what my neighborhood grocery store has taught me about stereotypes

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Monday, June 14th, 2010

what my neighborhood grocery store has taught me about stereotypes

a brief note: i’m particularly sensitive to issues of race. i believe racism is still very much a plague on our society in many forms. with that, i realize that this post is the blogging equivalent to trying to tip-toe through a minefield. i hope to use some introductory candor and humor to talk about a serious and often hurtful topic. i hope, in the end, to segue into some commentary that will shed some helpful light on the issue.

now back to your regularly scheduled program.

i love our neighborhood grocery store. its prices aren’t the lowest. its produce is suspect. it’s missing some of the brands i prefer. it (bizarrely) plays country music over the speakers. the parking lot floods with the slightest hint of rain.

and i love it.

why? because i’m the white guy. yep. at any given time, the store’s population is made up of about 99% black people and then me. now, if i just happen to hit it at a crazy white person rush, there may be a whole 1 or 2 other white people.

and i love it.

you see, there’s so much to learn—as a white person—being the vast minority. when the tables are turned, one’s perspective becomes much different. one begins to see many things much more clearly, particularly, in regards to stereotypes.

i often tell people in conversations about race/racial observations that there’s a reason for almost all stereotypes. most things that are propagated by a mass of people over the course of a cultural timeframe have, at least, somewhat true origins. now, it’s certainly worth the pause to 100% affirm that stereotypes are not true across the board, but just as certainly, they do describe a large portion of a specific group or people. and, of course, they can be very hurtful, so i’m careful to work within the context of that realization.

now, i understand that some people are gonna be getting squirmy and weird with those comments, so let me unpack them a little with some examples.

our neighborhood grocery store—food giant—allows me to almost daily observe some amazingly awesome stereotypes. bear with me as i list them and i’ll get to some brief commentary.

[editorial note: i’m doing my best to give literal observations, as opposed to inflations that simply make a point.]

• it’s relatively safe to say that maybe 8 or 9 out of 10 people buying cigarettes buy newports.
• at least twice, i’ve observed people asking for a raincheck for the sold-out chitterlings.
• in relation to a relatively sparsely populated grocery store, there is almost always a line at the fried chicken counter.
• long before any other grocery store had watermelon, food giant had it. and the very large bin was constantly sold out.
• on the drinks aisle, the orange/grape soda is at the prime eye-level shelf (rather than on the bottom like most other stores) and is regularly sold out.
• until now, i literally have never seen anyone actually purchase collard greens. i see it at least 2 or 3 times a week at food giant.

indeed, stereotypes do contain an element of truth.

i could list more, but i think you get the point. the fact is that in a predominantly black patronage context, these things have been my simple observations. i don’t think i’ve intentionally sought these out or been particularly hyper aware, thus skewing my observations. rather, i’ve just simply observed these things over the course of about a year as a frequenter of food giant.

so, what am i ultimately getting at here? am i simply propagating hurtful sweeping generalizations or is there some other reason for this post? well, there is, in fact, a greater purpose.

as i’ve spent time observing these things from the vantage point of an overwhelming minority member (contextually speaking), i’ve had to ask myself a question: what do i do with these observations?

i have a few choices. the first and most convenient option would be to look at these things as affirmation of racial discrimination and prejudice. these observations could instill a sense of pejorative difference between me and the black community. i could choose to propagate the convenient “us vs. them” paradigm that we currently live in. i could assume that my cultural norms—as a majority member—are the standard for “normal” and “right”, thus assuming anything different is wrong.

second, i could assume everything in the first option but additionally assume that it describes every black person. sure, i’ve only seen someone ask for a raincheck on chitterlings twice, but i could assume that every black person sits around eating chitterlings all day long. they all sit around puffing menthol cigarettes like tupac and they all wash out the minty taste with their gallons of nugrape. that’s certainly possible and i could assume that was the case. therefore, of course, when you combine option 1 of viewing these things pejoratively with option 2, it would lead, naturally, to a distaste for all black people.

options 1 and 2, sadly, are just as popular as ever. stereotypes have been used in both of these ways for many, many years. i think, though, there’s a third and better way.

i have the option to celebrate my observations. i have the option to use it as an opportunity to build dialogue about differences in cultures. i have the option to raise my children in an environment where there’s more than a single set of cultural paradigms. i have the option to, in fact, poke fun at these observations because i’m freed from suspicion and judgment. i have the option to learn, rather than judge. i have the option to listen, rather than talk.

rather than letting stereotypes breed prejudice and suspicion and separateness, there’s a third way that’s much more beautiful and much more helpful.

so, tomorrow when i swing by food giant to grab some bread or milk, i’ll likely observe someone with a cart full of collard greens or asking the clerk for a pack of newports or making a special trip for some watermelon. it’s a pretty safe bet that i’ll observe that, in fact, stereotypes have a truthful origin.

yes, my neighborhood grocery store has taught me quite a bit about stereotypes. most importantly, that a third way is the best and most beautiful option.

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