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An open letter to my neighbor who accused me of stealing

Sandra Bass, Associate Dean and Director UC Berkeley Public Service Center | June 26, 2020

Recently while shopping in my San Francisco neighborhood, I was racially profiled and accused of stealing by another customer. This was not the first time I was racially profiled in a city known for its progressivism. This open letter is an invitation to all, and particularly those who count themselves among the “woke,” to dig deeper and commit to rooting out the biases they may hold that are causing harm.

Dear Neighbor,

We’ve never met. In fact, I have no idea what you look like although I have my suspicions. During a recent shopping trip however, apparently you were intently looking at me and made some assumptions about who I am based on my race. Who all people who look like me must be? Well, you are wrong, about me and about all of us. Let me tell you why. I’ll start with how I came to write you this letter.

After spending several weeks out of town assisting my family during the sheltering order, I came home to San Francisco. I needed to go shopping and wanted to support our local businesses, so when I hit town I went to our local health food store to grab a couple of bottles of essential oil as a gift for my mother. She finds the scent soothing as she drifts off to sleep. I stood in a long line, paid for the oil, did my part for the planet by not taking a bag, and then headed out the door right past an employee sitting there monitoring flow in and out of the store, receipt and purchase clearly in sight.

San Francisco's Painted Ladies Victorian houses

San Francisco Victorian houses by King of Hearts / Wikimedia Commons

I’ve lived and shopped in San Francisco for over a decade. Let me share what it’s like to be black in a city where the black population is 5 percent and shrinking, and to live in a neighborhood like ours that is about 1.5 percent black. I’ve been offered the homeless discount at our local pizza place. I’ve had staff at our drug store be summoned so they could stare at me and offer me “customer service” on every aisle even as I tried to pick up the most personal of items.

One time a neighbor threatened to call the police because he thought I was going through the garbage rather than taking mine out. Grabbing a cup of coffee or trying to buy hair products or clothes or food can feel like walking a gauntlet at times. I can be assured that there will be many eyes on me all the time in any place in any neighborhood in our fair city.

To avoid harassment, and with some resentment and ambivalence, I have acquired a habit of being reflexively vigilant about small behaviors I suspect you never even think about. Such as being mindful about what I have in my purse before I go inside a store — nothing new or unopened that isn’t accompanied with a receipt. Or being extremely conscientious about where my hands are at all times — no quick movements, especially when touching items on shelves and careful, deliberate placement when putting hands into pockets, purses, or bags. And always asking for a receipt — not for returns but for proof. All of that is to say, I’m no amateur when it comes to shopping (or simply living) while black.

So imagine my surprise when the same employee I had just walked past with ease ran up to me as I got into my car, blocks away from the store. “Excuse me,” he said, “did you pay for those two vials you have in your hand?” Vials? Not a common word unless you work in a lab and so I shot him a dumbfounded look accompanied by an audible “What?” Then he repeated his demand, “I need to know, did you pay for the vials you have in your hand?” For a moment, I thought it was a ploy to get close so he could do me harm. As it turns out he was out to cause harm, not the one I feared but a very familiar one nonetheless and I was not in the mood to entertain him. “Yes, I paid for this!” I said sharply, and closed the car door and left.

Shortly thereafter, I started to think about you. Because I couldn’t understand how the same employee who shot me a quick smile as I left the store, would then chase me for nearly two blocks to accuse me of stealing. Not to mention the odd use of the term vials. I called the store manager the next day to share my story and he confirmed that it was you, dear neighbor, who took it upon yourself to make a judgement about me based on my race and then encouraged the staff member to address my “theft.”

I don’t know anything about you but given the demographics of our neighborhood and the store that day, I think it’s fair to say you are probably not black. And despite the fact that your actions were harmful (and as we know from the numerous videos documenting vigilantism against black people could have been disastrously harmful, if not fatal), I’m having a hard time demonizing  you or believing that you are a rabid, raving racist out to intentionally harm black people. (Although they exist everywhere, including in San Francisco.)

I imagine you visited our local store for the same reason I did, to support local businesses who are struggling during this time. The store manager shared with me that shoplifting is up for all businesses in our neighborhood, a trend that is reflected in the increased security in the area. Perhaps you knew this and thought you were doing your part to help them (by the way, the store manager shared that they did not appreciate your vigilantism — at all).

I wonder if you know that your privileged social position is so bestowed with implicit power (particularly in comparison to mine) it compelled an employee to act even when, as I later learned, it was against the store’s policy of not alleging any theft unless directly witnessed by an employee. This could have cost him his job. In a worst-case scenario, it could have cost me my life. Did you even consider that you were putting me in danger based on a prejudicial hunch? Maybe your entitlement is so normalized it never occurred to you that you were weaponizing it and then walking away from the consequences of your actions.

I also imagine you being one of those people who posts things like “We’re all in this together” on Nextdoor or bangs pots and howls with other San Franciscans at the appointed hour to give voice to our support for essential workers. If so, my question to you is, why didn’t you see me as part of that “we”? Are you willing to be honest with yourself about how your biases color your perceptions of who can shop in peace, who belongs in your community, and how your narrow definition of inclusion is both deeply flawed and damaging to everyone?

This public health crisis has laid bare just how detrimental our societal fissures are to all of us. While the virus has disproportionately impacted specific groups such as health workers and providers of essential services, the poor, the elderly, and black and brown people, none of us is immune to this infectious disease or any other social ill, and there are no walls, no social segregation schemes, no enclaves of privilege that can protect you from that truth. Yes, we are all in this together and I and others who look like me need you to get that.

I believe you have the capacity to do better. Although I have been profiled and judged based on my race, I’ve also experienced the marvel of seeing a heart turn, a mind open, or an unexamined harm seed greater compassion when that harm was exposed and examined.

And so dear neighbor, I would like to offer you an invitation: Have the courage to truly live into being the bigger, better person you seem to think you are. The next time you want to accuse a black person of stealing, don’t. Seriously, just don’t do it. Be brave enough to be honest about your flaws and actively practice growing beyond them. When you find yourself making blanket assumptions about people based on race, pause and question those assumptions. It is highly likely that you are wrong. Expand your idea of who constitutes your “we” because “we” includes all of us, and “we” have as much right to live, breathe, walk, laugh, love and shop unimpeded as you do.

And get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You have a lot to learn and even more to unlearn. Actively seek out knowledge from those unlike yourself. Lean into the process of seeing the world through the eyes of others and questioning the beliefs and biases you hold that are deeply rooted but not part of your conscious awareness. Like castor oil or bitter medicines, hearing that you need to expand your capacity for compassion and solidarity may not go down easy, but you’ll be glad you imbibed a vial of unvarnished truth in the end.

(Published on the site, Waging Nonviolence: People Powered News & Analysis 6/26/20)