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Tag: racism


I work at a supermarket. I’m officially in Produce, but I pick up shifts with our to-go unit to make forty hours. Our customers are generally a sedate lot. Elderly people, families, office workers on their lunch breaks. In the nearly four years I’ve worked for the company, I’ve had only a couple of minor confrontations with customers that required managerial assistance.

Today was different. Today brought America’s ugly political landscape right into my workplace, right into my face. It hit hard. As a former feminist, former progressive, it left me shaken.

I was working a to-go shift. That means it’s my job to wheel a clumsy metal cart all over the store to shop for people wealthier than my broke-ass self. I get into a weird headspace when I’m shopping, so focused on finding the right products that I lose track of where I am unless a customer interrupts me. This happens often. I mean, I’ve got the uniform, the hat, and the name tag, and because I’m a shopper, people assume I know where everything is. (If you want shelf-stable pudding cups, I got your back, but if you’re looking for horseradish you’re on your own.)

So it wasn’t unusual for a customer to stop me while I was in the meat department. I was fixated on 80% ground beef, which I was pretty sure was out of stock, when a woman asked me a question about lamb. Knowing zip about meat, I apologized in that bland retail fashion, and suggested she ask at the meat counter. She turned away. But as she did so, I recognized what she had been saying around her generic question. Now my attention was divided between whether or not 81% ground beef would be a good substitute (and frankly why we need both 80% and 81%, and what that means for us as a species) and her muttered, passive-aggressive words.

She was accusing me of following her around the store.

Logically speaking, this makes no sense. It’s my job to shop, pretty much just like a customer, but with a huge rolling table and an rf gun that bleeps and bloops. I’m also at the lowest end of the retail hierarchy. Believe me, we’re not trained to do anything more than stock shelves and press buttons. Management is just grateful when we show up, much less do our jobs.

I was speechless. I probably had a blank look on my face, my brain only reluctantly letting go of its debate over ground meat in favor of a more important decision. Do I react? Or do I ignore her and continue with my job?

It only took a split second, but it was a conscious choice.

“Excuse me?” I said.

She turned around and laid into me. She said it’s suspicious when a white person follows a black person around a store. She said it’s racist. She said that if she sees me again she’s going to report me to management. Her voice was raised, strident. She wasn’t mentally ill. She wasn’t high or drunk.

She was angry.

We exchanged a few more words. I tried to explain that I was a shopper, that it’s my job to walk around the store. She interrupted me, repeating her accusations.

I had another decision to make and I made it, lightning fast. I didn’t just say that she was welcome to speak to management about me. That’s a little bold, maybe, but still polite. I didn’t just point to my name-tag which, again, is a little snarky, but still within the realm of acceptable behavior.

I leaned toward her.

It wasn’t the sort of lean that put me in her face. We weren’t even standing very close. But it was deliberate. I watched myself do it. I didn’t entirely understand why I was doing it, even granting the fact that it’s always been easy for people to push my buttons. Triggered, right?

My hands were shaking. But I wasn’t angry, or afraid. I made a third decision as she continued to raise her voice. I told her I was going to get my manager. I walked away as she kept right on trying to argue with me.

I went to customer service and asked them to call the MOD. I paced while I waited, my mask pulled down so I wouldn’t panic. By the time the manager arrived (for once I was glad to see the stony-faced assistant store manager who’s either a very hard drinker or a serial killer) I wasn’t alone.

The customer had followed me to the desk.

She yelled at me, saying she didn’t need me there, accusing me of being condescending. She told me to leave. I said I was going to do what my manager wanted me to do. When I turned to him he told me to go back to my job.

I did. My hands were still trembling, but I was able to get back into the groove (and 99 cent chicken thighs). When I finished scanning my meat department products, I pressed the required buttons on my handheld, looked up to see how hard it was going to be to navigate through the afternoon shoppers, and felt a strange internal shock.

What if I turn the corner into aisle 11 and she’s there? Will she accuse me again of following her? Yell at me in front of other customers? Call me a racist? What if she demands to see another manager? Should I choose a less trafficked route?

And I suddenly understood why I leaned toward her. It was a signal from one animal to another. I was telling her that I wasn’t intimidated. I was standing my ground. This job — as shitty as it is sometimes (and believe me, it’s shitty sometimes) — is my livelihood. It’s how I support my family. It’s how I maintain my independence. I don’t care who you are. You’re not going to take that away from me. And when this woman, this stranger, threatened to report me to my superiors, that’s exactly what she was doing — threatening me with the loss of my job.

She targeted me for two reasons. One, I’m white. If I’d been black she wouldn’t have said a word. Two, I belong to a vulnerable class — retail workers. We don’t make a lot of money and none of us can afford to be fired. That makes us easy targets.

The irony is rich. This young woman, filled to bursting with indignation, can’t understand that it’s her privilege keeping her blind to the nonsense of her accusations. She’s never worked a shitty job in her life. She doesn’t know what it’s like, that we’re trained to look at expiration dates and PLU numbers, not customers. I don’t get paid enough to do that. Hell, we’re not even trained to do anything if we see a customer stealing. That’s not our job.

Her job, on the other hand, was obvious. She was there to intimidate a white woman. She wanted to make me afraid.

I’m not even angry. I just feel sorry for her. Why? Because I used to be like her.

I grew up upper middle-class. I soaked up the righteous indignation of feminism and progressivism in the 90’s as if it was my birthright. I wore it like a shield. I went to college to keep from having to learn what it was like to live on retail wages. I marched in D.C. I listened to Democracy Now! I read the right books, watched the right films, attended the right lectures. It was all real — the wage gap, institutional racism, the misogynist media. I was one of the enlightened ones who was going to change things, make a difference, and anyone who disagreed with me was a knuckle-dragger too dumb or too brainwashed to see reality.

Things look different from this side of the fence. I even thought for a moment, Oh no, what if she’s at the bus stop? Only to realize she’s hardly the type to ride the bus. Around here it’s only poor people who take public transit. Black, white, Mexican, all of us with our masks on, sitting shoulder to shoulder, with good grace or not, headphones, earbuds, grocery bags, babies and little kids, cigarette stubs. It’s a melting pot of wet socks and bed bugs, smartphones and lottery tickets. We all pay the same fare (well okay, except senior citizens, but my point still stands). Just one overheard conversation on a public bus can teach you a hell of a lot more about the real problems in this country than any college course.

I have to get up at 5am tomorrow, leave my apartment at 6am. If I’m lucky I’ll have a spare fifteen minutes to write before I clock in at 7am. I’ll spend the day lifting 50lb bags of potatoes and stocking broccoli and apples. I won’t be following anyone around the store, black or otherwise.

I’m grateful in a hippie-dippy sort of way for the confrontation. I can’t keep the grotesque legacy of progressivism at arm’s length anymore. It’s not just a depressing theme of conversation with my best friend. It found me at work, where I’m confident and comfortable. It rattled me in the guise of a woman whose genuine rage over phantom discrimination was generated by the same intellectual machinery that ignited my own rage thirty years ago.

This isn’t about where we’re headed as a country. It’s about where we’re at, right now.

I’ve always been the kind of person to step off the sidewalk for someone else. I make space for people, literally and figuratively. But I have a much clearer understanding of where I stand these days, as a white woman, as a retail worker, as an American.

And I don’t have a whole lot of ground left to give.

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