Big Box


This morning after I dropped the girls off at school, I donned my mom uniform (jeans, t-shirt, flip-flops, purse and sunglasses) and went out to run some errands.  I needed to get them done and get home before noon because this weekend has the potential to be just ridiculously crazy-busy.  I need to get prepared.  So, off I went.

On my list of things to get were gift bags and birthday cards for the three (yes! three!) birthday parties that we are attending this weekend. Also, laundry detergent (for my never-ending piles of laundry), a wreath for my front door, some shorts for the girls and whatever else tickled my fancy.  Clearly it was time for a stop at my favorite big box store, which I am not going to mention by name (although, if you read my blog, Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter often, I’m sure that you will be able to figure it out) because the occurrence that I’m about to describe to you isn’t specific to this store.  It just so happens that this is where it happened today.

Once in the store, I got my cart, and headed toward the gift wrap.  As I approached I noticed that they had expanded the selection to the first two aisles. I started down the second aisle and saw a male customer standing in the area that I wanted to browse so I decided to start on the other side to give him a chance to finish. I found one bag then rounded the corner to the second aisle and the man was still there.  I smiled and said “excuse me” as I walked past looking at the gift bags.  He returned the smile and said “No problem,” but he was checking me out. Noticeably…like head to toe!  For a moment I thought to myself “Yes, Chica, you still got!” I know, and by now you know, that I’m a nut.  Not to mention that once I looked at him, I realized that he was young enough to be my son younger brother, so, he probably was not there to try to pick me up; but he kept looking at me very intently. My phone rang in my purse and he looked at it very carefully; he was studying me.  I was uncomfortable.  I finally found the right sized gift bag appropriate for a soon to be 8-year-old and apologized for walking in front of him so many times.  He smiled politely and I walked away in search of birthday cards. And Starbucks.

With  my decaf, iced Americano with cream and classic in hand, I went to pick up the detergent  then strolled right down the aisle toward garbage bags and there was the guy from gift wrap again.  I picked up my garbage bags and walked past, neither of us acknowledging the other.  The girls needed shampoo and conditioner, which I picked up and then went to find them some summer shorts.  On the way, I passed the mystery shopper three times.  Apparently we were shopping for the same things?  Except, I realized that he had no cart nor any merchandise.  I had a pit in my stomach and my head was killing me.  A clear sign that I was becoming stressed.  When I got to the girl’s clothing I bent over to pick up some shorts on a lower shelf and stood up just in time to see the mystery shopper walk by and then I knew.  I knew exactly what was happening.  I was being followed by security.  I had been profiled.

This was nothing new.  It has happened before in different stores and I dare say that it happens to most people of color at some point in their life.  It’s kind of like being pulled over for Driving While Black for Black males.  It’s a fact of life.  It’s uncomfortable and infuriating,  but most of the time I ignore it.  However, today was not a day that I could ignore it.  I have no idea why, but you know how on some days somethings just gets under your skin and you can’t let it go? Today was that day.  I get it honestly, I think.  Once, when I was in elementary school, my mom and I were in an upscale store in my home town when an over zealous security guard made the mistake of making himself a little too noticeable while following us around the store. Mom was irritated, but as I recall, we were searching for something specific that I needed for Easter, shoes or a dress perhaps.  When we went up to the register with our merchandise the sales lady made it a point to tell my mother that the selection was not on sale and would be full price.  That was when my mother “blessed her soul” which is a polite way of saying that she put the sales lady in her place.. She pointed out that not only could she read, but that she could definitely afford what she was purchasing.  “Furthermore,” Mom said, “You wouldn’t have said that to a White woman and the security officer wouldn’t have followed a White woman around the store! Now do your job and ring me up, please.”  After that we left, and I felt so ashamed,  Not ashamed of my mother, but ashamed that the store employees had assumed that we were “less than”.  Being Black meant that we were “less than”.   And apparently, it also meant that we were perspective thieves.

This morning I was alone, my younger kids at school and my older ones wherever, so I didn’t have to worry about embarrassing them.  On the other hand, I did think that what was about to happen could have been a very powerful teaching moment for all of us.  You see, I had moved past just wanting to call out someone’s BS. I wanted to have a positive impact on a really negative situation.   As I headed toward the check-out, I passed by my friend and stopped directly in front of him.  I introduced myself by name and asked him how long he had been working in security.  He was genuinely flummoxed. I almost laughed because I couldn’t believe that he honestly thought that he was being sly.  I then asked him what about me made him follow me around the store waiting for me to steal something?  “Did I do something during our first encounter in the gift wrap aisle that made me seem suspicious?” He said “Not necessarily.”   “So, what about me made you follow me?” I continued. By now he was a deep shade of red and I almost felt sorry for him, but not really.  He told me that he pays close attention to all of the customers in the store to which I replied “You follow all, each and every customer around like that?”  No, not really.  He agreed with me.  Yet, I pressed on as to what about me could have made him so suspicious.  He would have rather been anywhere else, but standing there with me. That’s when I asked him to talk to the manager with me.  Not to get him in trouble, but to clarify some things.

Ultimately, what happened is that I explained how I thought that I had been profiled as a potential shoplifter based on the color of my skin, the affluent neighborhood and the time of day.  They gave some weak rebuttal, apologized profusely and eventually admitted that there was some validity to what I had just said.   I then pointed out some of the dangers in their approach, the most obvious of which is that there may be shoplifters that don’t fit that profile who go unnoticed and uncaught.   Additionally, they are perpetuating a stereotype of African-Americans not belonging in certain neighborhoods, not being able to do their shopping like any other SAHM (during the day) and just being prone to being a thief.  They saw me as being “less than”. However, unlike when I was a kid, I wasn’t ashamed.  I was angry and this time I had the opportunity and where-with-all to push back.  Momma would be proud.

Hopefully, the next time that security officer observes another potential shoplifter, it will be through new eyes and with a new approach.  I want to believe that I did some good here and that one day my young children will not be faced with this situation.  I’m doubtful, but hopeful.


12 responses »

  1. Halfway through reading this, I realized I was reading with my mouth dropped open. I just can’t even fathom what that’s like. I have so many thoughts swirling through my head that I can’t grab but one-do you think he (the security kid) was showing his OWN bias or did you get the impression after talking to him and the manager that there’s “something” about you that he had been “trained” to notice?

    • I think that this particular chain has a “profile” of a person who is more likely to steal than another person. This has happened to me more than once in this store, but in different locations ( even different states). However, it’s not just this store. I think that it is widely accepted that a general profile of people to be suspicious of are people of color. It’s nothing new. Today, I just ran out of patience.

  2. I am so sorry this happened to you. I didn’t even know stores had undercover security that follow people. I’m really proud/impressed that you stood up for yourself so firmly and constructively. I doubt I would have had the presence of mind to do the same.

  3. This just makes me angry! Makes my heart ache. I know you do not want to share the shop, but I am a firm believer in not giving my hard earned money or support to shops that have such horrible ways. Of course, for the most part, I am a local shopper for this, but I do shop in chain shops for some items. I try to stay away from some chains because of the way they treat their employees. It just makes me sad that in 2014~ such hate goes on today, especially to customers! I am a Latina, live in a very wealth neighborhood~ I am sure this has happened to me & I have never noticed. I will be more aware & I will say something. I suffer from daily migraines post concussion, and I am not afraid to share my honesty when I am annoyed. Don’t get me wrong, I am a pleasant person, but if I am in pain & someone hurts me~ I will let the person know. All of my love to you and your family. May you have a happy & Blessed Easter Weekend.

    • Thank you so much for the well wishes! Unfortunately this is not an uncommon occurrence and I think the best thing for everyone to do is to be aware. My whole point was to raise consciousness and to encourage others to speak up. So, if you do find yourself in this situation, don’t hesitate to call them out. Easter blessings to you and your family and thank you for stopping by my blog.

  4. Love the way you dealt with this: with dignity and style. And you turned it into a teachable moment for the 2 store employees. Recently i was the victim of an anti-semitic remark and was so stunned that I didn’t deal with it at the moment. But I later wrote to the company’s owner and hopefully he will use it to teach his employee how to behave.
    While our situations are not the same they are analogous. How we deal with incidences like this (with or without our kids) affects our own humanity.

    • Thank you, Heidi! Sometimes I think a letter is even better to get your point across. Seeing someone’s feelings in black and white can give the reader time to process the words and feelings associated with them. Hopefully your letter will make a difference.

  5. What do you do if the majority of shoplifter you catch over time when you are NOT profiling turn otu to be AA? And when you hire security, they cannot watch everyone but to get best use,need to focus on the best chances of those who will be shoplifting? It’s been a rude shock to some AA shop owners that that their own kind might be the worse offenders in theft. Profiling is a way to maximize your resources to prevent and catch crime. For some things, perhaps it’s not so important to do this, but there is a hit, a price to pay when one doesn’t do ones best. But in some things it can mean a disaster not to do so.
    Right after the Treyvon Martin tragedy, our train station had to send out a flyer warning those of us taking the train that a young black man in a hoodie had been attacking and robbing those leaving the station alone at night. So what do you think YOU would do when you get such a notice and you notice some of that description in the area? I think your reaction would be very different than if you saw a blonde in a golf shirt and windbreaker or man in a suit. Yes, we all profile when the data points to certain stats with greater than average hits. If it’s you and your girls in danger, you would profile too, as you would if it were business taking the hits.

    • Actually, statistics show that the people who tend to shoplift most often are white women between the ages of 25 and 50. AA shop owners are not shocked that AA people steal from them because generally AA businesses are located in AA neighborhoods frequented by people in their own area. Just like white people tend to steal from white owned businesses in white neighborhoods.

      Racial profiling is unethical and ineffective. I’m not even going to speak to your Trayvon Martin comment because I have no words, or maybe I have too many words. I’m not really sure at this point. However, thank you for commenting.

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