Last month I was accused of shoplifting at Whole Foods on Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana. The organic-food grocery store is among a half-mile strip of newer upscale stores in a landscaped-and-water fountain area the local chamber of commerce bills as the “Tarzana Safari Walk.” As I waited to pay for a cup of coffee at the Coffee & Juice Bar, a uniformed security guard stepped up to me. “Do you have a receipt for the items in your bag?”
Yes, I do, I said. Stepping out of line, I hoisted my bag of groceries atop an organic bread display. My receipt was at the bottom of the bag, underneath a box of veggie burgers, hair henna, a bag of granola and a six-pack of beer. I couldn’t reach the receipt. The guard stood by waiting. I put the bag on the floor, kneeling down as I desperately pawed through the goods to fish out a receipt. As soon as I touched my receipt, the guard issued a cheery, “Happy New Year’s dear lady, thank you so much.” I didn’t look at any of the other customers’ faces. I didn’t look at his. I walked away as if it was not unusual for me to be questioned by a store’s security guard.
Sitting in the store’s open seating area with my coffee, I wondered what had I done to arouse this man’s suspicions? What do shoplifters look like, act like? I told my niece via text that I was angry about the incident. But I realize now I hadn’t felt incensed, but only slightly embarrassed.
For about 15 minutes I watched the four cashier’s check out lines in front of me. Every customer I saw used a new paper bag to carry out their purchases – not one shopper had used a reusable grocery bag. Was I targeted by security because my stuff was in a reusable bag, therefore triggering mistrust? The organic-food chain store corporate philosophy touted “recycling and reuse,” therefore I had supposed customers shopped there because they, too, wanted to be good to the earth, small, local farmers and, of course, to their bodies (and shopping there comes with a free coat of morally superior sheen). I’d assumed that reusable bags were a given.
Or was I targeted because I looked Mexican, poor, shady? The only dark-skinned people I saw in the store were behind the butcher’s counter. I took an assessment of my clothing (jeans, a black turtleneck, a grey pea coat), concluding that I appeared as an average shopper. When I got home, I asked my teenage daughter who quickly squashed such an idea. “Do you think I looked out-of-place?” I asked. Without a pause, she replied, “You don’t look like a white lady in yoga pants, if that’s what you mean.” Oh. She continued, “You just look like a lady. You don’t look white, mom, as much as I know you’d like to think that.”
Bam! My thick, black, curly hair, tan skin and dark eyes gave me away again – Mexican. I hadn’t been pulled up short like that in years. Sixteen years ago, I went to Macy’s to return baby pajamas I had received as a gift for my newborn daughter. There were two customers in line – a tall, blonde lady and me. She also was returning a piece of child’s clothing. The shop clerk spoke to her in a pleasant customer service voice, telling her it was no trouble that she didn’t have a receipt. The clerk politely handed the lady the cash value of her item and bid her good day. I then placed my gifted baby pajamas on the counter. The tags were attached, but I also had no receipt.
The clerk – tall, middle-aged white-appearing – told me no, she wouldn’t be able to help me because I had no receipt. I stared at her for a few seconds, then, thankfully found my balls, and pointed out that she had just conducted the same transaction for the customer before me. She didn’t say anything, but quickly swiped the pajamas off the counter, punched the register and then handed me some cash. Instead of a pleasant customer service face, she was scowling at me.
I left the store in a daze – not thinking clearly or taking in the sights around me. I found myself at a public phone near the mall’s entrance, dialing my sister’s phone number. When she answered, I got out a few sentences of my story, then I started crying. Sobbing. Hard. I don’t remember what my sister said, but just telling the story cleared my head. I was no longer stunned. I knew what had happened. I was treated differently because I was perceived as lesser-than because I was other than white. Once this thought clarified itself, I told my sister I knew what I had to do and hung up. I went upstairs to the Macy’s administrative offices. I asked for the manager. A few minutes later, an Asian woman came out to talk to me. I told her my story. She asked me to describe the clerk. “I know who it is,” she said, a hint in her voice that my complaint rang true. “I’ll talk to her right now. I’m sorry this happened.” She talked about “some employees at Macy’s not understanding some things.” Now, I can see why she was the manager. I immediately felt soothed and understood. I went home, and I only think about the incident if something triggers a memory.
The Whole Foods shoplifting accusation could have had nothing to do with the brown shades of my ethnicity. But I’m hard pressed to think of a legitimate shoplifting crime profile that I fit as I stood in line with my paid-for groceries.
Judgment by ethnicity happens all the time. I’m lucky that I’m a middle-aged woman. Only occasionally do people suspect me of doing anything illicit. My friend Ron, a 22-year-old college student and afterschool coach at the elementary school where I work, is having a stressful go of it just getting to campus without getting a look-over by police. Since the killing of the children at Sandy Hook Elementary, either an armed police officer is on our campus or patrolling nearby. Twice as Ron approached the staff parking lot in his car, the assigned school officer has slowed his patrol car or stopped to check out Ron. The police officer just stares as Ron drives by. “What, I’m not allowed to drive to work now?” says Ron, who is tall, broad shouldered and wears his black hair close-cropped. I jokingly tell Ron not to make any sudden moves if the school police officer checks him out again. But it’s not funny. And if being stared at by a cop or stopped by a store security guard sounds like it would be no big deal to you, I’d bet you’re white.