This past weekend I had an unsettling experience that I’m trying to make sense of. I thought that sharing the story and hearing your feedback might help me put it in perspective.
I was having a great time shopping in an urban neighborhood known for its hip, bohemian shops, vintage clothing stores, indie cafes and culturally diverse restaurants. I had already made a few purchases along the way when I came across a store that caught my eye. As I entered the store, a woman approached me.
Woman: (Caucasian, grey haired, unsmiling): “Can I help you find anything?”
Me: (Black, rocking a beautiful fresh twist out, smiling): “No, I just want to take a look. Is this a vintage store?”
Woman: “No it’s not…and the store is closed right now.”
It was mid-afternoon, the door to the store was wide open, and merchandise was on display on the sidewalk. The store didn’t look closed. But because there were no other customers inside, I decided it was possible the store was temporarily “closed” for lunch or a coffee break. I decided to give the woman the benefit of the doubt. I left the store, but with a very uneasy feeling.
About an hour later I returned to the store. Again, the door was wide open and merchandise lined the sidewalk. This time I could see 3 or 4 customers in the store, along with the woman I had spoken to earlier. I began to walk inside the store.
Me, to the woman: “So it looks like you’re open now.”
Woman, stepping into the doorway to prevent me from entering: “No, we’re still closed.”
Me: “Really? But I see customers inside.”
Woman: “We only let in people if they know what they want to buy. If you don’t know what you want, you can’t come in.”
By this time the customers in the store were standing around, listening to the conversation.
Me: “Well, I’m looking for some yoga equipment. Do you have any?”
Woman: “No, we don’t have anything yoga.”
By this time I had run out of patience. I was no longer smiling.
Me: “I don’t know what’s going on, but I have a right to shop here. If you have a problem with that, you can call the police. But I am coming into this store.”
The woman stared at me for a moment then slowly moved aside to let me in. Of course by this time I had no intention of buying anything. I just wanted to prove a point to her: that she couldn’t prevent me from shopping at the store. If I had called the police (and I would have), the law would be firmly on my side.
As I browsed, one of the customers who had overheard the conversation, a White woman, silently gave me an affirming nod and a thumbs-up. Another female customer, also White, made eye contact with me, smiled and whispered: “She can be really rude sometimes.” A boy about 15 or 16, also White, smiled shyly at me and said, “How’s it going?”
I stayed in the store just long enough to make my point, and then I left. During the time I was in the store the woman did not speak to me or offer to assist me.
I’m not a mind reader, and recently I’ve been trying hard not make assumptions about what people may be thinking or feeling. I can’t say for sure that this incident was racially motivated, but of course that’s the first thought that came to my mind. I’ve never encountered a situation like this before. It was completely unexpected and completely humiliating. I felt like I had been transported into a scene from Driving Miss Daisy or The Help.
I also couldn’t help but think about the other customers in the store. Although they did offer some passive support after I entered the store, none of them spoke up while the woman was trying to deny me access. I wondered, if I had witnessed an encounter like that, would I have spoken up? I like to think that I would have.
Needless to say, I’ve filed a complaint with a local consumer protection agency. In the meantime, I’m trying to figure out what lessons I can take from this experience. One thing I did learn for sure: it feels really good to stand up for yourself in the face of unreasonableness and ignorance.