Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Friday, May 6, 2011
A few months ago, they put up a sign at my local IGA saying that customers can no longer put groceries directly into their cloth bags as they shop and must instead use a shopping cart. Around the same time, they hired a store security guard to stand near the checkout with his arms crossed and glare at customers. They also put up several sets of security camera photos of shop-lifters near the entrance so that they're the first thing you see as you walk in the door. In a very short period of time, grocery shopping changed from being an overall pleasant experience into a depressing and oppressive stint in a miniaturized security state.
Well, I don't like being told what to do and I certainly don't like being treated as if I'm a potential criminal in the course of doing something completely mundane and habitual. My little act of defiance is that I keep behaving as if the 'no bags' rule doesn't exist.
Shortly after the new 'no bags' rule was put in place, I was in the store minding my own business and bent over while putting some cans of beans into one of my bags. A voice behind me asked in a rather stern tone, “Excuse me sir, can I see your receipt?” I was a little startled at first and by the time I looked behind me to see a mustachioed man I had never seen in the store before I felt a strange combination of embarrassment and anger come over me. Despite feeling my cheeks beginning to flush, I gathered all the indignation and sarcasm I could muster and answered, “No. Because I haven't bought anything yet.” The manager muttered something apologetic and then left me alone.
After having some time to process the experience, I became really angry. How dare they accuse me of shop lifting? Don't they know that I'm one of their best customers? Don't they know I'm a good person? I've never been treated so terribly by a store employee in my life! I should steal from them! It would serve them right for how they treated me.
Then a sobering second thought came into my head: I have never been accused of shop-lifting before. I guess being white and 'presentable' (rich) looking allows me to avoid accusations like that. I know from observation and bad comedy routines that racialized minorities get followed around in stores all the time and that if you look homeless you're bound to draw more scrutiny from store owners/managers. I am god damned lucky to have the privilege of feeling as indignant as I did. If I was born into a different social class or with a different skin tone those sorts of accusations might be such common occurrences that they would become imperceptible background noise.
A similar interaction occurred when I was in the same IGA, this time with Jacquie, about two weeks ago. We were walking through the aisles, putting groceries in our cloth bags as we went like normal when we were approached by the aforementioned store security guard. He said that there was a store policy against using bags in the store. We put up some resistance and said that this is the way we've been shopping there for years and that we walk home with our groceries so this makes it easy to gauge whether all the groceries fit in the bags and whether they are light enough to carry back to our apartment. He went and got the manager for us, the same mustachioed guy who had accused me of shoplifting a few months prior. We reiterated our same talking points and tacked on the threat of shopping somewhere else. We went back and forth a few times, and in the end the manager had a pained and defeated look on his face, told us that he would let it slide because he knew we were “good customers” and went away.
Basically, our argument came down to: No, we like shopping this way and our preferences take precedent over your store policies. On the one hand, I think it's extremely important to put up a fight and resist attempts to restrict personal freedom and autonomy, especially when they are being imposed by corporations. On the other, we sounded like entitled assholes.
Our privilege was not only demonstrated in the fact that we won the argument, but also in the fact that we put up any sort of resistance at all. Who else but a pair of educated, white, heterosexual twenty-somethings from middle-class families would actually have the audacity to argue with a manager about cut and dry store policy that he had no hand in creating. We had no fear that he would kick us out of the store because that sort of thing doesn't happen to people like us. We had no fear that he would call the cops on us because that sort of thing doesn't happen to people like us. We certainly had no fear that our demands would not be met because if we argue hard enough and threaten to take our business somewhere else, the rules don't apply to people like us.
After it was over, I felt both glad that we had stood on principal and won our point, but also guilty for the fact that we had been able to parlay our privilege into being allowed to be exceptions to the rule. Clearly, if we had wanted to act in solidarity with those who lack our privilege, our arguments should have focused on having the rule abandoned altogether rather than having it stay in force but just not apply to us. What good is done by having an unjust rule no longer apply to someone who already has every advantage afforded to them while it still applies to everyone else who is consistently discriminated against? At the same time, I'm not too down on myself for behaving like I did at the spur of the moment in a sudden tense situation. I hope to take the lessons learned from these experiences and keep them in mind when I inevitably find myself in similar situations in the future.
Have you ever been in a situation where you were forced to come to terms with your privilege? How did that make you feel? On the flip side, have you ever been in a situation where you were lacking in privilege compared to someone else who was treated more favourably than you? Tell me about it in the comments.