Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Discrimination for 'Shopping While Black' Is a Major Problem

From AlterNet:

But as Oprah Winfrey would be the first to tell you, this isn't about Barneys. Earlier this year, while shopping in Switzerland, she wasrebuffed from buying a super pricey bag. This summer, two former "perfumistas" at Bond No. 9, a luxury perfume shop in Manhattan, sued the retailer for racial discrimination against employees and customers. Whenever African Americans entered the store, the suit alleges, employees were instructed to go on alert and use this key phrase: "the light bulbs need changing".

Yes, Shopping While Black is still a thing.

I have to say, I've always been treated just fine at Barneys. I wouldn't shop there if I wasn't. (And a good chunk of their staff is of color.) But I have been followed all over Lord & Taylor by a security guard squawking into her walkie talkie, tracking my whereabouts. When you're painted brown, a black Amex card can't protect you from a salesperson who takes one look at you and makes a judgment call about the state of your finances – and your ability to pay for whatever it is they're selling.

And sometimes, as was the case of the security guard at Lord & Taylor, the ones doing the judging are black and brown, too. Institutionalized racism is something that we've all internalized.

More here.

When I first heard of this phenomenon, "shopping while black," back in the mid 90s, it was a VERY rude awakening for me.  

I was already thinking of myself as a liberal at that point, someone who consciously rejected racism, who understood that there was entrenched racism in our society, both culturally and institutionally.  I had already voted for both Anne Richards and Bill Clinton.  I was not a racist.  Then I read something somewhere about "shopping while black" and caught myself doing it one afternoon when I was the only waiter holding down the fort before the dinner shift crew arrived at Chez Fred in Austin.  A black guy came in and I was, like, "What's HE doing here?"  And I watched him suspiciously for a moment or two before it dawned on me what I was doing. 

I was, of course, really angry with myself for that, but it got me thinking: I was doing this all the time.  In certain situations, I was irrationally afraid that black people were going to do something bad.  I didn't want to be like this.  But it was undeniable.  And I seemed to have no conscious control over it.  It made me realize for the first time that unraveling the social conditioning that deeply permeates our minds is not as easy as simply declaring that I am not a racist.  Indeed, it's far, far, far more complicated than simply snapping your fingers.  You have to wrangle with thoughts and ideas you don't even know you have.

This is why I'm dubious of any individual who describes himself as being totally non-racist or color blind.  If you grew up in the United States, you've been socially conditioned to have, at the very least, racial attitudes, from almost the day you were born.  And stuff that gets into your head when you're a baby, a toddler, a young child, that stuff gets lodged in there FOREVER.  Like a language.  It becomes part of your synaptic pathways, part of both your conscious and subconscious intellectual structures.  It's there.  And you can't erase it.  All you can do is be aware that it exists, and then try to be vigilant.

That is, you're never going to disassociate the n-word from black people.  Ever.  You're never going to get entirely past your first conceptualization of the "other," and if it's a negative conceptualization, it's an albatross for life.  Whether you like it or not.  I mean, okay, I do just fine, generally, myself, but every now and then I get thoughts I don't like popping into my head.  At this point, since I figured it out, I'm pretty good at heading these thoughts off at the pass, as it were, but I have to be honest, have to admit what's going on.

Anyway, there are a few conclusions we can all take from this.

1. Much of our public discourse on race is founded on the assumption that racial attitudes can be turned on or off as a matter of conscious choice, but this is only partially true.

2. Many white Americans, especially conservatives, but also a lot of liberals, will insist until they are blue in the face that they don't have a racist bone in their bodies.  This cannot possibly be true.  If you are an American, and have lived in this country your whole life, you've been exposed to an extraordinarily large number of racist concepts and ideas.  They are in your brain.  Consequently, you do, in fact, have at least one racist bone in your body.

3. Racism cannot end in our lifetime.  Not until we're all dead.  Not until the insidious social conditioning to which we are all subjected is finally put to rest.

4. Numerous events, institutions, ideas, etc., which are ostensibly not racist, may very well have a racist component of which we are not consciously aware.

5. Some white people who have used the n-word in a hurtful manner are probably good people who slipped up in a moment of weakness and allowed their subconscious conditioning to come to the surface.  By the same token, some white people who never use the n-word at all may very well harbor some pretty deep antipathy toward black people.

6. The issue of racism in the US is clearly a thousand times more complicated than most people will let themselves understand.

This is all kind of depressing, I know.  But we'll never put an end to the scourge of racism if we don't acknowledge the truth.  As the twelve-steppers like to say, acknowledging the problem is the first step to solving it.  So, in a sense, it's also kind of uplifting, too.