Grocery Shopping While Black

Zhalisa Clarke
Jul 12, 2018 · 5 min read

Citrus Heights, CA.
Imagine you’ve just spent $220 at Raley’s on groceries for a camping road trip. You’re in the parking lot putting the groceries in your trunk when you hear the screech of a police SUV make a sudden stop at your car.

“Ma’am, did you buy those groceries? We have a witness cashier that says that you took several items without paying for it,” says a 6 foot tall white policeman in full uniform accompanied by his partner.

“Excuse me?” I say, shocked and horrified at the accusation. After the man repeats himself, I say to my friend, “Can you pull out our receipt?”

My heart rate shoots up. I have a terrible feeling in my gut, and I think to myself, “Is this really happening?”

The man then searches the cooler (which we had just purchased at Raley’s), the groceries (we had also just purchased), and our camping backpacks. They went through every item.

“Ma’am, what’s this?” the policeman says holding the receipt to check that the item was on it.
“It’s a cucumber, an english cucumber,” I say.
“Chips, ok that’s on there.” he says.
“Mushrooms? What kind of mushrooms are these? Oh, yeah, ok I see them on here.”
This goes on for quite a while, until he says, “Do you have any deli meats? You were seen spending quite a bit of time in the deli section.”
“I’m a vegetarian,” I say.
“Actually, she’s a vegan,” my friend says.
“I think she got some sopressata, but that’s it because as she said, I’m actually a vegan so there’s literally no meat but that,” I say.

I tried to think back to what they might be talking about. Ah, I was stuck near the deli section trying to find plant-based options and struggled. Everything had cheese in it, and there wasn’t anything tofu or plant based in easy sight. So yes, I do remember standing there for a while, honestly, thinking I should have gone to Trader Joes, and that was before I had the interaction with the police.

The officer tells us they have us on the surveillance camera, so if we took anything they would know. That we should be honest here. He then goes back inside the store, I assume to watch the video. The woman who accused us (Operator #681161 at Store #239) refuses to come out to the parking lot to accuse us in person, the officer says.

It’s 90 degrees and the ice is melting and my food is sitting out in the hot sun. I’m told not to touch anything. I’m told to sit down. After the item by item search, I ask permission to close the cooler. The $220 worth of groceries I had just purchased might go bad.

He then asks for all of our personal information (address, phone number, social security, if we have any tattoos). He explains that if there is a warrant out for our arrest, they need all of this. I tell him that we are on a road trip through national parks, and ask how we would know if there was a warrant out for our arrest. He said they would call us? Since this has never happened to me before, I’m not familiar with the process. He says, that there didn’t seem to be enough evidence, but if they need us they will contact us.

“We’re just not used to seeing people with reusable grocery bags around here,” he says.
“In San Francisco, they are pretty common,” I reply. “It’s just that this seems to happen quite a bit to people that look like me,” I say as sweat starts to glisten on my brown skin in the hot sun.
“Sorry ma’am, we are just doing our due diligence. We’re just doing our job.”

The police officers were responding to the alert they received from Raley’s, and I sent this letter to them. I’m curious what their response will be.


Dear Raley’s,

At 11:11am on July 11, 2018, I spent $220 at Store #239. In the parking lot, the police searched my car and my personal belongings accusing my friend and I of shoplifting. They told us that our cashier (Operator #681161) saw us steal. There was no evidence of this theft. All of the grocery items were on the receipt. The police diligently went through every item. The surveillance videos showed that we paid for everything. What sort of message should I and your customers take away from this? Why did Operator #681161 think we had stolen anything when she herself checked us out, and literally watched us pay for all of the items? I am a black woman with a Harvard MBA. My friend is an asian woman and a corporate lawyer. And, we chose to spend money at your establishment. Should we, and others that look like us make different choices going forward?

What sort of training do you have in place that makes this sort of behavior acceptable? What policies do you have around the treatment of your customers, especially those that might look a bit different than your employees? What is an acceptable basis for shoplifting accusations in your stores? Is it in your employee handbook to call the police and have your customers searched, without even talking to the accused first? What procedures do you have in place?

As a vegan, it’s ironic that they were searching for deli meats. Also, I would have spent less time in the deli section if there were a larger plant based food selection in your stores. Not that I have any desire to give you any more of my money, but for those that continue to shop with you, I have a few requests:

First, please discontinue the practice of having police accuse and search your customers, especially those that buy a lot of groceries (and are people of color).

Second, please consider re-evaluating your company policies and employee training procedures to ensure all of your customers are treated with dignity, regardless of ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, or sexuality.

Lastly, it would be great if you could expand your selection of plant based food options. You will be doing a great service to the health of Americans and to the longevity of our planet.

Sincerely,

Zhalisa Clarke

Zhalisa Clarke

Written by

Sound Healing & Meditation Guide. Yogi. Rock Climber. Violinist. Harvard MBA. Tech Executive. www.lunavibrations.com; www.linkedin.com/in/zhalisa/

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