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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)

Comments to “An open letter to my neighbor who accused me of stealing

  1. Associate Dean & Director Ward, your psychological space was assaulted by a store employee allegedly on store business but who was significantly far from the store, hence he was breaking the law:

    ” ran up to me as I got into my car, blocks away from the store”

    The significant distance from the store was clearly illegal and constitutes harassment and so he should receive a misdemeanor violation from the S.F. District Attorney’s office.

    In a generally similar situation—psychological assault—- NYC did the right thing by charging a misdemeanor violation against the Central Park unleashed dog walker for filing a false report.

    When someone does psychologically assault someone, the D.A. can and should upon request take a few minutes to issue a misdemeanor citation.

    jmo

    namaste

  2. Oh, Sandra. I’m so sorry you experienced this, that day and always. The numerous ways in which you have to adjust your behavior in anticipation of such racist assumptions and aggressions are unfair, exhausting, and infuriating. Thank you for sharing your story and challenging us to reflect on and change our own racist tendencies. We must do better.

  3. I read your letter, Sandra. The fact is you have no idea if you were questioned because of your race or not. You’re just making assumptions. I’m sorry you were falsely accused but it happens to me occasionally too. I’m older, white and obviously gay. And guess what? I’ve been stopped repeatedly after exiting stores and asked to show receipts for items I’ve purchased. On one of those occasions in Menlo Park some years ago I was approached by a security guard who demanded I show a receipt. I refused (although I had the receipt in my pocket). I found the presumption that I had stolen something and the demand I prove to him that I hadn’t to be demeaning and patently unfair. The security guard then grabbed me and restrained me, preventing me from opening my car door and leaving the parking lot. I began to yell for someone to call the police. Someone apparently did call as the MP police showed up several minutes later. Once the police were on the scene I showed my receipt and demanded that a police report be written and filed as I was being physically held by the security guard wrongfully. I made sure to have the officer note in his report that I had the receipt. Nevertheless, despite the fact I had purchased every item that I was loading into my car and had been physically restrained from leaving, Safeway did not apologize to me and told me I was now barred from patronizing their store ever again. The reason they gave was simply that I had refused to provide a receipt. And guess what? I recognize that a merchant has the right to refuse my business. Now I strongly believe that I am routinely targeted because of my very obvious sexual orientation but I do not know this as fact. I might suggest, Sandra, that the same is true in your case as well. You can make assumptions but you really have no idea what the motivation of the person who erroneously reported that you had stolen something.

    • Thank you for sharing your experiences.

      Your argument sounds similar to ones I’ve heard throughout my life about whether race is a motivating factor in any disparate treatment or outcomes. And yet we continue to see Black people being watched, followed, stopped, accused, beaten, and sadly killed more often than others. I think that reality speaks to the reality of how race operates in this country.

    • Tim W. Reading your response just made me so angry. It was dripping with complete and utter denial, and was so insulting! How quickly you asked to call the police…why?, well because you are were not afraid, because you apparently didn’t even think you would be thrown to the ground…because you feel the police are here to protect you. It is painful when white people out right deny racism and then lecture POC about it. It is a micro aggression that POC must face daily. Your attitude is not just hurtful, it perpetuates the problem.

      • POC never call the police? Try telling that to my husband’s niece (a POC) when she was being beaten up by her (now thankfully ex-) boyfriend. Or my husband (a POC) when his car was stolen.

        You have no idea what my feelings are towards the police. I’ve had several very unpleasant interactions with the police over the course of my life. However I’m not stupid and will weigh the alternatives open to me under the particular circumstances in which I find myself at any given moment. When my present reality consists of being physically held against my will by someone who is younger, taller, muscular and greatly outweighs me versus the potential unknown outcome of police intervention, then I get to flip the coin and choose. Not you!

        And finally, this is a public forum. I don’t have to unquestioningly accept every narrative put before me. If you feel that my ethnicity negates my right to question a wholly unsubstantiated assertion by the author, that’s just tough. She has politely stated her opinion as I have politely stated mine. If that makes you angry, uncomfortable or in PC gobbledygook constitutes a “micro-aggression”, then so be it. 

  4. I would echo Torie’s comment — you are someone I look up to and know to be wise and wonderful. As a person born in SF, in a family with progressive values, what you shared (and other friends/colleagues of color have also shared with me) is sobering. It shows the depth of systemic racism means it exists everywhere — and if we presume we are immune in this region, it will persist.

  5. Wow! Who would have thought this would happen in SF. But if you involve humans you involve prejudice. Judging people by their skin color is like judging flowers by their color. Who would say “I like the red ones but not the orange ones?” If we see a flower that is a rare color, we remark “oh how beautiful!” We should see skin color like flowers, all beautiful colors to make the bouquet.

  6. Sandra, I’m so sorry you went through this and so admire your ability to use your pain as a teachable moment for others. It’s so easy for us to convince ourselves that we are “woke” because we live in the supposedly progressive Bay Area, but we all have to realize that there is just as much racism here as anywhere and it has always been baked into our systems and society. We White people must do better and be better! Thank you.

  7. Thank you for writing that. I’m Latina, born in South America, but pretty pale. In grad school my best friend, who is black and Latina, and I went everywhere together. I was astonished at the questions and following. I learned an important lesson. This is how it goes, one lesson at a time. You made an appreciated contribution.

  8. Thank you for turning your negative experience into a teachable moment, Sandra. Your advice to expand the definition of “we” is powerful and very much needed.

  9. I am an Old White Guy.

    This happens frequently at Walmart. A Walmart employee checks my receipt as I exit the store.

    • Samuel,

      I’m a Middle-Aged White “Gal.” Let me try to understand your comment better. Do Walmart employees chase you down *after* you’ve shown your receipt and say you’ve been accused of theft? Did you read Sandra’s entire post? Policy or no, customers are treated differently in these everyday scenarios.

      I highly recommend that you read White Fragility (as a start). It discusses why white people challenge stories from people of color about overt racism they’ve experienced, among other topics. It’s a real eye-opener and I myself learned a lot.

      Sandra, Thank you.

      • Kate

        Have you shopped at Berkeley Walgreens? If you leave the store with merchandise and receipt in hand and trigger an alarm someone will come out to investigate. I have seen this happen while I entered the store. There is a lot of shoplifting going on these days.

  10. I wish your open letter could be sent in the mail to each of the residents of my new and very white neighborhood of SF. I’ll try to share it on the neighborhood FB pages, as your experience isn’t isolated and similar scenarios are occurring with frequency here.

  11. Thank you so much for writing this incredibly powerful piece. Your words help make so clear what those of us with white privilege take for granted every day. I will remember them.

  12. Thanks for sharing this painful experience, Sandra. I’m sorry you had to endure this nonsense and am in awe of your grace in handling this and other such situations. As another dark- skinned person, I aspire to respond to the indignities with similar poise and level-headedness. You are inspiring!

  13. Sandra, you are a beautiful beacon of light. I so admire you and your work. When they go low, you show us how to go highest.

  14. Thank you for sharing Sandra. It hurts to hear how your neighbor doesn’t see you as part of their community. Living in a progressive city like San Francisco can give people a false belief that it is the rest of the country that needs to catch up. It gives us an excuse to not do the work within to grow and learn about our own bias. Hopefully stories like this will inspire reflection, I know it has for me.

  15. Thoughtfully written letter! Thank you for hopefully educating this person, who desperately needs to wake up from ignorance and bigotry.

  16. Sandra,
    That is a beautiful article. Thank you. I wish I lived in your neighborhood. I’d love to walk down the street with you to your neighborhood market and listen to you talk about all the wise and wonderful things you have to say.

  17. My heartaches for what you and so many go through. Your article was beautifully written and should be published broadly. Will it help? hard to tell. I hope so!

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