I’m a middle-aged, middle-class white-haired white woman. Although I’ve read about and even talked about white privilege, I’ve never experienced viscerally what it would mean to do without that automatic advantage. Today I got a little tiny taste.
Mondays are my days to run errands – to go to different places to get what my family needs for the best price. Costco was my final shopping trip of the day, partly because I was getting some items that would need refrigeration and partly because I just love shopping at Costco. You never know what you’ll find and then you feel so virtuous because you know employees are paid decently and have health insurance and retirement benefits!
In addition to some groceries, I needed cartridges for our inkjet printer. I went to the correct aisle, matched the numbers on an empty package I had with me, and put the proper set of cartridges in my cart.
By the time I got to the cashier, I was feeling a little tired – I had gone to five different stores, three of them for groceries (the health food store, the Asian market and then Costco), and it was finally getting to me. I paid, had my receipt ready to show the person Costco always has at the door checking receipts against what’s in your cart, and walked out the exit.
A quiet young man came up to me and said he had to speak to me. I immediately suspected some kind of scam and said no and kept walking. Then he told me he was Costco security and he needed to take me back inside. I couldn’t figure out what was going on – I showed him the receipt, showed him the cart, invited him to check every item against the receipt, but he said no, I had to come to the office. When I got to the office, another man came up and said he was the assistant manager and an employee had reported they had seen me open a package of printer cartridges, pull out the individual cartridges and put them in my purse.
I was absolutely stunned.
I handed them my purse and said, “Check it, check the whole thing!” They said no, they couldn’t touch my purse, but I should empty my purse on the desk for them. By this time I was trembling and upset, but I pulled everything out of my messy, junk-filled purse, all the used tissues, wadded napkins, and receipts from stores, hand lotion, wallet, check book, phone, iPod, ear-buds, Chapstick, all the loose change and pens.
Of course, there were no ink cartridges there because I hadn’t stolen any.
I told them I had brought an empty package when I came in to make sure I got the right cartridges and had even written on the cardboard of the empty package the identification number of a different cartridge I also needed so that I would know what to get. I had shown the empty package to the person at the door as I walked in, the person who makes sure you’re a Costco member, and explained why I had it.
The assistant manager wanted to know what the Costco greeter looked like (I didn’t remember) and where the empty package was now (I didn’t know – perhaps the cashier had thrown it away?).
Even though he apologized, told me I was welcome back at Costco, and politely escorted me out, I could feel that they still wondered if I had simply found a really clever way to hide the cartridges. And I left feeling horrible. Humiliated, upset, shaken and, yes, angry. Sure I knew this wasn’t personal – someone really thought I had stolen something and was doing their job, but I still felt angry.
This is the one and only time this has happened to me. But I have to wonder what it would do to my psyche if this kind of wrong accusation happened over and over again. I know, because I’ve read and talked to people, that this is a common experience for people of color, and I’ve always felt sad that discrimination like that happens. But I never realized how terrible and sick and guilty (guilty even though I had done nothing wrong) it would make me feel.
Thinking of the stereotype “angry black man” or “angry black woman,” I wonder if part of that stereotype comes from the angry response of a person to whom this has happened time and again. Would I be as polite (I was upset and angry but absolutely courteous the whole time) if this happened to me frequently, or would I be likely to blow up in anger and frustration when it happened yet again? The first time you’re courteous. The 100th time, I’d imagine, not so much.
White privilege has protected me from these types of wrong accusations, from suspicion every time I’m browsing around the aisles of a store, from assumptions that I’m dishonest and thieving and untrustworthy.
Now I know what it’s like to feel that burden of distrust, and god it’s awful. I’m wondering if I’ll have the courage to go back to Costco, formerly my favorite store, now that this has happened. What if they have somehow marked me as a person to watch and I’m pulled aside again when I have done nothing wrong? Would I get angry and insulting because it’s so humiliating? And if I do, how likely are the accusers to shake their heads and say “just another angry white woman.”
For almost 20 years, Marti Teitelbaum used her doctorate in public health working for the Children’s Defense Fund, producing most of their numbers on children’s health, disability, health insurance, Medicaid, and immunization. Marti is the mother of two high-energy girls (a twenty-something future radical social worker, and a 14-year-old middle-school fashionista), and is married to a psychiatrist who devotes half his work life to a child mental health clinic.