Shopping while black — I had never heard the phrase before Laura Warrell mentioned it in a phone conversation and then went on to relate the anecdote that begins this essay. The Trayvon Martin shooting was in both our minds, in the foreground, not the background. I was astonished because I know Laura, who is a bright, intelligent, sophisticated, graceful human being, astonished that in a cosmopolitan city like Boston, the stigma of skin colour, the taint of slavery, could still attach to her. And I was thinking of words like profiling, stereotyping, paternalism, racism — words that describe the ongoing effort to single out, repress, infantilize and criminalize African-Americans. The Stand Your Ground laws and recent voter suppression laws coming on the heels of the Supreme Court decision against the Voting Rights Act are reminiscent of the vagrancy and contract laws the Southern states used to try to reconstitute slavery-in-all-but-name after the Civil War. You are guilty if you are black, and you should be afraid.
This is Laura K. Warrell’s third contribution to Numéro Cinq. She has an edgy, contemporary take on social issues from the ugly manipulation of race in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained to the Boston Bomber.
There’s been no mistake. After all, our department, as far as I know, and I only know the lowest level, doesn’t seek out guilt among the general population, but, as the Law states, is attracted by guilt and has to send us guards out. That’s the Law. What mistake could there be? – The Trial, Franz Kafka
It was half past three on a bone-crackling winter afternoon in Boston and I needed a watch. Standing between me and the nearest subway station home was a skywalk leading from a chichi shopping mall to a Lord & Taylor department store. Until then, the upscale chain had not been tops on my list of shopping destinations considering I had been scrounging around on a teacher’s salary for years. But I was freezing and loathe to spend another second outside. And who knew, maybe I would luck out and find a watch I could afford.
I should admit to feeling some apprehension before going into the store. As a black woman, I have suffered my adopted hometown’s notoriously prickly racial climate long enough to know there are some places my movements might be “observed” and deemed worthy of confrontation. Moreover, I have lived in the United States long enough to know that the minor stresses of retail shopping – crowded aisles, greedy customers, ill-mannered counter help – pale in comparison to the traumas black shoppers endure everyday, an experience often referred to as Shopping While Black.
Being followed while shopping has happened so much now I don’t even remember specifics anymore. Every time you turn around there’s the clerk pretending to be folding or rearranging things near you. Sometimes they ask if they can help you. Sometimes they don’t. It’s reached a point that whenever I go shopping I get tense about dealing with the clerks. – Duane, 37, sexual violence educator, email to the author July 24, 2013
Shortly after I entered the store and started poring over a display table of watches, a saleswoman came over and asked, “Can I help you?”
So jazzed was I to have found a watch I both liked and could afford that I hardly noticed my surroundings. But then I looked up and quickly registered two things: first, the clerk, a white woman in her early fifties, was ringing her hands and staring back at me with a panicked expression, and second, there were three other white women looking at the watches yet the clerk was only talking to me.
“No thanks,” I told her. “Just looking.”
Usually when shoppers say, “just looking,” salespeople go off to bother other customers or linger perkily in order to lend a hand. The Lord & Taylor clerk did neither. Instead, she folded her arms and kept an eye on me, hovering by a display case a few steps away from where I was shopping. The woman seemed nervous, afraid, even though I was doing nothing more than browsing the watches. Whenever I glanced up, she would flinch as if her spying had been discovered then feign interest in the items in the display case, shuffling the watches around the shelves and wiping at phantom lines of dust. For several minutes, I tried to ignore her but she kept standing there. She didn’t ask if I was looking for something special, didn’t compliment the watches I held against my wrist, neither smiled nor spoke. She just hovered and watched.
I had no intention of stealing. I do not steal. So, if I’m not a criminal and had no inclination whatsoever of committing a crime, it would seem scientifically impossible that my body language, facial expressions or any other type of behavior could have given off any signal that might suggest I was planning on taking something from the store. True, in my worn winter boots and knock-off designer coat I was clearly not a typical Lord & Taylor customer. But if memory serves, the powers-that-be in this country have yet to pass a bill forbidding shoppers from frequenting retailers whose price tags stretch beyond their salary range. Regardless, the clerk was drawn to me, a near middle-aged woman whose only criminal offense over a lifetime was a speeding ticket in high school.
I had arrived at the second stage of the Shopping While Black experience: responding. Should I confront the woman, speak to her manager or stomp out in a huff? Did I have the energy for a battle or would I let this one go?
Rather than decide, I stalled. I just couldn’t believe this was happening. Almost forty, I thought I had long surpassed the age when I could be seen as a threat. Besides, I was on staff at two universities, was completing work on a Master’s degree and had managed to build a decent life in one of the priciest and most elite cities in the country. Hadn’t I transcended this bullshit?
Just to be sure I wasn’t imagining things, I casually strolled over to a nearby display of sunglasses. Two aisles away, the clerk followed. I went to a case of necklaces. She wasn’t far behind.
Finally, I walked up to her. “You’re not watching me, are you?”
“No,” she answered like a question.
I waited, imagining this would be the moment for her to apologize for the confusion or express outrage for my having accused her of such an offense. But she didn’t say or do anything except glare anxiously at the watch in my hands.
“Good,” I said and went back to shopping. And, surprise, she went back to trailing me.
Later, when I would tell people what happened, white friends and family would say what they often say after such events occur; “maybe you were imagining things, maybe the woman was only trying to help, maybe there was someone who looked like you who’d stolen something earlier in the day.” Black friends and family would only sigh wearily.
Being followed around in retail stores is a common occurrence. It happens so often I don’t often take note of it as much as I should nor am I as enraged as I should be. Not long ago, I was perusing the shoes and clothing at a store. While I shopped, one salesperson followed me to every section of the store. She would pretend to fix something, and when she finished, she would stand in the same section and watch me awkwardly. After about fifteen minutes of this, I left, leaving the dress and two pairs of shoes I wanted on a table in the middle of the store. The same thing happened another time and after following me, the clerk just looked at me and said, ‘the dresses in here are very expensive’ then paused like that would make me leave. – Leandra, 33, journalist, email to the author, July 23, 2013
Which raises the question: what was the Lord & Taylor clerk’s goal? To avoid a robbery she had no sensible reason to believe would occur? Or to just keep people like me out of her store? And by “people like me” I mean people who buy watches and clothes.
Unable to stand it any longer, I walked over and placed the watch on the counter in front of her. “I was going to buy this. But now I’m not going to.”
“Oh,” she said, with an infuriating mix of docility and snottiness.
“You shouldn’t follow people.”
“I know,” she whined like a child.
“I don’t know why you’re watching me but I can assume the reason,” my voice quaked. “And I want you to know it’s offensive…”
I went on with the kind of speech we curse ourselves for having come up with only after we’ve abandoned a situation, but I got lucky and thought of it on the spot. I told the woman how anyone has the right to shop wherever they want and how inexcusable it was for her make assumptions about people. The woman didn’t deny watching me or apologize for any misunderstanding but only kept insisting, “I’m the only one here,” although she clearly wasn’t. As if the defense was relevant anyway.
I left the store soaring with pride having stood up for myself. But it didn’t take long until I sank into a funk. The rest of my day and several days after were ruined, as if in an instant, everything I had ever accomplished had been reduced to nothing. I cringed thinking of the people who fit the “profile” even more than I do, especially young black men, and how taxing their daily lives must be if a fortysomething university instructor can’t even fly under some fool’s radar.
You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me thirty-five years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away. There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often. – President Barack Obama, address to the nation, July 19, 2013
The list of reasons the Trayvon Martin case gives us to be horrified by modern American society is endless: the purpose of a Neighborhood Watch shifting from folks keeping an eye on things to arming themselves; an adult man deciding for no reason other than race that a seventeen-year-old boy is up to no good; the same adult man, or any human being, feeling surprise when the boy defends himself after being confronted (what else does a person walking alone at night do when a stranger in a goddamn van is following him for several blocks?) Then there’s the law that exists to protect the adult man and the apparent effectiveness of his defense, i.e., to portray the boy as a “thug,” the beloved term of narrow-minded people who seem to want to group all black, inner-city youth – whether or not they’ve ever gotten into any real trouble – into an easily discarded population of violent, parasitic monsters.
“That is exactly what George Zimmerman saw: a trope,” writes UC-Riverside English professor Vorris L. Nunley in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Not Trayvon Martin. Not a person. Not an American or even a human being, just a Black trope – a disruptive figure occupying the anxiety-ridden terrain of his White imagination.”
While the nation prides itself, justifiably, for the phenomenal social strides that have been made, Trayvon Martin stands as a reminder that black citizens continue to suffer the lingering legacy of racism. Black bodies still signify guilt in the eyes of too many Americans: in department stores, on city streets, even in shared community spaces.
As soon as I got in the library the security guard decided I was the only one in the place that needed help. What was that the president was saying about every black man in America knowing what it feels like to be followed? BUT THIS IS A LIBRARY!!! [I guess] everyone knows black people don’t read. – Christopher, 42, poet/educator, Facebook status update, July 22, 2013
Shopping, driving and walking while black happens to young black people.
“My son and his friends were coming from work when they were accosted by the police. They were thrown on the ground, put in the cruiser and made to wait without really knowing what they were being stopped for. They discovered that the police thought they were a group of black males who robbed a store. When the officers realized they were wrong, they dismissed it by saying to my son and his friends, ‘we have the wrong f—g car.’ – Al, 63, teacher, Facebook status update, July 14, 2013
Shopping, driving and walking while black happens to older black people.
I was visiting Salem, Massachusetts with my two teenage daughters. We’d had a nice lunch and I was taking pictures of my girls as they toured an old cemetery. A police officer walked up and asked to see my ID. He said the police were looking for someone who was passing off counterfeit bills and the suspect fit my description. He asked to see my wallet and to look in my backpack. I said not before I know what all this is about. Meanwhile, a large crowd was gathering; to my surprise, many of them stepped up to challenge the officer, saying I was being harassed. My daughters were nervous. After radioing his sergeant, the office was told to take me around to the merchants who had been scammed and see if they could ID me. As my daughters were left to fend for themselves, I was put into a police car and driven to the local mall. Two shop owners claimed to recognize me as the thief. I was put back in the police car and the cop said, ‘For the record, I don’t think you fit the description but I have orders.’ Fortunately, the last shop owner said I wasn’t the guy and I was taken back to my girls. An elderly white couple had brought them ice cream and was keeping an eye on them. The cop dropped me off, apologized for the ‘inconvenience’ and went on his way. I remember thinking, ‘does this ever end? Does being black in America, no matter where you live, always make you a prime suspect to whatever has gone down somewhere? – Rick, 61, public relations professional, email to the author, July 24, 2013
Even leaving the country doesn’t make one immune.
[Since moving to Europe], I hadn’t been back to the States for two years. At U.S. customs, the guy asked if it was true I’d been out of the country for twenty-four consecutive months and I said yes. He asked where is my military I.D. I told him I wasn’t in the military. He then asked which teams I played for in Europe. I had a smirk on my face by this point and said I was too short to be playing basketball. He asked what it was I did in Europe and I told him I teach English. His answer was, ‘They don’t speak English in Europe.’ Then I was in an interview room. They wanted to know how I really made money in Europe and I had to explain in detail. The guy who interviewed me said it’s not often they get black guys who travel that long out of the States without being in the military. Even the ball players come back more than once every two years. He joked I needed to come back more often so as not to arouse suspicion ‘cause only hippie white boys traveled the world for years. Of course, every time I enter the U.S. now, I am stressed. – Carl, 37, English teacher, email to the author, July 24, 2013
That fateful winter day, the Lord & Taylor clerk most certainly was not looking for guilty shoppers in her store but instead was attracted like a magnet to what she identified as guilt: my brown skin. Her unapologetic attitude and apparent conviction that there was nothing wrong with what she was doing suggests that in her mind, she had made no mistake. If I hadn’t yet committed a crime, I imagine her thinking went, inevitably as a black woman I would. I was guilty before I even walked in the door.
After the incident, I contemplated what all this meant for my day-to-day life. Do I assume there are places in my community to which I don’t truly have access and stop going to them to avoid harassment? Or do I continue frequenting those establishments and risk fucking up my week?
Managing people’s fears and assumptions about my race has been a lifelong task; overcompensating in professional situations, being overly polite in social situations, grinning harmlessly to clerks when entering shops. By now, this oppressive style of self-defense is instinctive though I sometimes catch myself doing it and feel shame.
I mean, that is a crazy way to live. Seriously, imagine a life in which you think of other people’s safety and comfort first, before your own. You’re programmed and taught that from the gate. It’s like the opposite of entitlement…My friends know that I hate parking lots and elevators, not because they are places that danger could occur, but it’s a prime place in which someone of my physical size can be seen as a dangerous element. I wait and wait in cars until I feel it’s safe for me to make people feel safe. I know most of y’all are eye-rolling, but if you spent a good three months in these size fourteens, you’d understand why I take that position. – Questlove, 42, musician, writer, record producer, bandleader of The Roots and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, in a New York Magazine essay entitled “Questlove: Trayvon Martin and I Ain’t Shit,” July 16, 2013
In truth, incidents like the one at Lord & Taylor are a rare occurrence in my world. But when something does happen – to me, to a friend, to someone somewhere in the country who looks like me, I’ll remember that I am on trial in perpetuity. American life can feel like a prolonged, Kafka-esque court appearance, as if I’m always being watched and judged, and at the drop of a hat may have to prove my innocence, my worthiness, my normalness. Every confrontation and insult feels like a hearing in which I’m forced to defend myself and then rebuild, to regain a sense of dignity and find comfort again in my own skin. I always recover but move on feeling a bit less trusting, more guarded and cynical.
The emotional aftermath of my confrontation with the Lord & Taylor clerk is negligible compared to the threats young black men in this country face on a daily, hourly, moment-to-moment basis. My now permanent anxiety when I pass the store pales in comparison to the harassment, the sitting in police cars, the prison sentences and murders too many young black men experience. Still, my own run-ins with self-appointed vigilantes and protectors of the common good are reminders that despite my own successes and the progress the country has made, I may always be considered a nuisance to some people. A threat. An eye sore.
How do we alter the nation’s consciousness so that black Americans don’t have to live with this permanent, unshakeable guilt for crimes they have never and will never commit? I wish I knew the answer. But one thing I know for certain is that we can no longer pretend it’s not necessary.
—Laura K. Warrell
Laura K. Warrell is a freelance writer living in Boston. She teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Northeastern University and is a July, 2013, graduate of the MFA program at Vermont College. She has previously published both fiction and nonfiction in Numéro Cinq.