Shopping While Black

Like many television viewers, I’ve become addicted to the show Mad Men. The retro-themed show, the chronicles of mysterious marketing advertiser Don Draper 1960s New York City, is steeped in the themes of the time: the attitudes toward women and minorities; the evolution of traditional family values; and the rise of Civil Rights.

It’s entertaining television for its soap-opera elements and flawed characters. And it’s a mind-fuck to process the cowardly, ignorant viewpoints presented on the show before going out into a society that desperately clings to the remaining fragments of days gone by. It’s too bad that some people in the modern day want a return to those limited values that people fought against. Being black in this country has afforded me, like more than 30 million African Americans, a different cultural experience than many. I am unfortunately used to being scrutinized on a higher level for my intelligence, professionalism, behavior and appearance.

How did SHE get here?*

And it’s a strange coincidence that these attitudes are seen in the shopping experience. And these have all come into play in my years as a consumer. There is truth to the observations and jokes that blacks are watched more closely than other races when shopping in stores. I can count on hundreds of octopus arms the times that a salesperson has asked me if I needed help repeatedly, trailed behind me while I browsed merchandise, or made sure to look busy in an area mere feet away from where I frequent. This has happened in all types of stores (electronics, home furnishings, furniture, video game) of all affluence; that is no isolated incident.

Here’s a good (autobiographical!) example of those experiences:

It’s not even the staff that get into the habit. Today, I was shopping at Dillard’s–itself a department store that looks like a relic of the Mad Men days–and decided to check out the home goods. (That’s how I party.) After making my way through linens and the group of salesladies conversing nearby, I found myself in the bath towels section. I felt eyes on me and turned to see a middle-aged white woman staring in my direction. No one else was around, and she didn’t appear to work there, so I went about my business of feeling up the towels for maximum softness. A few seconds later, I felt those eyes on me again. I look and see her staring, staring like she wanted to burn the black off of me. I brushed it off as her narrow-minded view of blacks, as if me being clad in an aqua polo shirt and clean jeans didn’t match up to her standard appearance of a negro.

Isn’t it sad that this book has to exist?

But then those eyes were on me again, and I could no longer ignore it. As she stood transfixed on me like she was a stupid mannequin, I decided to play the situation for laughs: I walked past her, smiled, waved and said hello as I went to another section. She was stone-faced. When I turned around to see if she would resume her staring, she fixed her gaze in the opposite direction, ensuring such a mistake would not happen again.

I partially use humor as a coping mechanism, to keep myself from crying or being frustrated about the world around me. And while there are fewer things to cry about as our society slowly moves forward, there are times where it is tough to wear a genuine smile. The next time you watch Mad Men, see if the black characters ever smile without being prompted–professionally or culturally. That struggle, as trivial as it is to equate to being a black consumer in this day and age, is another way that people can take a page from fiction and improve their reality.

*I know that Mad Men character Paul Kinsey briefly dates Sheila White, the woman in the picture.
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