If my husband meets me at a store, as soon as he sees me, the first thing he does is take the backpack full of our kid’s stuff off of my back. Why? I won’t push it around in my shopping cart. Why? The answer to that question is long.
The answer is based on a lifetime of experience which has taught me that having the backpack at all means I’ll probably be followed through the store, but placing it in the shopping cart means I definitely will be. Actually, the backpack isn’t a requirement for being followed; it happens without it. A lot.
Let that sink in. Have you ever had to think about something so trivial? Have you ever considered that there are people in the world who make decisions to try to protect themselves from being treated like criminals because life has taught them that people will assume the worst of them on sight?
There was a store in Kansas City that we stopped going to. Why? Every time we shopped there, I was followed. I don’t mean I think I was followed; I mean at least one employee followed me from section to section, watching me. When I would make eye contact, they came closer, scanning my basket, and asking if I was still okay. Counting. Checking.
The last visit, it was two different women. One followed me all the way from the upstairs section of this 270,000 square foot store, and when another employee downstairs noticed me, she joined the task force. As I was looking in the women’s section, they both actually almost ran into each other because they were so carefully watching me. It was like watching a Curly and Larry, but these two stooges did not illicit laughter from me. Before you say it, yes, I contacted the store’s management on both occasions. No. I was never contacted back.
The first time it happened was the first time my husband noticed that I was being followed. It really bothered him, and I had to explain to him why this person was conspicuously following me; if I have a bag and look how I look I know she thinks there’s a chance I could try to steal merchandise in it.
That’s why my backpack stays on my back and never goes into the cart. I know they know it would make it easier to steal if I can just slip stuff directly into my bag.
Now my husband carriers our bag. We have never once been followed with the bag in his cart or on his back. My husband and I have adored each other for ten years of marriage, and in that time he’s become more aware of the freedoms that are afforded him based solely on the way he looks in contrast with me.
The people who follow me in stores base their decision to do so on nothing about me besides what I look like. They don’t know me. They don’t know my character. They don’t know that I have no desire to steal from them. All they know is what they see.
Can you imagine that for a moment? Can you imagine that there are people in the world who have to make decisions, “big” and “small,” based on knowing that the way they look is going to determine how they will be treated in an innumerable amount of situations?
Imagine where you aren’t just someone’s friend, but you are their “black friend.” Imagine being asked why you think you belong with your friends when you are the only one who isn’t white or having people talk about you right in front of you expressing how you “don’t belong.”
Imagine knowing that checking a box and having a certain name will mean that you will have no less than three more interviews for the same job as someone else because you find out later the company has never hired a black person. Imagine finding out that after meeting you and seeing you, they felt better because of your light skin, but still needed three more interviews to be sure they wanted to hire you.
Have you ever been spared the additional pat down at the airport? Have you ever not had your hands swabbed? I don’t know what it would be like not to have to give extra time in security because there are always extra measures taken to check me out anytime I want to fly somewhere.
Can you feel that? Can you hear it?
I am not free to live my life in the same manner as so many people I love based solely on the fact that I look different. I am not free in all the ways that have been penned into law.
The Constitution has always said that men were created equal, but history shows how that is not the case. Have you ever had a heritage that counted your ancestors at 3/5 a person? Do you know what Jim Crow laws actually said? Don’t just know the name; go read them. Do you know what red-lining is? Look it up. Do you know why and when Civil War monuments were put up? Do you know that their locations were strategic for the use of intimidation at voting stations and courthouses? Have to read them? Do you know how inaccurate they are in true historical context?
None of these things may mean anything to you, but that doesn’t change someone else’s narrative. You may be able to shop or drive a car without concern that how you look will immediately cast you in a role of threat or criminal. I hope that’s true for you, but I’d like it to be true for everyone.
I believe in a really big America (reference to Jon Foreman article I will share a link for below- please read it). I believe in an America big enough for freedom that doesn’t lead others to operate out of fear. That’s what I’m doing by carrying that backpack. It’s an extra thirty pounds on my back (I have three kids so it’s a really heavy bag), but it’s nothing compared to the weight around my heart.
I imagine there are others with similar weights from being marginalized or treated differently for reasons you can’t control. I care about your weighted heart just as much as mine, and I believe that we really can see change if we love and strive to make a difference to the height our potential to exert change where we are most needed.
Where are you most needed? What injustices do you see that ignite something in you that screams, “No more!” because it keeps you up and rattles you? Go to that place and put your hands into the muck and start the work of turning the muck into something beautiful.
As we care enough to carry each other’s weight, we move forward in love and toward freedom. That’s a bigger America than you may be able to imagine. If it is, I’d challenge you to see the world outside yourself long enough to push back your preconceived notions. If you can’t do that, then you can’t love. If you can’t love long enough to listen, you are part of the problem. If you are part of the problem, open your heart and mind to become part of the solution.