This afternoon I had some time to kill before meeting up with my sister for dinner, so I decided to take a quick trip to the mall to check out any post Black Friday sales. After browsing a few stores, I saw a huge sale sign in front of a store and couldn’t resist going in.
As soon as I walked into the store the greeter gave me a lingering up down and muttered a quick “Hi,” with a grim look on her face. I was a little disappointed because I’m a pretty chatty person, (Overly chatty, my roommates would probably say, I have a habit of striking up conversations with with cashiers that end up doubling the length of our grocery trips) but I assumed she was just tired from a long weekend of work. I was admiring out a display near the front the store when a white middle-aged woman and her two teenage daughters walked in. The greeter enthusiastically welcomed them and told them about the sale going on in the store.
At this point I started to question myself wondering if I had been rude when walking into store but couldn’t think of anything I had done wrong so I shrugged it off and continued shopping. I walked farther back into the store and realized the greeter had left her spot by the entrance and followed me. I moved again. She followed.
I continued to look back at her and she had a disdainful look on her face while she stared back. We played our cat and mouse game around the store with her never more than a few steps behind me. She never uttered a word to me, but I have never felt smaller. I returned the few items I had picked up and left the store with my figurative tail between my legs. I tried to continue shopping in other stores, but honestly the situation left such a bad taste in my mouth; I couldn’t continue. This may sound like an over dramatic response to some, but I was followed at this store, and the worst part is, it wasn’t the first time.
I am Ethiopian American, the first person in my family to ever be born in America. I’m 24 years old. I have a college degree. I have a full time job. I can afford items at this store, so why was I followed?
The first time I was followed I was wearing baggy sweatpants and a sweatshirt, no make up, and my hair was in its natural curly stated and pinned on the top of my head. I noticed one overly attentive sales lady who had a stiff look on her face kept following me and asking if I needed assistance. I politely declined and ventured into the sales section. It was when I digging through a basket of phone cases, when she decided to stand right next to me until I was done, that I realized I was unwelcome. I picked a case, purchased it, and quickly left the store.
I blamed that time on my appearance and quickly forgot about it. This time, however, my hair was straight and tucked neatly into a burgundy beanie, leggings, a full face of makeup including winged eyeliner and a red lip, and I was even wearing a shirt from the store itself. But, I was still followed.
We all know why I was followed.
I don’t want to make it out to be the store’s fault because while I’ve never read the store handbook I’m sure it doesn’t say, “Black girls are not to be trusted. Follow them or they will steal everything.” And it does not just happen at here. Both of my sisters have been followed on separate occasions at different stores. But, the sales ladies at this particular store did follow because of the color of my skin, and as much as I hated it, it made me feel small, and like I had done something wrong even though I know I hadn’t.
With the recent events at Ferguson, and the protests all over the world, I have noticed that a lot of my Facebook friends (if you can even call them that) have no fucking clue what white privilege is. And, I’m hear to tell you that this is the simplest example of white privilege I can think of. If you’ve never been followed at a store, if you’ve never even thought that as an issue before because it’s 2014 not 1954 — that is privilege. Because, I can guarantee if you are black and over the age of 12 you’ve thought about it before. Next time you are out, imagine you’re black, and how you would be judged for doing nothing but being in your skin. We think about it everyday.