August 02, 2008
I don't remember how old I was the first time it happened. I couldn't have been more than ten years old. We were in Philadelphia -- my mother, my younger sister, and I -- visiting my great grandfather on my mother's side of the family. For my sister and me, it was our first time traveling that far from home, and our first time in a city like Philadelphia. Everything amazed us, from the size of the buildings, downtown to the narrow little houses on my great great-grandfather's street, with no yards to speak of and no space between them; so different from our suburban home back in Augusta, GA.
Even going shopping was different. Instead of driving to the store, my mom pushed her grandfather's folding cart a few blocks to a store a few blocks away, and we followed her. The store was a wonder unto itself; on the outside a rowhouse like the one my great grandfather lived in, but on the inside there were long, narrow shelves holding food, toys, and other items we'd never seen before.
Our mother had told us time and time again not to touch anything whenever we went shopping, but we couldn't help it this time. We picked up toys and candy and other items, exclaiming to each other to "come look at this." Until it happened.
I heard the shopkeeper before I saw her.
"Put that back!" a female voice shouted. "What are you doing in here?! You better not take anything, 'cause I'm watching you." I looked up and into the anger-twisted face of a large, angry white woman.
We too much in shock and too frightened to say anything. I don't remember what else she said, but I'm pretty sure she called us thieves and threatened to call the police. I looked around for out mother, who hadn't realized that we were no longer behind her. I didn't see her for a moment, and then she appeared, no doubt drawn back to the front of the store by the commotion. She flashed us a look, and apologized to the shopkeeper (who was still giving us an angry look as we left the store with our purchases). It wasn't until we ere out of the store that our mother explained.
The shopkeeper thought that we were stealing from her store. We didn't understand until mom made it clear: the shopkeeper assumed because we were two black children we were going to steal from her store, and that's why she treated us like criminals.
It was a lesson I never forgot, and one that's been repeated throughout my life. I thought about that first time when I read this article from CNN's Black in America series, about how being black automatically means being suspect.