What’s the difference between shopping for food at the grocer and stealing (while you are in the act of shopping)?
That’s what I continued to ask myself while shopping at Raley’s in Tracy, CA. While there, I was accused by another customer (an off-duty sheriff) of stealing and asked to leave the premise by the store manager since the customer had already called the police and management didn’t want the police in the store. There is so much to this story that I had to share it. I have attempted to be as objective as possible in sharing what transpired:
- I decided to go to Raley’s because I thought they might have some alternative and organic product. So I rode my bike to the store with my backpack in hand.
- As I was shopping for food, using both my backpack and a cloth reusable shopping bag, I noticed that some of the employees were looking at me and that there were even more of them in general, in the areas I shopped. I did not think anything of it at the time.
- Just as I was picking up some balsamic vinaigrette (near the organic section), two staff aggressively stampeded toward me and demanded that I drop my bag and leave the store immediately. The store manager was one of the staff members who approached me and he explained to me that another customer (an off-duty sheriff) called the police and then informed Raley’s staff that he witnessed me stealing while in the store shopping.
- I responded, somewhat incredulously, that “I am not a thief. I am here to shop for food.”
- The hostile energy dissipated a little and we walked together towards the customer service area where we then parted. I asked, in a playful and facetious tone, if he would “call off the cops” to which he nodded in affirmation.
- I then proceeded to checkout at the till, when the cashier and the bagger asked if my experience was ok. I then informed them that I was just accused of stealing while shopping. After I paid for the food, I then spoke with the store manager, again.
- I informed him that I thought the way they handled the situation was a bit hostile and that the accusation was inappropriate, since I had not stolen anything – I was shopping for food. He responded that since I was using a personal bag to shop with, that I looked suspicious, and they wanted to give me advance notice before the police came. His main concern, as he voiced it to me, was to make sure the police did not enter the store, so he was willing to courteously ‘inform’ me so that I would leave the store. I informed him that Raley’s happens to have some alternative products that I can’t find elsewhere in Tracy and that I would like to return as a customer without being considered a thief. He responded that he would like me back as a customer. I then rode off on my bike.
When I arrived back at my mother’s house, I asked her if she’d ever been discriminated or profiled while living in Tracy and she responded with a resounding ‘ohhh yes!’ to which I was surprised — she had never mentioned one incident in her entire 18-year history of living in Tracy. I then inquired further with other residents and learned that Tracy has a historical KKK membership as well a history of intolerance and discriminatory behavior towards people of color. However, what changed the entire situation for me was that I could not see how my behavior of shopping was any different from the other shoppers in the store at the time. Why was I targeted?
Yes, I was using two of my own reusable bags to shop with. And this makes sense if you are on a bike and have to measure what you shop for; otherwise, if you are using a shopping cart, it would be difficult to know what your carrying limit will be for the backpack. And, as an intimate foodie, I was reading labels, measuring and labeling in the bulk section, and going about my shopping experience in an extremely casual way. I was never in a rush nor was I ever acting suspicious. I WAS SHOPPING.
I wanted to make sure I wasn’t misreading the situation, so I contacted an old friend who works in multicultural education and diversity. According to him, it was the moment they said something which was when they crossed the line and harassed me. The surprise was they did so militantly.
If we are to really understand each other and be sensitive to different cultures, we have to be able to talk through and better manage these situations. I remember a friend telling me once that diversity means one thing: difference. That manager could have prepared his staff at the exits or even made sure the police were waiting there; instead he harassed and then humiliated me in public. He took away my dignity and made me feel like an outsider, right at a time when I was trying to make my way back to California after a number of years away. Why not simply ask me why I was shopping with my own bags? Why not engage me in conversation? They would have quickly learned that my interest was as a customer and not as a thief.