The Day Costco Thought I Was a Thief: A Lesson in “Privilege”

white privilege, what happens when a white woman confronts her privilegeI’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.

Cross-posted with permission from AMERICAblog

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  • An angry white woman would definitely describe me if it happened and I felt as tho I had been singled out … as an adoptive mother of an African American child – this touches close to home. Too close.

  • redsandrita

    I would also like to point out to the author that anyone belonging to a social group regularly accused of stealing also knows their legal rights. No, you do NOT have to allow yourself to be escorted back inside the store. No, you do NOT have to allow yourself to be searched, nor must one empty one’s bag. And, finally, store employees have no right whatsoever to put a hand on you at any time. They are not police, and that includes the security staff.

    The author’s doe-faced acceptance of the rightness of authority is the real telltale marker of privilege. She just KNEW she wouldn’t be beaten, that she would be treated fairly, and that if she demonstrated her innocence that it would save her. Most of us in this society cannot afford to walk through the world thinking that.

    • Martha Teitelbaum

      I’ve been thinking about how I should have responded. You’re both right and wrong. I didn’t know my rights and I was completely unprepared — the lack of awareness that this could happen to me is a mark of privilege, as you said, since I had never had to deal with this before.
      On the other hand, “She just KNEW” is untrue. I was absolutely terrified. I had no idea what was going to happen and I didn’t just KNOW anything because I was so stunned and scared. I even wondered (before they mentioned the purse part) if somehow I had carried something off in the cart by mistake and I was going to get in big trouble. (once they said that I had been seen putting the cartridges in my purse, I started feeling much angrier, though still scared, because I knew damn well I hadn’t put cartridges in my purse).
      Today, before I even read your comment, I started realizing that they had no authority to make me go anywhere and that I had been far too passive and accepting. This is very unlike me — as my in-laws can tell you, I’m usually very assertive. I think if the target had been my children or a friend rather than myself, I would have been far more proactive and forceful.
      But there is one other point — I adore shopping at this store and if I had stood up to them and refused to go with them, there’s a high likelihood I would have been banned from the store in the future. And since the store employees were acting on information they honestly thought they had, I am not furious with them — particularly since I’m not a target because of stereotypes or profiling. If I were a POC who had had to deal with this kind of thing before, I might have reacted quite differently. And that’s my main point.

  • Tim Osmond

    The fact that you think “White Privilege,” has shielded you from being contacted is a demonstration in flawed logic. So because you have never been checked by security in the past is because you are white? Maybe it was the fact you had never be perceived to have shoplifted. Stop race hating yourself and realize that you were stopped, searched and let go based on a reasonable suspicion because someone THOUGHT although wrongly you had stolen a product.

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