21st September 1963: Black American civil rights leader and Baptist minister Dr Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968) raising his hands in a restaurant. (Photo by William H. Alden/Evening Standard/Getty Images)
I almost do not want to write this, but I have to. It's Sunday and I am getting ready for three hours in my studio. Painting, drawing, etc. Before going in the studio, I decided to stop by an art store to get paint for today and also tomorrow. I am working with this after school project and I wanted the students to work with different colors than what I currently have. Any excuse to go to the art store is good enough for me. There are two art stores on Woodward Ave. that I could go to but I was closer to the one in Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit, so that is where I went.
I get there and was happy to see that paint was on sale. I grabbed what I needed, took a little bit of a walk around to see if there was anything else I wanted and got in line. As I waited, I hear one of the staff members yelling from behind the counter to someone out of my site range. She said "Please take that out of your pocket and put it back." I hear someone say something and then I hear her again – very loud, boisterous and aggressively say "I saw you take that out of the box and put your hand in your pocket." Then I could see the person she was talking to. It was a young black guy in a tan jacket with a cool afro. The quintessential artists type. He said back to her "Yes, I did put my hand in my pocket, but I did not put anything in it. Do you want me to come up there and empty my pockets?" She says "I saw you put something in your pocket." The young man came up to the counter and He said "You absolutely did not see me put anything in my pocket." as he empty all of his pockets showing them all to be empty beyond his wallet. The staff member said, "Oh, I just had to make sure." The young man walked back where he was and continued looking at markers.
I was at the counter heated. First of all he and I were the only black people in the store. Only people of color in the store. Secondly, she is yelling so that everyone dead or alive near by could hear, degrading a person, calling them a thief in front of a store full of people. Thirdly, she didn't apologize for her horrible behavior after she is found to be wrong. So, I looked at the young lady who was taking care of me and said "You know what?" and before I could finish that, my spirit told me to handle it differently. Don't put all your paint away and walk out in a huff. Tell the young lady what you think. Okay, I said to myself. After the cashier finish ringing me up or almost finished, I looked to the young lady that rudely talk to the young black man. I kept calm. I looked her straight in the eye and said. "I need to say this. I was about to put all of this back because of the interaction you just had with that young man. I understand you were doing your job, but it would have been better if you would have walked up to him and had a conversation with him instead of the way you handled that. You should apologize." She looked back at me, straight in the eye and said, "You are right. I could have done that differently." She heard me and I had hope that she will do that differently if it ever happens again.
She may not even realized the perception of what she did. Her act, which could have simply been an employee protecting the product of her company, could easily been perceived as a prejudice and racist act. That is how I perceived it. This is something most people of color deal with on a daily basis. We are profiled and assumptions are made or we are the victims of people who do not understand our history and journey and react in a way that actually is very hurtful to us which, for them, may be a normal reaction to the situation.
This young lady, from my point of view, assumed this young man, who is black, was stealing. Then, like many people that look like her have done over many decades, she talk to him as though he was less than. She accused him before she knew and then, just like other whites in similar situation, she did not apologize. If she had better understanding of the world around her or had experiences like this herself or even had friends she cared about that had similar experiences, she may have acted differently.
This young man and I knew that we had to react with less aggressive nature to be heard or that issue could have escalated and we would have been on the wrong side of that situation. We have to sympathize with her ignorance to enlighten her and at the same time keep us out of danger. That is our life. That is our reality. I think of Martin Luther King and his life and how many times he dealt with perceptions of who is was and what he was doing and how many times he just wanted to show his anger towards those showing hatred and anger toward him. He and others like him had to be absolutely strong and a little crazy. I felt myself wanting to go over that counter and grab that young lady. A quick second and it would have been over for me. Thank god for spiritual guidance.
It may be a moment before I go back to that art store if ever. I hope that the young man is also okay.