So there I was, doing some midday grocery shopping in an upscale suburban grocery store. I was about to check out at one of the self-checkout lanes, so I plopped my overflowing basket down and pulled out my frequent shopper rewards card.
When self-checkout lanes were first introduced, I found them to be quite curious. I worried that they were harbingers of the HAL 9000-ish society that I still feel we’re tumbling toward. I thought about people losing their jobs and paychecks to automation and technology. And I pondered the crime factor. I’m not exactly a career criminal, but I did have a minor shoplifting phase in high school–DON’T JUDGE ME. YOU DON’T KNOW MY LIFE—and I have to admit that the advent of the self-checkout reminded me of those misguided adolescent impulses.
Minimal recreational lifting of the sort I engaged in was never about criminal intent or grand theft. It was about fourteen-year-old rebellion and peer pressure and the thrill of getting away with something; even if that something was just a 99¢ silver eyeshadow from Wet N’ Wild. I’ve outgrown that time by decades, but I’ve thought about how self-checkout lanes could facilitate theft and of how diligently stores need to monitor self-checkout.
And that brings us back to my grocery trip.
From the moment that I set my basket down, a store employee with a “Manager” name tag came over and stood behind me. The employee was a large, hulking, caucasian male. I don’t mention this arbitrarily. I never do. Anywho, I clocked him right away, but I honestly didn’t think much of it. A manager in a grocery store has every right to stand there, and I certainly can’t blame him for his physique.
And maybe he only appeared to be looking at me. The world doesn’t revolve around me; he could have actually been focused on who-knows-what in the distance beyond me, so I tried to ignore him and went on about my business.
A few items into ringing up my stuff, my peripheral vision told me that he hadn’t budged, and all that benefit of the doubt I was dispensing grew wings and flew right out the window. I looked around and confirmed that I was the only person of color in a nice shop in a nice area. I hate thinking this way. I hate that I had noticed it to begin with and that I looked around to confirm it. But as I rang up my items, he got a little closer. Just looming and hawking me HARD. And then my mind went to An Ugly Place.
Did he think I was stealing? I thought about simply turning and saying hello with firm eye contact to establish that I saw him see me, but all too quickly I started questioning everything about myself instead. Was there anything off about my appearance and my behavior? Anything fishy about the way I was dressed? I was in casual running around in the afternoon clothes. No makeup. Did I look suspicious? I mean, besides being black of course. I wasn’t serving Oprah at Hermès Realness, but I wasn’t in my Sunday Best, either. I even went so far as to evaluate my purchases and how they might make me look more suspicious through a racial profiler’s eyes; good cuts of salmon, wine, organic lemons, the good couscous…was this somehow not expected to be in my grocery basket?
I then swan-dove off the psychological deep end. Had I been thinking about stealing? I didn’t think I so; I thought I was just treating myself to good groceries to cook an extra indulgent cheat meal. But maybe some tiny sliver of a silly impulse from the mid-nineties had surfaced in my mind and been dancing about with my curiosities about the ease of stealing at self-checkout lanes and this store manager somehow knew that? Did he see something about me that even I couldn’t see? Could his all-knowing whiteness and position of authority have conspired to prevent future crime through racial profiling? Was I in the grocery store version of Minority Report?
I was a mess. I shakily continued what I was doing as he got closer and closer until he was too close for comfort. I rang up my last item and just as I was about to spin on my heels and declare my innocence, he leaned in and said “I was worried you hadn’t bought enough stuff, but you just made it. A $50 purchase gets you $10 off!”
It took me a solid ten seconds to roll credits on the movie in my mind and accept what was happening. This man really stood behind me and watched me ring up my groceries in the interest of saving me money. He produced a paper coupon to scan from within his sternly clasped hands, showing me he’d had it there all along. I don’t think he had even the slightest notion that I might be there to steal like some sort of Salmon Bandit dashing off to the getaway car, and yet I had profiled him as profiling me.
Maybe his delivery was not ideal, and he happened to be built like Lurch from the Addams Family, but he was really pleased to scan that coupon for me. He bagged my groceries and wished me a good afternoon, and I remained stunned. For a moment, I felt ashamed of having a”brought race into it.” But the rough truth is that race is so often a factor. NOT always, but so often.
I want more days like this day. It’s going to take a long time for us to make the kind of progress as a society that can even put a dent in systemic racism, and effort has to be put forth on both sides. I would posit that those on the side with historic power may need to put forth the greater effort overall, but I also need to not have a panic attack every time a white store manager stands behind me. The fewer incidents of profiling there are, the less we’ll walk around expecting them.
I’m grateful to have had a happy outcome in this minor grocery store moment. May they all end like this one did: with ten dollars off.