I remember being in high school and having a white adult explain to me that "ageism" was the reason why teenagers got followed around any and every store they entered into the mall. We just looked like we were going to steal.
I thought, at 14 years old, "They're right. I am going to steal." I considered the rationalization of profiling as sound advice: "I should be cautious when I am trying to pocket that new Covergirl mascara from Duane Reade."
My best friend at the time was a headstrong Latina. (Race is clearly important here.) I am Latina too, but I look African-American so people treat me with those cultural expectations. My friend looked more like the archetypal J-Lo or Selma Hayek, the way Hollywood has us imagining "spicy, hot, exotic Latin women."
I remember walking into a Claire's Accessories store (did anyone NOT steal shit from there?). We immediately were followed around the store. Yet, she still had the balls to wrap a black and white scarf around her neck and walk out of Claire's without paying. How could he have not seen that? Oh, right because he was following me, not my friend. Our age had nothing to do with it. Everyone in that store was young (it's Claire's!) but I was the only one being followed around every aisle. It should be noted that I didn't and wasn't planning on stealing anything that day.
I had stopped stealing at that point. The few incidents where my goodie-two-shoes ass got a rush from pocketing cheap items came to an end when I got caught stealing one of those cheap, plastic, rolling back massagers from Rite Aid. Was I the only person who stole shit that day, among my group of friends? Nope. But I was the only one who looked Black, I was the only one stopped at the exit by the security guard who told me to unload my backpack.
There I was, guilty as fuck, affirming all of his prejudices about people who look like me.
I decided that if people were going to stereotype me in this particular way that I could not be a stereotype in this particular way. At 14, I decided it wasn't worth being a thief because me being a petty thief (albeit as a young teenager) meant that all Black people were thieves.
I once heard a white man say, "When you go out you're representing your race." Except when you're white, you're just an asshole, a thief, a rapist, a murderer - one who has gone astray from the flock. When you're a person of color, you're a cultural symbol.
When I was eighteen, I was kicked out of a thrift store because I was Black. I had given up thievery, let's remember that. Another Latina friend of mine was with me, we were picking out inexpensive clothes for our Senior Week's "'80s Day." Two white college students were leaving as we came in. We were browsing some of the racks and engaging in typical, "OMGZ! That would look so good on you!" behavior when the owner (who was some flavor of Indian -- I point this out because PoC are guilty of making racialized judgments too) came out from behind the counter and said, "Get out!"
"Why?" I asked.
"Just get out, please!" He said.
"We were just looking for clothes for a school project. I don't understand?"
Then he said one of the most horrible things ever said to me by a stranger (only second to the N-word). He said, looking straight at me, not at my Ecuadorian friend, "I know who is going to buy something and who isn't by how they look."
We left. I was in shock. I didn't say it but my friend did and I was glad she did. It meant I wasn't crazy. She said, "I think he said that to us because of you look Black. You saw how he was only talking to you, right?"
We saw two police officers. They were Hispanic. I started crying. We told them what happened and one of them said, "There's nothing we can do about. Hey, I've been discriminated against myself!" Wow, that made me feel better - NOT!
Unfortunately these are just some of the incidences that occur when shopping while Black. I thought, for some stupid reason, that graduating from college (NYU! Summa Cum Laude, bitches!) that I'd graduate with respect. I had grown up on welfare, in The Bronx, I thought college could some how counteract any preconceived notions about me.
Nope, at 23 years old I am still followed around the drugstore when shopping for new eyeliner or at the clothing store when buying a new shirt. The only time I don't get followed around is when I am with a white person. I guess those security guards think, "Oh, she's cool. She's one of 'em."
No matter how far you've come or grown as a person. From thief to model citizen. From ghetto girl to college graduate. There's always someone there to remind you that you're Black -- or, at least, you look Black -- and that's the worst thing you can be.