I wrote a blog post last year about the perils of shopping in stores while being black, chronicling the feelings of being watched like a pending sniper victim while perusing retail shelves. And about a year later (a year and a day!), I found myself in such a position once more–with a different ending.
I was visiting friends in San Francisco over Memorial Day, and I decided to take a shopping excursion to Union Square. One of my favorite things to do in the city is to shop–never mind other popular things like smoking pot like a chimney or paying way too much for rent–and I love wandering in and out of the downtown shops, looking at the different clothes, shoes and accessories. My journey led me to the Westfield-owned mall on Market Street, and I stopped into a sports shop. I was on a buzz of happy feelings (I had left Bloomingdales, one of my favorites because there are none in Arizona), but that would soon be snuffed out.
Upon entering the store, I was greeted by two men–one behind the register and the other on the sales floor–and I replied back and started looking around. The store was divided into four quadrants, separated by partial walls, and the clerk that was on the floor was VERY mobile; while I looked through the stacks of San Francisco Giants merchandise, I noticed he was a few feet away messing with clothing. I was on my guard (again, I knew I was a black shopper), but I wanted to see if it was a coincidence. I walked to the back of the store and looked at more items. The clerk loitered nearby, pawing through merchandise.
My senses heightened; I was now agitated, upset, annoyed. I thought that it could not happen three times in a row, and so I moved over to the far-right area of the store, and sure enough, the clerk was there within earshot. (Talk about great service!) Never mind that there were about 1-2 other customers in the store that hadn’t been acknowledged; I was the one worth shadowing! And clearly, he wouldn’t stop until I left, and so I did.
All I wanted to do was buy some Oakland Athletics stuff. (In San Francisco? PSHAW!) But I felt like my money and my presence weren’t wanted. And that tipped my emotional scales to angry. I was outside of the store, and I realized that the customer, me, had to speak up.
I walked back in and approached the employee manning the register. He greeted me, and I, adrenaline coursing through my veins but knowing full well not to go full-on angry black man (the opposite of my blog persona!), launched into a monologue with the quiet, steely elegance that is often done through clenched teeth. I told him (paraphrasing here) that I was uncomfortable with my perception of being followed, that my thoughts of a perceived store policy to have employees follow customers discouraged me from wanting to buy anything, and that such store practices would disparage others from wanting to shop there. He took the statement in stride, acknowledged my remarks, and asked if I wanted to look around at the items. I audibly refused and left.
I would not have spoken up in the past about my discomfort, but like Lethal Weapon’s Lt. Murtaugh once said, “I’m getting too old for this shit.” Hell, we ALL are. I know that racism still exists despite it being 2013, and people need to be called out on their behavior.
I also realize some may feel that I was being paranoid, that I was looking to find racial profiling where there was none. I do have tendencies of being suspicious at times, but that’s from 33 years of being a black man in this crazy country. So my shoes are a bit warier to be in. Such is the plight of shopping while black.