By Nichole Guillory (WellAcademic Guest Blogger) - Mothering in Color
My partner Jerome—a Black man—went for a bike ride that was cut short because of leg cramps. He visited a nearby grocery store, one we frequent a lot, and purchased a banana for 23 cents. He then proceeded to eat the banana in the store to stop his leg cramps as he shopped for our weekly groceries.
Not long after, a store clerk walked by—without stopping—and told him, “Be sure to pay for that banana before you leave.”
He never stopped to ask if Jerome had already paid or to ask if everything was okay—eating a banana in a grocery store is not a usual occurrence, after all. He just assumed Jerome had already “taken” merchandise he hadn’t paid for and was going to leave the store. He wanted Jerome to know he had been “caught.”
It took a few seconds for Jerome to realize what had happened. Once he did, he went looking for the clerk who had disappeared in the back of the store. He found the manager instead. He explained what happened and asked to see the store clerk. Assuming Jerome couldn’t hear the two of them in the back of the store, the manager told the clerk, “Just apologize. It doesn’t matter.”
It. Doesn’t. Matter.
Jerome is a Black man who has lived in the Deep South all of his life. So the store clerk’s accusation is not new. Two years ago in Louisiana, Jerome brought my mother’s very old faucet into a home improvement store to buy a replacement part, which he did not find. On his way out of the store with the visibly used faucet, a store clerk accused him of shoplifting.
And that’s just one example among many.
These kinds of accusations are exactly why Jerome knew to pay for the 23 cent banana before checking out with all of his other groceries. So when this clerk assumed that he had not paid for something, he was not surprised.
What bothered Jerome the most about the incident, however, was what the manager said about the situation—it doesn’t matter (and hence Jerome didn’t matter). The manager was more concerned with making Jerome go away than he was with challenging and changing how his employee viewed and treated certain customers.
Let me pause this story for a moment to say how very fortunate Jerome and I feel—which is also quite sad—that the police were not called. We are all well aware of the recent calls to the police for our alleged crime of “Breathing While Black,” for going about our daily lives—for eating in a Waffle House, barbecue-ing in a park, moving out of an apartment, checking out of an Airbnb, sleeping in a common study area of an Ivy League university dorm, playing golf at a country club, playing a pick-up game of basketball at a recreation center, buying prom clothes in a department store, selling water on the sidewalk in front of our home, sitting at a Starbuck’s waiting on a friend, using a coupon at a CVS, talking in a Chili’s parking lot after dining there, mowing a neighbor’s lawn, swimming in a neighborhood pool, attending a funeral for a family friend. And it is important to note that this long list is not exhaustive.
Later in the evening, Jerome and I talked about this situation at the dinner table with our ten-year-old son Nicholas, because he could tell that something was bothering his dad. After Jerome told the basics of the story, we asked Nicholas for his thoughts and feelings. He said the store clerk should have just asked Jerome if he had paid for the banana.
He also wanted to know the race of the store clerk.
Nicholas has been asking this question a lot lately in response to news stories he hears on NPR or in response to conversations we are having about the latest incident of “Breathing While Black.” Nicholas has always been fascinated with finding patterns. So I think he’s recording instances and trying to find a pattern between racist acts and the people who commit them. In the case of the grocery store incident, Jerome chose not to tell him the race of the clerk. Instead, he used Nicholas’s question as an opportunity to explain the systemic nature of racism, that racist structures rather than individuals are the real problem.
I realize now how difficult it must have been for Jerome to stay calm while telling this story to our son, how difficult it must have been not to reveal the race of the store clerk. When I asked Jerome later why he chose to withhold that part of the story, he said that we were not raising Nicholas to hate and to fear and that he wanted him to form his own beliefs, not copy ours.
This from a Black man who has to struggle against the effects of racism Every. Single. Day. And who does so without the benefit of having a group of supportive friends where we live, like I have, friends with whom he can process and repair racist micro and macro aggressions.
I’m writing this post to publicly acknowledge this brilliant moment of fathering. And not just for our son, but for us, the two adults raising him who grew up without biological fathers, who experience racial traumas of our own within a national context of hate. I live in a constant state of worry about sending both of “my boys”—Nicholas and Jerome—into a very dangerous world unsure whether they’ll always come back safely or undamaged. The grocery store incident reminds me of the difficulties of raising Nicholas so that he does not live in fear but also so that he does not blindly assume that all people in the world will protect him or regard him as we do.
It’s an amazing gift to watch Jerome’s thoughtfulness as a father, as he shows Nicholas that vulnerability is also a marker for strength, how not to hate so that he can show him how to love, and how to be proud and confident in a world that does not always welcome a proud and confident Black man.
I am thankful to be on this sometimes frightening, always beautiful parenting journey with him.
Nichole Guillory, PhD, is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Kennesaw State University. She publishes on the experiences of women of color in the academy. She is mom to Nicholas, the love of her life. We couldn't be happier that she has agreed to pen a the Mothering in Color series for WellAcademic.