I noticed the white man wearing sneakers and a blue parka standing nearby. I first noticed him when I was in the cookware section. I was on the hunt for one of those pretty color Le Creuset cast iron pots that I love to collect, hoping there might be a deeply discounted one on the shelf to snatch up. The white man in the blue parka stood a few feet from me pretending to be studying stainless steel cookware.
I knew immediately who he was and why he was standing there.
And when I looked up in the bath towel section and saw him standing one aisle over to my right I stopped and glared. We looked at each over. His cover was blown and he knew it.
But the process started all over again when I reached the book and magazine area and was searching around for a new magazine. It was a different man this time. But his job was the same.
Am I imagining this?
I’m a middle-aged black woman with gray hair, but that didn’t seem to matter.
Other women in the store — whose color was different from mine– were going about their business shopping with no one seemingly following them around from section to section.
I am a southerner by birth. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.
Back then I didn’t understand why my mother lectured us kids so about not touching anything in the store every week we accompanied her on our Saturday excursions downtown to shop at Woolworth, Kresge, Rich’s, and Davison’s department stores.”Touch something, and I’ll slap you” were her words. It would take years before I understood that fear, not just strictness, was the motivation behind her words.
But I understood my mother’s fear that day as I stood in the check-out line with my purchases and the teenager who lives in my house reached for some item there near the check outline and threw it in the check-out basket. You know those items at the check out counter for impulse buyers and for kids to harass their parents into buying. Those “Oh well, what the hell” store items you pick up because they are right there at your finger tip in your line of vision.
Like I said, the teenager who lives in my house picked up an item from the shelf and threw it in the basket. Except it didn’t quite land in the basket. It landed on top of my purse which was in the basket. And the teenager who lives in my house thought nothing about it.
But I did. Fifty years of being a southern black woman shopping in hostile “white stores” caused me to snap. “Are you crazy?” I muttered under my breath in my mother’s voice. I was trembling. The teenager who lives in my house looked at me clueless.
The world has changed. But not that much. Despite our excitement over what’s to happen on January 20, 2009. In truth, her father and I have protected her, buffered her from the ugliest side of racism. “Why are you trippin’?” she asked.
We had this conversation before, I kept thinking to myself. But it was at bedtime? Or was it in the kitchen when we were cleaning up after a meal? Or was it one of those times in February when she was at her desk working on some obligatory African American history assignment that was due the next morning and instead of looking up the research for herself she’d decided to ask the crazy woman who lives her house who’s always talking about history to rattle off a few names and dates for her. Irene Morgan. David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain. Ruby Sales. Regardless, it wasn’t real to her.
So there I stood in the checkout line of TJ Maxx looking and sounding like a crazy woman, giving the teenager who lives in my house a Cliffnote lesson on evil, racism, racial profiling, talking to her about on cameras hidden in department store walls, men (and women) in parkas lurking nearby, people in other rooms looking at monitors following women like me and her as we shop in the store. It must have sounded like something out of a science fiction movie. It did to me.
“Just remember the next time you come to the store with your high fallutin’ friends. The camera won’t be on them. It’ll most likely be on you.” Somberly she removed the box from on top of my purse and put it squarely into the check-out basket. Neither of us spoke after this. I was spent, trying to hold back tears. She stood stiff and quiet.
Years later, black (and brown) parents in America are still having to have this conversation with our children before going into department stores.