The first time I remember being followed around a store, I was in elementary school. My mother’s body language was the clue that something wasn’t quite right, her tension contagious and her silent anger palpable. An enjoyable afternoon of shopping had become something of a nightmare and my own worries were overwhelming. There were ongoing adult conversations about the anti-immigrant and racist sentiment in the surrounding community. I had even witnessed my uncle being beat by police, so not even law enforcement felt safe in my young mind.
“Is he following us?” I must have asked as we turned down another aisle.
Would we be arrested? Should we not have come into this store? My mother seemed determined to look at every single item we passed. I can still remember the look she gave me. It’s a look I’ve adopted in times of disappointment and anger. Not quite an eye-roll and not quite a stare. An intense and complicated look that attempts to communicate dignity, disappointment, and determination. I imagine it’s the look of many parents of color in the midst of an act of discrimination. Especially when witnessed by your child.
“Put your head up.” Was her response. “Put. Your. Head. Up.”
Holding my hand she continued down various aisles demonstrating how to hold your head up in the midst of sheer frustration. As a school-aged child, I learned how to turn my abject fear into a righteous determination. We passed the store clerk on our way out the door, both of us looking him in the eye. Another skill my mother taught me that day. How to look someone in the eyes, when it was the very last thing you wanted to do.
Growing up my mother has always insisted my brother and I dress well. After this event, one of many, I was religious in this effort. It’s perhaps one of the reasons I loathe shopping entirely. Early in our relationship, my wife and I went out a lot. Well, given that I was a virtual recluse, it seemed as if we were always out and about. The first time I was followed in a store, she was completing unaware. She was welcomed in the store and offered assistance, I was followed silently. By the time we left the store, I was done and our trip to this ‘gay-friendly’ community was a joke. We eventually talked about this and other realities related to race. Most important, we talked about what that would mean as we made a life together.
“How was the shopping?” I asked my wife and son yesterday.
“Good. There was no one in the store and no lines.” She gave me a look that I couldn’t quite interpret. “There was an angry lady though.”
“Angry lady?” My son proceeds to ask every question under the sun about this woman and what she looked like. How do you know she was angry?
Sharlene later gives me a look, nodding her head at our son, and comments. “She seemed to be frustrated.”
I immediately flash back to being his age, walking through that store with my mother. All those feelings of being worthless, targeted, and angry rush through my body. It took me about five minutes to breathe through these feelings and then let it go. My son chatters excitedly about the ice cream and chips they purchased, bouncing from one side of the living room and through the kitchen. I’m not quite sure if their shopping trip was an experience where someone questioned his ‘right’ to be in a store or whether they were annoyed with his exuberant seven-year-old self. Or perhaps some combination of both.
In this moment I recognize that Sharlene, as his white mother, offers a different experience for our black son. She offers him a form of protection that I do not by virtue of her race. I remember one rather tense interaction where she challenged a museum employee who reprimanded our children, most definitely a sight to see. As a black woman, I approached this woman cautiously and discovered that her intention was not what we had thought. I offer my son caution and determination. Similar to what my mother taught me, maintain your dignity. Our joint parenting effort is to support both our children to maintain their dignity, remain cautious, and challenge experiences of discrimination in all ways, always.