On white privilege and Costco

    I just watched this powerful video today. It brought back memories. 

    It’s the story of a mother, grocery shopping with her 10-year-old daughter and her sister-in-law. The mother and daughter look, and are, African-American. The sister-in-law is also half African-American, but “passes” for white.

    The sister-in-law breezes through the checkout line, with a friendly, chatty checker. She writes a check without question and moves on.

    Right behind her (with the checker unaware that they’re all related), the African-American mother and daughter have a vastly different experience. Her sister-in-law speaks up in defense of the way they are treated.

    The story is simple, powerful, and poignant. It reminds me of a similar event that happened to our family, right outside of Philadelphia, just last year.

    My (white) husband was shopping with our African-American children. My son was a newly-minted teen, and his little sister was 9 years old, slightly younger than the daughter in the video.

    We are big Costco fans. My husband likes the bulk and the deals, my kids like the snack bar and the lure of impulse buys, and I like that Costco compensates its workers fairly.

    So after another fruitful trip through the store, my husband and children were shocked at how they were treated in line.

    While they were waiting in line, my husband had to use the bathroom. So he gave his Costco ID (required for purchase) and credit card to our son, “just in case” he didn’t make it back before they reached the register.

    He didn’t make it back in time. So my 13-year-old son explained that his dad was using the restroom and should be back soon, but these were his cards and he would be back to sign by the time they were finished checking out.

    The cashier was not happy.

    I know Costco works hard to keep things moving along and that they are strict about the photo ID. I get that. But I also get that there were children, waiting for their dad to come back from the bathroom, being polite and explaining the situation. We expected them to be treated fairly and kindly.

    They weren’t.

    The cashier looked at my children, looked at the ID, looked at my children again, looked at the ID, and said, “THAT’s your dad? Right.” She asks each of them twice to tell her who the man in the picture is to them, what his name is, etc.

    My son explains again that it’s his dad, while his little sister starts to get nervous. They can tell the cashier doesn’t believe them.

    She calls the manager over and explains the situation. My son offers to go get his dad. At first, they tell both kids they “need to stay right there.” They are both being treated as though they did something wrong.

    Another manager is called over. This manager lets my son go get his dad, but has my daughter stay put while he “makes a call” about the situation. She is 9 years old and getting teary. Her brother understands precisely what’s being implied.

    A few more minutes go by, and my husband finally makes it back downstairs to the register. Suddenly, all is fine. The two managers and cashier are all understanding, happy to help, glad things are cleared up. It’s all fine now!

    My son is only 13, but he knows better. He comes home, angry and upset. His sister cries when she talks about how everyone was staring at her like she did something wrong. I am infuriated and ashamed that this happened in a store we CHOSE to be members of.

    I call everyone, up and down the chain of command at Costco. There is an inquiry, several apologies, and (sadly) some rationalizations (the ID didn’t match… my children never said it did).

    But one manager high up the chain of command seems to genuinely get it. He admits it was handled very poorly. He knows the cashier could have either waited for my husband to return or just let another customer go ahead until he was back.

    He admits the cashier and the other manager treated my children differently, treated them like offenders, rather than children waiting for their dad. That they treated them that way because of their race.

    The manager was white, but he understood privilege. He knew it would have gone down differently if there were two white children standing in that line waiting for their dad.

    And that… that’s what we needed to hear. He apologized directly to both of my children and explained that they never should be treated that way because of their color, or because they didn’t “match” their dad. He told them he was glad they spoke up so that hopefully no one else would be treated like that in the future. He would make sure people in his store knew better and did better next time.

    Like the mother in the video, I wondered how much of the prompt reaction on the part of management was due to my own privilege. I also agree that it’s critically important to speak up. But wouldn’t it be much better if we didn’t have to?

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