Working in retail is a lot like holding position in public office. You have to have thick skin, be ever ready to face derision and scorn, but somehow feign appreciation for the maltreatment meted out to you. Of course, a politician’s six-figure salary compared to my $8/hour as a part time retail associate makes this task a lot more tolerable…unless you’re Nancy Pelosi who is “barely making ends meet” on $174K a year and thinks a decrease in her wages would be “below her dignity”. Her words, not mine.
Yesterday while at work, I found myself in an unusual situation. The scene I am about to describe to you has played out in retail establishments and restaurants across this nation for decades. It is one that minorities, particularly African Americans, have had first-hand experience with or know someone very close to them who has at some point: prejudice.
This Sunday at work was a markedly lazy day. There were fewer shoppers than normal, and I found myself relishing in moderate pace that we rarely get to enjoy at the store. Every customer who came to my line was greeted with a genuine smile, instead of the demented, Joker-esq grin I plaster on my face when the lines are long and our patrons’ patience is short. A petite yellow skin woman approached my line with an item for return and determined look on her face. I smiled broadly and greeted her.
“How are you today?” I asked genuinely.
“Well, I was going to exchange these for something else, but I’m so hot right now all I want to do it return them,” she seethed, setting a pair of Mix No. 6 boots on the counter.
I stopped smiling and took the boots from her.
“Why? What’s the matter?” I asked, holding her gaze in mine. I wanted her to know I was truly concerned.
“One of your associates made me feel very uncomfortable,” she replied, holding my stare.
I was surprised. The staff that morning was definitely the friendliest and most professional of the bunch. The usual suspects who find some way to offend our customers had either left or been fired months ago. Who could have transgressed this woman, and in what manner?
“What happened?” I asked in a low voice, setting the boots aside. I leaned in so that we could have a private conversation.
“I was in the back looking at shoes to exchange these for,” she began. “And one of the women who works here kept looking into my bag, like she thought I was trying to steal something!”
I looked around the room and tried to figure out who that might be. We had two Black women, a Dominican and two Caucasians on staff that day. Unlike certain employees, none of us skulks the customers. It’s just not in our nature. I apologized to the lady.
“I’m so sorry you were made to feel uncomfortable,” I offered. “It’s not our intention as a store to make anyone feel unwelcome here.”
“I am so hot!” she repeated in a near growl.
I began completing her return, while she carried on about how she had been shopping all over town and spending money to prepare for a big business trip to Spain. An idea suddenly struck me.
“You know, maybe our associate thought you had a cute bag?” I suggested. “Perhaps she wanted to compliment you.”
The lady shook her head vigorously and held up a ratty, scratched, brown leather purse.
“No, she wasn’t looking at my purse…she was looking IN my shopping bag.”
I was just about to ask if she wanted to speak to a manager when she pointed the culprit out.
“That’s the party right there,” she said, muttering menacingly under her breath.
“Alicia?” I said with genuine surprise. “She’s a manager here…”
“I know I don’t look like much today, but on a normal basis I’m cute!” the lady raged with contained composure.
I gave her a quick once over. She was wearing black sweat pants and a black velour hoodie. Her sneakers were plain white and her hair was pulled back in a messy pony tail. If you looked at her sideways and stared really hard through your Klan glasses, you might think she was a criminal…but other than that she looked like a lot of the other harried women who frequent our shop.
I apologized to her again for the discomfort she felt. This prompted her to launch into a monologue of her accomplishments thus far.
“I am college educated, and just got back from a trip from China. Like I said, I’m on my way to Spain to do work for a Fortune 500 company. I been spending money all OVER town!”
I smiled and handed her her receipt, wishing her a safe trip abroad.
“Make sure you let her know how I feel,” she said, tucking her purse under her arm.
“I will,” I promised.
I waited until she’d left the store in a huff, saying once more how “hot” she was with the whole situation and purposely not staring at Alicia as she excited the door before I approached her. I relayed what had happened. Her green eyes registered disbelief.
“What?” she asked incredulously.
“She said you made her uncomfortable…like she was a thief or something.”
“Malaka, I’ll tell you exactly what happened,” she said tersely. “I remember that lady. I was on my way into the bathroom and was tucking my shirt in as I walked by her. That’s it.”
Alicia was wearing several layers that day. She demonstrated her movements to show me what had transpired. Alicia is from the west. She’s tall and lithe, and does everything deliberately, including talking. A slow stroll with her eyes cast downward might have easily been misconstrued as an attempt at lurking around a customer…but only to a customer with a certain amount of personal baggage.
The melancholy look in her eyes made me feel sick. Alicia looks White, but she’s got some Arab floating around in her DNA. She spent years working as a nurse in Haiti and the Virgin Islands. She is by no means a racist – at least not in the Down South Dixie, cross burnin’ sense that we’re accustomed to in these parts; but as the movie Crash revealed, everyone harbors some level of racial prejudice within them, no matter what their social leaning. It was obvious that that’s what the light skinned Black woman was accusing her of: racial prejudice based on her own negative views about herself.
Alicia sighed and refocused my attention.
“Now she’s gonna call or write corporate about it!”
“Yeah…probably,” I said, nodding in agreement.
The incident was reminder to me about how we see ourselves in the presumed, false reflection of the public eye. In rattling off her ‘accomplishments’ the High Yellow Lady merely revealed her own insecurities about herself. Even if she flipped burgers at McDonald’s, she would still be working for a “Fortune 500 company.” It doesn’t matter if she was going to Spain or to the moon this week. The only thing that matters (or should have mattered) is how she viewed herself and what value she placed on HERSELF. She knew she wasn’t in the store to steal…should she have allowed her misperception to rob her of a better pair of shoes? I don’t think so.
Have you ever been out and seen someone make a complete fuss and a fool of themselves over something trivial? Do you think High Yellow Lady was warranted in her dismay? Do Black women walk into the shopping world with a chip on our shoulders based on we’ve been treated historically?