Today's Already History

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Location: San Francisco, California, United States

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Wheel of Brie and Forest Whitaker

One sweltering summer day in 2010, I was trudging back from the New York Historical Society after having thumbed through dust filled books searching for the remnants of New York's slave population. I took the bus back from the Upper West side to Morningside Heights, thankful for the air conditioning. The coolness revived my appetite, so I ducked into the market nearest the apartment I was subletting, Milano Market. I didn't really know what I wanted, I just knew that I was hungry so I browsed a bit before settling on cheese and crackers.  I quickly picked up my cracker selection, Wasa, and then moved on to the cheese.  This was more complicated. I picked up a substantially sized wheel of President Brie, waffling on whether to get the larger or smaller size (those micro mini fridges in New York sublets make you really think about space).  I decided to get the smaller and as I reached to put it back, I heard a loud sound next to me:

"I saw you!  You were about to steal that!  You tried to put that in your bag!"

I looked around to see who the offending shoplifter was, shamelessly rubbernecking. Next to me stood a well set man in his mid thirties with dark hair clad in a white apron.  His narrowed eyes confirmed that he was indeed speaking to me. I immediately lost two inches in height.

"I was just browsing," I sputtered, unsure of how to answer the increasingly angry man, who demanded to search my Burberry bag.

When he didn't find anything in the bag he looked deflated for a moment and I took the opportunity to appeal again.

"See, I told you, I was just looking at the display trying to figure out what to buy."  His eyes hardened again.

"You and I both know you were trying to steal that!" he roared, loud enough that all the conversations in the store seemed to go completely silent. I stumbled to the cash register in a haze, humiliated, the man close at my heels. I quickly paid for my purchases and bound out of the doors into the suffocating heat, ran to my apartment and slammed the door, trembling.  I couldn't believe what had just happened. After a few moments I took to facebook, venting my frustration in a breezy post that mostly hid my humiliation.

Evidently Milano Market on Broadway invested in the the anti-black PhD student security system, because the managers loud accusation that I was shoplifting a round of brie have certainly repelled any future purchases...
July 7, 2010 at 3:24pm 

My friends and family were outraged and left post after post of support and indignation. People called for a boycott, for the ACLU, for SOMETHING to make this right.  When my husband arrived home from his consulting internship, he was livid. His face darkened and he tore out of the apartment. I followed him, afraid of what might transpire, but stood outside of the market too humiliated to go in again.  The offending employee was still on shift and I could see him wildly gesticulating through the glass, his voice loud enough to carry outdoors.

"I caught her, I saw her, she was definitely stealing," he said pointing an accusatory finger at me on the other side of the glass. My husband demanded a refund for the brie, which he clutched in one hand, reciept in the other.

"No, we don't give refunds for cheese," the man retorted. "And I don't have to apologize for anything."

We vowed to follow up, to make sure that they knew that this kind of behavior was unacceptable.

But we never did.  The days pass. Some friends continue to rage against the injustice while others start to question whether you were overreacting, whether maybe it wasn't racially motivated and you're just being overly sensitive.  And you start to wonder. Maybe I am overreacting?  It might have just been and honest mistake?  Why does everything have to be about race?  But deep down in a place that's rarely acknowledged that humiliation remains, festering like an old wound sloppily stitched.

About a month ago, on February 16, 2013, Milano Market finally apologized.  But it was not to me, the nameless, faceless,  graduate student who was just trying to grab some food after a long day.  It was to the academy award winning actor, Forest Whitaker, who had been frisked by an employee at the store.  The incident garnered so much attention that yesterday, March 6, it made the New York Times opinion page: The Good, Racist People. My private humiliation was finally public, but it mattered only because it happened to a celebrity.  The message to the rest of us is clear: if you're black, and you're nobody special, you're guilty until proven innocent. The wounds you bear are yours to bear in anonymity.