Personal Space: The Grocery Store is Not a Country Club

My friend S. recently told me a disturbing story. This is nothing new to me, but it was one of the first times he had experienced racism in Portland due to his experience. So you know, S. is half Moroccan like me, but he has darker skin than I do.

S. is health-concious and prefers shopping for his food at places like Whole Foods, New Seasons etc. He was in NW Portland's Whole Foods (located on the skirts of the Pearl District) last Sunday to do some shopping but he had to use the bathroom. Whole Foods has a customer only policy on bathrooms, and S. for all intents and purposes was a customer. He did not have the entry code on a receipt though, because he wasn't finished shopping. This is where the trouble started. S. waited while the bathroom was occupied and then tried to enter after an older White man came out. The man tried to stop S. from going in, demanding to see his receipt and when S. didn't answer him the man started calling for security. S. theorized to me that his skin color and his reticence (and possibly his attire) led the man to believe he didn't speak English nor was a customer of the store. It was humiliating and afterwards S. went to the manager and told him what happened. Fortunately the manager was sympathetic. Unfortunately there is nothing he can do about. Nor will it be the last time something like this happens.

I have had many experiences like S.'s and sadly I was not surprised by his story. I was disgusted, of course, and also saddened that he had to experience this. S. comes from a more multicultural/multiethnic community in Pennsylvania and I don't think he has had to confront other people perceiving him as an "Other" before.

I found myself thinking more about this incident and then about two days later I had an epiphany. Rich (and/or) White people constantly feel entitled to question the presence of people like us in a space that they perceive as "theirs". The neighborhood in which this particular grocery is located is demographically-speaking, overwhelmingly White and furthermore the Whole Foods brand attracts mostly wealthy White customers.

What I don't understand is why the customer decided to intervene. It really wasn't any of his business. That is what Whole Foods employs security guards for. Moreover, S. was carrying a Whole Foods bag, so theoretically he was also a customer. This man decided that my friend did not belong in his space, his neighborhood and felt threatened. Why do White people feel they can question this? The rest of us are certainly made to feel that we can't question gentrification, be it in our working class neighborhoods, our gay bars or our religious community centers.

The grocery store is not a country club.

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