Guest commentary: Is it racism, or is it not?

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I SPENT much of a recent weekend doing what I usually do on the weekend, errands.

On Saturday, my son and I stopped for something to drink before going over to a local store. As we walked into the store with our drinks, a female employee yelled that beverages were not allowed in the store. It took me a minute to realize that she was referring to me, to us. Having brought drinks into this store numerous times before, I was taken aback and a little affronted by the statement. Then because I was with my eleven year old child, I had to make a decision about how to handle this situation. Should I confront the clerk with what I knew was incorrect information? Was there something about my demeanor that made it possible for this employee to demand that I not enter the store with my beverage?

Although I was furious, I did not remain in the store. Rather than confront the clerk, my son and I quickly left the store amid the stares of the other customers.

 

I FUMED as I drove home, wondering how to interpret this event. Once home, I called the store and spoke with an assistant manager. I asked him about the store policy regarding customers bringing beverages into the store. When he said there was none, I explained what had just happened and asked him to account for the behavior of his employee towards my son and me, given that there was no store policy. He apologized and asked me to identify the employee as best as I could so that he could speak to her.

Now, there are a number of ways a story like this could be interpreted depending on who is involved. When I say who, I mean the social location or context of individuals involved such as social class, gender, religious affiliation, race, and so on. I say the social contexts of the participants in the event matter because there is a way that we could imagine the event not occurring at all or being understood in a completely different way depending on these contexts. The reality is though that when I, a black woman, walked into that store with a beverage and the white female store clerk yelled that bringing my beverage into the store was not allowed, in a certain way, I also heard and felt that my son and I were not allowed. We were denied entry based on someone else’s whim because there was no store policy barring customers from bringing beverages into the store.

So, if the drink was not the problem, then perhaps I was, or more accurately we were.  In that moment I recognized that my past patronage of this establishment, that the purchasing power I represented was eclipsed by how I was read by that clerk, that negative stereotypes of black people meant that I could not be trusted to be a responsible citizen consumer in that store. I was not allowed. 

 

HAVING experienced this kind of treatment before I struggled to think through in order to understand why this incident has affected me so deeply, why I was so humiliated in that store, and why I was so angry. Why was this incident different from similar incidents that are a constant and unpleasant reminder about the ways in which race continues to be salient in our society? Then it hit me…this felt different because my child was there. Because even though I have known this, this incident highlighted the fact that I cannot protect my child from “not being allowed.” I cannot shield him from how he may be seen and understood in ways that may be harmful to him. This incident was a reminder that in addition to the powerlessness that parents inevitably feel as their children make their own way in the world, I must also worry about how my son’s racial identity may be used to stereotype his behaviors in ways that exclude him and diminish who he is as a person. This realization made me feel this cut more deeply.

Now, the problem with situations like this is that they can and are often interpreted in very different ways depending as I said before on who is doing the interpreting. This is because of how racism works in the US in this moment. Because race relations have gotten immeasurably better and explicitly racist behaviors are no longer codified, at least not uniformly so, identifying racism becomes a matter of “proving” racist intent. In other words, if someone does not intend to be racist, then the behavior, however questionable, cannot reasonably be understood as racist. Racism has become far more nuanced in its deployment and operation, consequently putting a finger on it has become a more risky and slippery undertaking.

When I say risky, I mean that there are risks (personal or professional) for people who try to identify its operation. As a society we want to be “past or post” race, we want to believe it doesn’t matter so much that we often censure those who point out its effects and label them as being irrational or too sensitive, or as having a chip on their shoulder. We pride ourselves on our color-blindness and are suspicious of those who don’t or can’t play along.

 

THE POINT of this story is not to indict anyone, rather it is to point out that whether or not you agree that this was an incident that involved racist intent, perhaps you can agree that we live in a society where this explanation exists as a possibility.

That it remains a possibility that I or anyone else can understand race to be a negative factor in their experiences, or that I have to wonder if an unpleasant interchange with a department store clerk had racist undertones, means that we have not come as far as we like to think we have.

Might it be useful to shift our conversations about race and racism from worrying about what was intended to paying attention to the effects of racism? How might this change of focus alter our conversations? So, let’s stop congratulating ourselves on how far we’ve come and get back to work!

 

Dr. Lisa Anderson-Levy is an assistant professor of anthropology and Mouat junior professor of international studies at Beloit College, where she has taught since 2008. 

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