Grocery Shopping While Black: Costco Edition
Hannah Drake, Louisville’s acclaimed writer, poet, blogger, and fellow shade extraordinaire, is constantly reminding us of the importance of unapologetically taking and HOLDING our space. Anyone who knows me, knows that this is something I’m very serious about: I never hesitate to allow my presence speak its own volumes, especially when confronted by individuals who clearly would rather I not be there. Hence my experience tonight at a local Costco store.
I went shopping with my mother and youngest brother (age 7). The purpose for the visit was to find a book from a series that my little brother enjoys. He’s been looking forward to buying one installment at his upcoming book fair, but caught wind that Costco carries other titles he hasn’t read yet, so he asked if he could go check out their stock. My mom agreed and I tagged along for the ride.
After grabbing the book and a few other items, we headed to checkout. As usual on a Friday night, the lines were crowded and bustling. Sunday’s looming Superbowl celebrations only added to the traffic. We chose a line and stood patiently. A store associate directly to our left said, “I’m opening a new lane. Next customer please step over.” As he said this, the cashier waved us and the the woman in front of us over to his lane. We took turns proceeding when another woman, coming from the far opposite end of the lanes, made a beeline to try to jump us in line.
Before you begin to wonder: Yes, she was.
For my unfamiliar shoppers, Costco lanes are organized for your cart to go on one side and the customer to go to the other. Since Costco is a bagless store, this allows associates to scan your items and place them directly into your cart for faster service. As my mother and I arranged our cart in it’s place, the rushing woman crashed her cart into the side of the lane, and began frantically trying to arrange an item separator in front of us. As she set one on the belt, I kindly set down the items in my hands and started unloading the rest of our items with an “Oh, thank you!” ☺️
Sarcastic, but it was also a subtle, still semi-polite way of conveying that, “I see what you’re trying to do, but no ma’am. That’s not going down today.”
She proceeded by attempting to both block the lane with her body, reach for her own grocery items (which were out of her reach), and prevent us from putting our items down on the belt all at the same time. We informed her that we were sharing a cart and her order could be placed after my mother’s. Rather than doing the polite thing and taking turns, which we are taught how to do as school children, she decided to start shoving our groceries around on the belt while piling her own items onto it, as if to say, “There’s no way that you will be served before me.” Her eggs hit the floor as a result, and between her continuing to shove our items and hers around, words were exchanged.
In typical fashion, the individual fighting hardest to hold up progress began to blame everyone, but herself, for the infraction that occurred.
We stated that we were there first, and she would not be permitted to cut the line in front of us just because she wanted to.
She spat, “Well if HE (the store associate) was doing HIS JOB to help me…” and tapered off.
“He’s doing his job and he just got here,” we replied. “You are the one who is out of line.”
When her 36 eggs hit the ground as a result of her actions, she directed her blame onto us.
“Well now THEY broke my eggs! You!” she snapped at the same store associate whom she was just talking about seconds before. “I need you to go get me more eggs!”
As her companion whispered something to her, she continued, “Well if THEY would just…” I failed to catch the rest, but once again, somehow her asinine actions were characterized as our fault.
This woman was nasty to us for no reason. She was not provoked, but she chose to display actions and language that clearly let us know that, in her eyes, her presence and time were far more valuable than ours. Still, I remained composed. Though I was enraged to the point of my hands shaking, I knew better than to break character in these moments because I knew several things at once:
I refuse to be pushed aside as though I am nothing by anyone.
Although it was a tense situation, it is important for my seven-year-old sibling, who will one day be a Black man in America, to see examples of constructive self-defense AND emotional intelligence acting at once. Even when people don’t deserve it, we live in a world that requires us to be very calculated in how we handle situations like these. Though we may want to scream and shout, such can be counterproductive, dangerous to our “freedom,” or even life-threatening. Which leads me to the last thing I thought in that moment as I responded…
Although we were the ones being harassed, if one of us snapped on this woman the way she deserved, we would be the ones paying the price. Plus, little brother didn’t need to see that unfold.
When she first began persisting with the belt separators, I said, “We will be going in order, thank you so much.”
When she continued piling her things while shoving ours, I said, “Patience is a virtue. Thank you so much.”
When she accused us of crashing her groceries to the floor, I stated with a sternly assertive, but still polite tone:
“‘They’ did not break your eggs. You were trying to stuff your things onto the belt, and ‘They’ were here first. So we will be going first and you can wait your turn. EVERYONE has a right to shop. Tsk, privilege.”
In other words:
My blood is boiling all over again as I write this because, in retrospect, I wonder if this will be the moment that my sweet little brother remembers as the first time he was treated like he was Black; seeing his mother and his sister spoken to this way, even though they stress the importance of equity and treating others with respect. I realize that so many people around us, maybe even some of you reading, are oblivious to the fact that this memory is a normal possession in the African American community. My earliest memory of being treated poorly because of my skin color was when a teacher – a Black woman who I fully believe was colorist – made a clear difference between how she treated us brown skinned girls in class, versus how she treated the light skinned and white ones. Now, sickened by the thought of this unjust rite of passage so many of us experience, I wonder if tonight’s quest for a book at Costco will be his.
I am grateful that through the entire exchange with the woman, the Costco employees were kind to us, remained professional, and acknowledged who was truly at fault. By the time I had said my last piece to the lady, the crowded checkout area had grown still and quiet. But as usual, no one stepped up.
Two Black women and a child were being treated poorly by a woman who took very clear steps to give them a hard time for no reason, and while many eyes stopped to watch, no one said anything.
It’s telling, and I cant help but wonder how much differently the bystanders would have acted had the tables been turned, if we had been the aggressors against her. That’s fine; I step up for myself and my own. The messed up part is that even then, we don’t have the luxury of expressing our every thought and emotion in the moment. Doing so still leaves us at risk of being perceived, and treated, as the aggressor.
I’m going to sleep tonight with the reminder that bigotry is alive and well. It’s been no secret, but it seems that just as you start to get comfortable, another person or interaction comes along to remind you of your place in some people’s minds. Thank God I do not define myself by others’ standards.
As Black History Month 2020 begins, I send God appreciation for covering me and my family this evening. I thank Him for the wisdom to think before I act. Above all else, Reader, I hope that you go forward with the same assertive spirit encouraged by Hannah Drake; refuse to move off of the sidewalk. You have a right to live, breathe, work, eat out, shop for groceries, and hold space, as everyone else.
Happy Black History Month y’all. Whew, 2020 has had a hell of a start.