Saturday, November 14, 2009

Was it a race thing?

I stopped in at one of our neighborhood grocery stores this afternoon to pick up a few things and tried to use three coupons that I printed online. The cashier told me they didn't take those and I responded with something like, "Oh, you don't take those anymore?" since I had used them there before. She called over the supervisor and he said to "take them from her." She did take them, but commented to me that he'd told her earlier that day not to take them.

I suspect that he told her to take the coupons because I was white and perhaps looked like a middle class shopper. My brain was going several directions at once. My first instinct was to thank him for taking the coupons, because I'm used to having to convince cashiers to take printed coupons. Then I realized it was probably because I was white, and I felt like I should say something, but I wasn't sure what to say or who to say it to. My mind didn't think fast enough and I just took my groceries and left. Now I'm looking back wondering what I should have done. I know that racism persists as long as those who benefit from it keep quiet, but I'm not sure what would have been the best thing to do.

Part of me says that maybe it wasn't because I was white; maybe it was just because I was polite and looked confused about the policy. I wouldn't want to accuse someone of racial profiling/preferencing if they were just trying to help a customer. But even if he was just trying to help me out, the fact that I'm white most likely played into his decision, consciously or not. And my reaction bothers me because white people so often brush racial issues under the rug, not wanting to upset anything or raise any trouble. It was too easy for me to just walk away, and I can do that because I'm white. In the end, this wasn't a huge issue or a gross example of racism - it may have been nothing - but my gut said something and I didn't do anything about it. It isn't just the large injustices that perpetuate racism. It's all the little things that slip by unchecked. It's the thoughts and perceptions, the looks and the judgments, and the slight differences in how people respond that systematically favor one group over another.

(I would appreciate some feedback here, so don't be shy - please tell me what you think.)


Sister George said...

I'm not so sure it was a "race thing", either. That really depends on how bad you see the problem being in your area. Is it a store you usually shop at? Was it a chain store? Like the smaller ones here. (Pic-Pac, Meltons, Dolls) I guess if it were a smaller operation, then they might not be set up to take the ones you print yourself.

If racism is a problem in your neighborhood, then it would seem unfair for you to be treated differently just because of the color of your skin. If you think it was a problem, maybe it is something you could investigate. If it is, then it might just be that ther needs to be some education regarding the availability of those coupons. Could be a teaching moment for you!

Then again, it could be that the guy saw your guardian angel standing over your shoulder and knew that he could trust you!

Sarah Halter said...

Thanks for your feedback.

It's an independent store (we don't have any of the big chains in the city). The printed coupons scan in the register system. The concern that a lot of stores have (including the big box stores) is that the coupons could be photocopied and they can't tell the difference between the originals and copies because they're all printed.

Each individual coupon has its own code, but they would still be easy enough to use fraudulently. He did have to make a judgment about it on the spot and it may be that I looked "trustworthy," which would be based on lots of things, including my race, but also the way I was dressed, the look on my face, etc.

I don't shop there very often - maybe once every month or two. But I do recognize several of the cashiers when I come in, so it's possible he recognized me.

The other factor here is that the owners of these independent grocery and corner stores are known for being racist. That doesn't mean they all are, but the perception is definitely there and there is a tendency towards prejudicial treatment.

There's enough complexity that it's tough to make a judgment about what happened. But that's just life, isn't it?!

megs92 said...

I love how thoroughly you presented this situation! Sometimes I'm guilty of not dwelling on things enough because it's too much hassle. I love your honesty, Sarah!

Do you know the coupon policy? If it's to take printable coupons then the solution is educating all shoppers (and employees) on the policy so that everyone gets the same benefit. Honestly, I think the only thing you could have said was, "oh, I don't want to go against the policy" or something like that to make it clear that you want to follow the rules like everyone else.

It sounds to me as if the employees/management just aren't clear on their own policy and apply it selectively. If the manager was "profiling" you, he wasn't doing a very good job of it as most people who commit coupon fraud are middle-class white women!!

Courtney said...

I agree with the thought that it might have been because he thought you looked trustworthy--and yes, maybe the fact that you're white does play into it if he knows that a lot of the coupon fraud in his store has been occurring with some of the black shoppers. It's a hard line to know when to speak, but I do like Meg's comment about saying you don't want to go against policy. That way you can make it clear that you don't want any preferential treatment without actually having to bring race into it (in case that's not actually the issue).