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Friday, June 12, 2015

Helping The Purple People (How Privilege Changes The Story)

Purple people: treated equally since 1865.
I helped out the purple people last week.

You've heard the story, or some version of it, a thousand times:

The “shady” person of color does something unquestionably suspicious like standing there or breathing. They are stopped by the gleam-toothed security and told that for the sake of law and order, they must cease and desist their trouble making. The person of color doesn't realizing that existing is obviously criminal, and thinks they've done nothing wrong. Seeking social leverage in the situation, they chooses to act the victim by playing “the race card.” They suggest that the only reason they are being held at bay by the forces of light from doing their horrific evil is because of the color of their skin.

Clearly nothing could be further from the truth.

Around this time, the poor maligned force for truth, justice, and the American way invokes the clan of purple people who are so popular in every version of this story.

“I don’t care if you are white, black, yellow, or purple, I would have stopped you.”  (No one knows exactly who these purple people are, but they are always treated extremely fairly.)

This sets our hero's intentions above reproach for surely they would have also stopped a purple person. Now there can be no reason to question why their perception of certain races are skewed heavily towards suspicion, while white people get the benefit of the doubt, a bit of leeway, and even a pass. After all, such behavior can’t even be informed by racial animus if no one drops a slur or fails to announce loudly “I’m doing this because you are brown!” just before they attack. (Edit: Or as we saw in Charleston this week, even if they do.) Prejudice is always overt and cartoonish and struggling against it never involves questioning our socialized perceptions. This is about justice and truth and light.

Just ask all those purple people who are always treated the same way.

Plausible deniability established, the accusation of racism is dismissed. Sure maybe racism still exists but not THIS time. And then you hear the story again…and again…and again.

And so it was I found myself in the middle of this story in my local grocery store. A black man looking at the chip and soda display case with a basket full of unpaid for groceries and the store’s security guard acted it out like kabuki theater. The man clearly, obviously wanted to see what chips were on sale, but the security guard was having none of it.

“Could you step away from the door please, sir?” the security guard said.

“I’m just looking at the chips,” the man said.

“Sir,” the security guard said, “please step away from the door with unpaid groceries.”

“I’m not going to make a run for it.” He laughed. He laughed, but his eyes only looked sad.

“I’m asking you nicely sir,” the security guard said, his hand coming to rest on the canister of pepper spray hanging off his Sam Brown belt on his left side.

Even the staged mirth drained out of the guy as he glared at the security guard. “Do I look like a criminal to you?”

“I would stop anyone that close to the door with groceries, sir,” the security guard said. “This has nothing to do with how you look.”

The idea that both of them didn’t know exactly what the subtext was is laughable.

“Uh huh,” the man said.

They finally agreed on the man leaving his cart to go over and look at the display, but it was a disgusting negotiation. The kind you might a see from a warden make with a hardened criminal rather than a mid-day shopper trying to buy some fucking discount Pepsi and Ruffles.

And that is where so many stories like this end. No “proof” of malfeasance. One person’s will a little more self-righteous and the other a little more broken.

I can’t make fiery speeches. (I can barely write coherent blog posts.) I am not a leader. And I’m not the right kind of temperament to jump in screaming. But what I do have is privilege and snark. And sometimes that’s enough to change the story.

 That’s when I took my own basket laden with groceries over to check out some chips. What I really needed were some “Buy 2, Get 1 Free” twelve packs of soda and “Half Off” chips. Like…right then.

Of course, what happened next may throw into absolute chaos your belief that purple people are always treated with perfect equity.

I am bigger than the guy the security guard yelled at—taller and wider. I was dressed in sweats and a T-shirt with some kind of toddler inspired stain constellation. I had more groceries in my basket than he did in his cart (and it was a basket, not a cart so it would have been easier to try to abscond with). My face was a disheveled mess of unkempt early beard growth, and my hair was a ragged shock of cowlicks simply allowed to roam free across the wasteland of my skull. I stood as close as the man did to the door. Then I stood even closer. Then I walked past the door, triggering the automatic sensor, on my way to look at a fruit display. The security guard even met my eyes with a head tip despite my very best “suspicious” look. Seriously, I even glanced furtively at the door just to ham it up.

There was no metric by which I could have looked less threatening, less like a flight risk, less like I was ready to head for the door with those groceries and try to clear the parking lot with some Ritz and a spray can of Cheese Whiz.

Save one.

And guess who didn’t get talked to? Who didn’t get asked to step back? Who didn’t get told to put his basket down in order to check out a display. Who didn’t get a dramatically repositioned hand on the can of pepper spray. Guess who got to hang out near the door (just minutes after the initial assurance that anyone would be stopped).

My next stop was the manager. As I walked up the same guy was already talking to him, no doubt about being treated like he was the great tri-state grocery bandit and not a human being who wanted some fucking chips. I couldn't hear exactly what they were saying but it seemed like the usual "We'll check into it" line. He saw me coming and put up that "be right with you" finger gesture that managers are so good at.

"Actually," I said. "This is probably about the same thing..."

Privilege changes the story. It shouldn't, but it does. That guy shouldn't have had his experience dismissed, and I shouldn't have had to validate it, but when a white guy walked up and said "there's some next level racism going on here," it changed everything. The manager was MORTIFIED to hear the results of my little experiment. He groaned “Oh god,” a couple of times, and promised us both that the security company would be notified. It was a completely different reaction than he was having when I walked up.

Sometimes people only SAY they would treat purple people no differently, but you really have to wonder. If they did, why does privilege always seem to change the story?

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