Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Midweek Grocery Store Story for You: More on the Role Religion Often Plays in Hardening Folks' Hearts Against Targeted Others

I have a middle-of-the-week story for you all. It's, among other things, a story about that lamentable tendency of groups of people who have experienced historic oppression to turn around and heap oppression on some other hapless group, once they think they themselves have gotten a leg up. It's about that shocking, deeply painful human tendency to refuse to learn empathy from one's own experience of oppression. It's about the role religion often plays in hardening folks' hearts against targeted others.

This is, in short, a story about going to the grocery store. As I may have shared with you, Steve and I do our weekly grocery shopping on what Steve likes to call "gray-haired shopping day," when our local store offers a discount to senior citizens. It's often like a fiesta when we go there on Tuesdays: gray-haired neighbors aplenty grabbing the discounted bunches of flowers that have seen better days; high-school classmates shocking me as they come up to hug me ("When on earth did they get so old?"), etc.

There are a lot of things we find to dislike about this particular store. Several years ago, the national corporation remodeled the store, turning it into a kind of boutique grocery store for the many young professional people in our neighborhood who like to "grab" pre-made meals, rather than to shop for real food and cook it. And so the deli section is now enormous, with lots of chi-chi, over-priced cheeses that are near the end of their life, but still marked sky-high in price, and with a dubious-looking sushi bar and an offering of soups, casseroles, salads, all of which look (and smell) as if they have a lot of chemical additives and shortcuts in them.

Staples we used to buy before the store was remodeled have disappeared from the shelves, and no amount of pleading seems to convince the store manager to bring them back. We used to buy, at a good price, gallon bottles of olive oil with the store's label. Those are now gone, replaced by very expensive "boutique" brands in much smaller bottles. 

Yesterday, I made a soup and opened a box of barley I had gotten at the store several weeks ago. "Barley? Never heard of it. What is it?" said the helpful stock clerk I waylaid in the aisle of the store, when I couldn't find it on the shelves. She led me to the single, solitary offering of barley in the store, something called "quick barley." When I opened the box yesterday to add it to soup, I found it's some kind of bizarre flaked barley!

I also do not like — not at all — the national policy of this grocery store to permit open carry of assault weapons in stores in places where the law allows this. Because of my disgust that the national chain refuses to alter this policy, for a good bit of time, Steve and I shopped around to find other stores with better national policies about weapons in their stores. We eventually returned to our usual store because, frankly, it's simply more convenient for us, and we were wasting time and money driving to stores in other parts of the city when this grocery store is only several blocks from us (and is the store at which my family happens to have shopped for decades, since my grandmother's house was across the street from it).

So my grocery-store story: because we shop at this store weekly (and sometimes at other points in the week), we've gotten to know quite a few of its staff, and they, in turn, clearly know us — as a couple. As in any configuration of people in any part of the world right now, but especially in the bible belt, there are some staff members we've learned to count on to cold-shoulder us, to pretend they don't see us when we approach the cash register with our grocery cart.

The kind of homophobia you can put your finger on but which is still subtle enough that you'd be accused of imagining things if you made a fuss about it . . . .

And so all the more reason that we appreciate some of the staff who go out of their way to signal to us that we're valued customers . . . . One of these is a check-out person who is unfailingly friendly to us. If I had to guess, I'd guess that he himself may be gay, though he has never said this to us. Bits and pieces of information he's shared about his life as he checks out our purchases and talks to us have led me to think this may be the case, and if it is the case, that this might be why he goes out of his way to be friendly to us.

I don't know, though. He's certainly not what many people would stereotypically think of as a gay man. He's burly, heavily bearded, an avid sports fan. And for what it's worth, I happen to know he's Catholic, since he speaks of going to Mass on Sunday.

This store has a procedure whereby you can submit feedback about your experience shopping there. On several occasions, Steve and I have followed the instructions on our grocery tab to log onto the store's website and tell the national management how the folks at our local store have dealt with us when we've shopped there.

When we've done this, I've told them about how much we appreciate the courtesy and welcoming manner of this particular staff member and of an older woman who often assists at his cash register in bagging our groceries. She's a charm of a human being who has had a trying life. When she sees Steve and me come into the store, she unfailingly comes up to give us each a hug. This particular chain hires people who have various challenges to bag groceries, and that's one of the things I do very much like about the store.

We've also told the store that we appreciate the courtesy of the folks in the meat department with whom Steve deals on a routine basis, as he paws through a bin he calls the "used meat" bin — the mark-down bin. Likewise for several other staff people in the store who are unfailingly helpful to us . . . . 

But here's the problem: in systems that incorporate hidden prejudice, where it's not always safe to be a gay employee (or even a gay customer), there can be inbuilt catch-22s if a gay customer praises the work and service of a gay employee, or an employee that fellow employees perceive to be gay even when he/she is not gay. Because I am always aware of that dynamic as I offer feedback on forms like the one provided to us to report our experience shopping in this store, I've been aware from the first time I praised the check-out person that my praise for him could backfire for him, if someone wanted to make trouble for him. (The national chain relays the feedback from the online form to the managers of its local stores.)

I've been aware that people who wanted to attribute his friendliness to Steve and me to sexual orientation might well accuse him of giving preferential treatment to gay folks (or to other gay folks). It has even occurred to me that people who wanted to make trouble for this employee could accuse him of giving us discounts we don't merit. Such things do happen in life, you realize — such bogus accusations and complaints to slur the character of those who belong to a minority group.

Unfortunately, this appears to be precisely what has happened — just as I feared. One of the other check-out people at this store who seems to have a lower-management role and therefore to have seniority over the employees I've describe above happens to be an African-American woman (I mention this fact because it's germane to the story) who seems to have a bee in her bonnet about Steve and me. I strongly suspect her church has placed that bee in her bonnet.

And so when we check our groceries out in the check-out line over which she presides, she displays overt hostility — and open doubt — when I tell her that a grocery item has rung up at the wrong price, at a price higher than the price marked on the shelf in the store. I am an inveterate price watcher. I learned from my mother to watch the price of each item as it rings up.

No week ever goes by without several items we've purchased ringing up at a higher price than the price marked on the shelves in the store. Yesterday, I selected a bag of potatoes because their price was marked $2.99 — a dollar cheaper than the price of other bags of potatoes offered next to them. When we got to the register, the potatoes rang up at $4.99, and I had to tell our check-out person that this was not the price marked in the produce section.

Two mark-down pieces of cheddar cheese, which had a sale price written on them — a printed-out label showing that they had been marked down and giving the mark-down price — rang up at their original price. I asked the check-out person please to notice the price on the label, and he then corrected the mistake.

The woman I mentioned above has, unfortunately, chosen to communicate in various ways that she imagines I'm being dishonest when I tell her that a price the cash register just rang up is not the price that was marked for this item on the store's shelves. On one occasion, without saying a word in response to me when I told her this, she stomped off to look at the shelf label.

She then came back carrying the label in her hand. It was the price I had indicated to her I had seen on the label. Without saying a word or apologizing, she then voided the price that had rung up on our grocery tab and entered the correct price.

When the bill that was printed out for our groceries for that day then gave me the url to report about the service I had received that day, I did so. I described what had happened, and said that I very much resented the insinuation — since that was what this check-out person had communicated to me by her behavior — that I would provide untrue information about the price of a grocery item. And that I resented the check-out person's decision to stomp away from the cash register without a word when I told her an item had rung up at the wrong price, and her return to the register with the label showing that I had provided correct information to her, with no acknowledgment on her part that I had been right — and no apology that the store had tried to charge me more for this item than the price that appeared on the shelf where I picked it up.

This is only one of several instances in which I've encountered this behavior from this employee. Though she has not spelled out what she thinks and why she's behaving this way in so many words, her non-verbal communication is clear and pointed. 

She has also made it clear to me that she suspects her colleague who is friendly to us of colluding with us in providing bargains for us that the store is not offering. When we end up going to that employee's check-out line (we choose the shortest line, always), she finds a way to hover nearby to listen to the conversation and to watch prices as they ring up. Yesterday, she positioned herself right behind us to do this, bagging groceries in the next check-out line and watching the list of purchases as carefully as I myself was doing.

This caused the check-out person ringing up our groceries to be so visibly nervous that his hands shook. He blamed the problem on a change in the computer screen that made it difficult, he said, to see items on the screen with his bifocal glasses. I felt intensely sorry for him, as I saw how miserable the suspicion and hostility of his colleage made him.

As I said above, this is a catch-22 situation. If I continue to make waves, praising his good service and complaining about her hostile service, I could well cause him to suffer, when it appears she has seniority and perhaps has the trust of the senior managers in the store. 

And back to the fact that an African-American woman is dishing out this suspicion and hostility of gay customers and of a fellow employee who has been nice to us: isn't it richly ironic that people who have known historic oppression which includes being followed around stores as they shop, because store managers assume they will steal, would choose to turn around and treat people who belong to another historically oppressed minority group in the very same outrageous way they have been treated as African Americans?

Wild horses could not cause me to steal anything, or to cheat someone out of a penny. My one infantile foray at a life of crime — taking a toy donkey from my grandfather' store — resulted in such hair-raising punishment (and the demand that I go to my grandfather and abase myself before him) that, from the age of four when this took place, I have never dreamed again of taking something from anyone else that does not belong to me. Very early in my life, my family communicated to me that people who steal (or lie) belong to a class to which my own family does not belong, and that I'd bring total disgrace to my entire family if I stole or lied.

And so I resent very deeply being treated as if I am engaging in some kind of scheme to defraud my local grocery store over bags of potatoes and chunks of cheddar cheese. And it's particularly galling to have such insinuations being made by someone who should, I would hope, have learned about the unfairness of characterizing a minority group as light-fingered and unscrupulous — and who, I'd bet the money I saved on my bag of potatoes yesterday on this, has learned that she has a "right" to disdain gay folks as immoral folks from her church. 

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