Sometimes you don’t notice an oddity if it happens all the time. I tend to go about my life, trying to assume the best of everyone, until someone shows me otherwise. For the most part, I assume that others do the same.
But something troubling happened recently, close to home, in a town that’s not as diverse as our own town. Sometimes I and my two sons, ages 13 and 10, visit libraries and bookstores in that town.
Recently, we walked through the doors of the town’s independent bookstore. We’d visited it the first time a week before and bought gifts for friends that sat gift wrapped in the trunk of my car.
During our first visit, a woman on staff greeted us and helped us find what we needed. As we browsed, a male staff member watched us closely, popping up in nearly every aisle, and his gaze didn’t seem friendly. I didn’t put two-and-two together about the strangeness of the staff focusing mainly on our family.
The clerk kept watching
On our second visit, my oldest son entered the store with his well-worn clipboard, containing a few sheets of paper and a No. 2 pencil. He’s talented and can spend hours drawing. Dressed conservatively, he sat in a corner, while my younger son and I browsed. When my younger son found a lost hairband, we gave it to the male clerk who was again watching us.
Both times we visited, we were the only people of color inside the store.
As we exited the bookstore, the male staffer followed us out and told us to stop. I saw his face wearing a tight, righteous expression. I looked around, but there was no one else there but us.
[bctt tweet=”Both times we visited, we were the only people of color inside the store. ” username=”womenoftheelca”]
Then the man told my 13-year-old that he needed to see his clipboard. “No!” my son said. (He never shows his drawings until he’s done.) “Why?” I demanded, looking directly at this man.
“We sell clipboards just like that, and I need to make sure he didn’t take it,” the man said.
“You’re accusing my son of stealing? Are you serious?” I asked. I told my son, to give me the clipboard immediately. My son’s eyes began to tear up.
As I showed the man the clipboard, my voice grew louder. “Why would you accuse my son of doing such a thing? We’ve had this clipboard for years. How could you think that let alone say it?!”
He glared at me, and I said to my children, “We are never coming back to this store again.”
We returned our purchases
Once in the parking lot, I remembered the gifts in my trunk and marched us back into the store, despite my older son’s protests that I was embarrassing him.
The male clerk saw me coming and disappeared. Approaching the female clerk, I told her that I wished to return my items bought the previous week. She did not meet my eyes, but looked down and started to unwrap the ribbon and paper and work on the return.
I asked a question: “Do you sell clipboards like this one my son is holding in your store?”
Looking miserable, she shook her head and said, “No.”
“You know, I am only making this return because I am not willing to spend our money at a store where my precious child, who happens to have brown skin, is assumed to be stealing. I do not believe this would have happened to a White child in this store.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “We want this store to be a safe place.” Tears welled up again in her eyes.
“I can understand that,” I said. “But I think it would be wise for your entire staff to get training in how to treat people who enter your store, especially people who are not White. I’m telling you so that hopefully this will not happen to another child. Hopefully, another family won’t be assumed to be criminals because of the color of their skin.”
My son wasn’t the only child inside that bookstore, that day, who was carrying items they owned. What was the man thinking?
Data report unfair treatment
Isn’t this odd? Well, not really. A 2013 Pew Research Center poll found that 44 percent of Black people and 35 percent of Hispanic people report unfair treatment in stores and restaurants, compared to 16 percent of White people.
Some people call this overt racism, hidden under the mask of loss prevention, “Shopping While Black.”
Back in the car, my vulnerable, open-hearted oldest son shared that he felt humiliated. My youngest son was angry. Both asked why the man was racist.
I told my sons that the man might not think of himself as a racist, but that his actions assumed something bad about my son because of the color of his skin. That was a big mistake.
But we have power, too, I said. And today we used our power to demand our money back and to tell the clerk we won’t spend our money in a place that treats us unfairly.
My 13-year-old son said he understood and told me he was proud of me, proud of us.
I’m proud of us, too. But what I don’t tell my sons is that I am already dreading the next time we travel to this or another a non-diverse town. And what if, despite my bold words, the store still chooses to do nothing?
Elizabeth Hunter is editor of Gather.