I watched the Starbuck’s video of the police arresting the two young Black men charged and found guilty of being Black while hanging out in a place that allows it. The video had me thinking about my own experiences. I’m a baby boomer. I’m Black. I’m probably twice as old as the young men in the Starbuck video. I’ve probably had twice as many similar experiences as those young men have.
I loved to sew. Years ago, I used to make all my own clothes and my son’s clothes until he was a pre-teenager. I sold the clothes I made, including jumpsuits, business suits, and handbags on consignment in small shops and street fairs. I also made quilts, slipcovers, and upholstered my existing furniture. On a regular basis I bought fabric and trimmings, which included zippers, snaps hooks & eyes, Velcro, fusible hemming material, buttons threads, and iron-on or sew-in interfacings. I’d usually go to my favorite neighborhood fabric stores or go to Delancey Street or West 38th and 39th between 7th and 8th Avenue in the Fashion District.
I’d heard of a new store in the Fashion District that specialized in trimmings, handmade lace, piping, iron-on embroidery, decorative patches, coat of arms embroidery for blazers, and had unique collections of metal and glass buttons. It was owned by Sabbath observers, which meant it was closed on Saturday but open on Sunday. I usually took my son on my shopping adventures. I needed him to help me carry my sewing treasures home. At the time, I didn’t have a car and so we would take the train round trip. When we got to the store, a bearded older man looked at us through the plate-glass display windows. My son and I were standing at the entrance with packages from other fabric stores. I tried the door to the small store. It was locked. I rang the buzzer, but he continued to stare at me without opening the door. An impatient white woman behind me tapped on the window and he opened the door. He allowed her to enter the store but blocked my entrance. He said I had to leave my son and my packages outside if I wanted to come in and look around. I wanted to see what the store had to offer, so I agreed.
Interestingly, he continued his surveillance, following me throughout the store’s two floors of fabrics and trimmings. When I shop for fabrics and trims, I like to touch, feeling the textures and weight of things. That day, he made me so nervous with his continued scrutiny that I left after ten minutes without buying anything. I vowed never to go back to the place and I never did.
That incident happened over thirty years ago. I’d hoped that kind of biased “I’m Black so I must be shoplifting” treatment had ended. It hadn’t.
Recently, a friend and I were travelling in upstate New York. It was early evening when we made a pit stop at an official state rest stop. I went to the restroom while she shopped at one of those tiny clothing stands that sells guidebooks, candy, magazines, coffee mugs, sweatshirts, and hoodies with the state’s seal on it. When I exited the bathroom, I happened to catch an older white female cashier sneaking around the aisles shadowing my friend as she tried on caps and hoodies. I was surprised. I spotted other potential customers who were trying on caps and sweatshirts. They were white. Of course, nobody was following them to see if they were going to steal something.
I should mention I was a senior real estate manager for the city. My friend had a high-level job in the board of education. We both have education beyond master’s degrees. Between us, our salaries are easily three times more than what cashier makes annually. That day, we were dressed as if we did too.
I guess it still doesn’t matter how well one dresses or how articulately one speaks or how much money one makes, fear of Blackness wins every time. Just ask the young Black men hanging out in Starbucks until the manager called the police to report them for doing what everybody does at Starbucks. Or ask some of the folks reading this post for their own experiences.
Thanks for reading,
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