I used to carry a very large, leather purse. It was actually a glorified computer bag. I loved it because, when I traveled, I could just slip my computer into it and go. With my relatively slight frame, I looked like a child playing dress-up. It made my gate uneven as I leaned to the right with the weight of it. If I wasn’t careful, I could just walk in circles.
Once, while waiting for my husband to run some errands downtown, I carried that giant purse into a local store to pass the time. I held some earrings up to my ears, caressed a camisole, and sniffed a candle, all before I realized that I was being followed.
The sales clerk was not subtle or clever about the way she trailed behind me, pretending to straighten this or that. Once I realized that she assumed I was a shoplifter because of my big bag, I had to resist the urge to pitch a fit. To call her out in the store. To ask to speak to the manager. I didn’t do any of those things, but I have never been in that store since, and I don’t hesitate to tell the story to friends (chock full of can-you-believe-it-ness) whenever someone mentions that store.
That was probably not the first sales clerk who looked suspiciously at my bag, which was more carry-on luggage than purse. Other clerks were probably just more discreet, or maybe I was just more clueless.
I retired that purse. Now I carry something small--the opposite extreme, even. Something with room for a tissue and a throat lozenge. No one wants to be treated like a thief. But I keep thinking of that “incident,” and how offended I was to be considered a likely candidate for cramming a floral print dress into my bag.
My husband, who is Black, has dealt with similar experiences his whole life (although he has never carried a big purse.)
As many of us have, I have been thinking about social injustice and recent atrocities. It is easy to feel useless or clueless in all this. As a White person, or really just as a person, I don’t want to say or do the “wrong” thing. I know I’m not alone in this hesitancy.
I recently saw a tweet where someone Black coached well-intentioned White people to take a list of other actions before asking a Black person to give them advice on how to be White right now. Our Black friends, who know how to talk us through all this stuff without us freaking out, can grow weary of us.
So, as I’ve been measuring my words, hemming and hawing, trying to figure out what to do next because I want to do "something,” I didn’t immediately call on the educator friends of color that I usually turn to for advice.
But eventually I broke down. I called a dear friend. I asked him how he was. He sighed heavily. He is on the frontline of educator conversations about race, and I could certainly imagine what was making him sigh at this point in history. But I was wrong.
What is actually most frustrating for him at the moment is trying to help one well-intentioned White person after another sort through their feelings and their responsibilities. It’s giving them the tough or kind love they need to muster the courage to step out. And even though he is counselor to children, parents, and teachers as they work through the grief associated with murders, such as the killings of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, he has done this grief work enough to know his way around it, as horrible as it is.
But the needy White people, like me, are the thing that is exhausting for him right now. Lots of us have been spurred to action, but we just aren't sure what that action should be. And we want to take action the "right" way.
And there I was, a whiny White woman on the phone asking him to tell me how to do the right thing. A woman who wants to pitch a fit because she feels she has the right to carry a purse large enough to steal a winter coat in without anyone assuming the worst of her. Someone calling for a pep talk because she’s afraid that she might be perceived as insensitive or racist or insight some fury on a social media platform. Heaven forbid. And he was his usual, generous self, of course, coaching me past looking for a way to be supportive enough without having to really put something on the line.
Dr. Jan Burkins is a full-time writer, consultant, and professional development provider.