has never been smooth. Outward signs that denote maturity and a deeper understanding. Every line hard come by and every line loved and cherished. I am now a woman. And in becoming a woman I had somehow thought this would mean I would be accorded respect. Wishful thinking in this instance. Because it doesn’t matter how old I become, I will never be accorded the respect of the benefit of the doubt when I walk into a store, I will always be singled out, followed and have my bag searched.