Michelle Obama, a very tall woman, went shopping at Target two years ago. Another customer asked her if she would mind reaching the detergent on the top shelf and handing it down.
Two years ago when she told the story it was a nice tale about how she had managed to shop unrecognized and still connect with a fellow shopper, give somebody a hand.:
“No one knew that was me. Because a woman actually walked up to me, right? I was in the detergent aisle, and she said — I kid you not — she said, ‘Excuse me, I just have to ask you something.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, cover’s blown.’ She said, ‘Can you reach on that shelf and hand me the detergent?’ I kid you not. And the only thing she said — I reached up, because she was short, and I reached up, pulled it down. She said, ‘Well, you didn’t have to make it look so easy.’ That was my interaction. I felt so good.”
Now it’s an act of micro-aggression.
I tell this story – I mean, even as the first lady – during that wonderfully publicized trip I took to Target, not highly disguised, the only person who came up to me in the store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf. Because she didn’t see me as the first lady, she saw me as someone who could help her. Those kinds of things happen in life. So it isn’t anything new.”
Michelle was wearing a baseball cap, her hair was tucked up in it, she was wearing casual clothing, and she was at a Target. She’s like, 5’10”. I am totally baffled by the implication that she should not have been mistaken for a tall lady who could reach the detergent and would be willing to help a short lady out.
I am not a tall person, so I have on occasion asked a taller customer if they can reach something for me. I don’t do it often, but I have done it, and I always choose the person I ask based on height and proximity. Shame on me.
I also often have people assume I work at stores where I am shopping. I have never really stopped to wonder why- I assume it happens to everybody. A few other times I’ve been asked for help it’s not because one of my fellow customers has assumed I work there, but he has assumed I know more about where things are than he does, and he’s asked me where the, say, turmeric is, or if this is the right kind of oil. I say he because it usually is a male, generally an older man sent to the store like a lamb to the slaughter by his wife. (and by few I mean in comparison to how many times they’ve assumed I was an employee, it’s still more times than I could count).
Sometimes, though, it’s a college girl, usually if I forget that I live in and near a college town and never want to go to Walmart or the grocery store nearest the campuses in the opening weeks of school. The college girls see me and I naturally just scream to them “Housewife and Bargain Shopper” so they ask me where to find something- the ironing boards or something. Poor dears. I never iron. Anyway.
The point is- this does happen to me a lot, and by a lot I seriously mean half the time I go to a store (more, if I forget and go during dormitory shopping season). I have never been offended by this. I’m usually glad to help, presuming they don’t want me to take their list and do the shopping for them. I guess I should have been insulted?
I have also just learned this is itself also an act of micro-aggression, this hearing one person tell a story about something that happened to them, and me replying by saying this has happened to me, too.
But, how is that microaggression when, in fact, it does happen to me, and lots and lots of times, more than I could possibly keep track of. I do not accept that it’s an act of micro aggression or remotely racist to point this out. I don’t find this insulting or annoying, it’s just common experience. Based on reading that last link, the real issue is that people who aren’t caucasian and who go around calling themselves POC and writing about micro-aggressions are completely oblivious to just how common an experience it is. I mean, in the comments people sharing their shared experiences of similar outrageous behavior, a few of which were really obnoxious and clearly race related, but most of which were just…. somebody at the store asked them where the something or other was. My favorites are the numbers of commenters saying, “Oh, yes, that happened to me before, too,” and then they say it happened twice, or some other small and very definite number.
Tsk tsk. Really? I can pretty much guarantee that I will experience somebody asking me for help in a grocery store about half the time- so one for every two visits.
It is about as human an interaction in the America that I know as saying hello, nodding your head to somebody as you pass by, or, oh, I don’t know- grocery shopping.
It’s also happened to me at the library, people have assumed I work there.
It’s happened at thrift shops, possibly because I can’t look through the books without straightening them up, somebody assumes I work there and asks a question about policy or location and if I can answer I do, if I can’t I say so.
When my five oldest kids were stairstepped little goslings flocking around me, I was mistaken at least once for a nun, and many times it was assumed I was their daycare provider rather than their mother.
Racism definitely does exist- I am not saying it doesn’t. I see it in my community, I hear it from people here and there, I see it sometimes when I’m out with Blynken and Nod. Once Blynken was playing with a hispanic little boy at the library- Blynken is biracial and looks like he could be hispanic. Nod is not biracial. He came up to his big brother and asked if he could play. There was a conversation where the hispanic child was shocked Nod and Blynken were related, and he was pretty much done playing with the Blynken once Nod showed up. It might have been because he didn’t want to be bothered by a preschooler, which Nod was at the time, but I was there, I heard the questions he asked, and I don’t believe it for a second. (in case it’s not clear, Nod is black).
It’s a thousand, million times better than it was fifty years ago, forty years ago- but it’s still around and it’s still wrong. (rule of thumb: when somebody tells me they aren’t racist, or they don’t see colour, I can expect to hear them say something racist and cringe-worthy in the next five minutes)
But when you have to change the nature of a story you shipped as a feel good tale two years ago, and now are retelling as a ‘see, people still see us as the help’ tale, you actually are the one undermining the real problems that do exist. It’s like crying wolf. Because this particular example- being asked for help at a market, or having somebody assume you work there when you don’t, does happen to almost everybody, regardless of colour, and we all know it. So when you call something this common to the human experience in America a racist act and it’s something that white people experience pretty commonly and quite regularly, it’s hard to take you seriously when you talk about racism. You’ve already shown yourself to be given to exaggeration. And it’s particularly egregious when you are speaking such nonsense from your position of power as the wife of the elected head of state to what was quite recently a great super power.