What my skin color means: Seeing privilege and oppression on a Walmart run

I consider my skin color to be like my favorite coffee order, a Mocha. But if I’m being real with myself and with you, I’m probably more of a white chocolate mocha. I was born to a black mother and a white father. And on paperwork, I’d list my ethnicity as Pacific Islander, White, and Black. Or “Other” when I can’t choose all three. 

When I was in 7th grade, my dad and I traveled to the states for my cousin’s wedding. I remember worrying and fretting over traveling for the first time, without my whole family. I asked my dad, “How will they know I’m your daughter?” In my perception, I looked too dark, too different to be my dad’s daughter. I didn’t feel like my existence could be explained without both parents by my side. They were the roadmap to my skin color. And without that road map, what am I?

Am I black, am I white? Am I more black or more white? Or am I a perfectly blended, beautiful version of both? I am a half-cuss (half-caste- a derogatory word for mixed-race but don’t worry its a good term in PNG).

I’ve been thinking a lot about my skin color especially in light of the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. I am half-black, yes, but I can not begin to understand what my brothers and sisters go through in this country. I mourn their deaths and I mourn the continual oppression of black and brown Americans. 

A part of me is on the outside looking in hoping to understand, the other stands in solidarity. 

As I reflect on my white chocolate mocha skin color, I also reflect on the privilege that it has given me. My color whether I notice it or not defines me and with it comes privilege, responsibility, and a continual reflection of what that means to me and those around me.

My skin color changes. 

For most of my childhood, I lived in Papua New Guinea, it’s two degrees from the equator – so hot and humid. But when I moved to the east coast for college with the four seasons, my skin color changed without the 24/7 sun. When it’s summer, my true mocha skin comes out to play. I get tan once more, and It helps show that I am half-cuss. In the winter, however, I get lighter. But it’s not just the sun that changes my skin color.

People change my skin color…

My skin color means something different to other people. Based on my appearance, the way I dress, my hairdo, people assume I am a race or another. This was very evident when I joined a new doctor’s office for the first time. My intake nurse filled out my paperwork and asked me a few questions. Months later, I realized that my race/ethnicity said white. It wasn’t a huge deal, but I wanted it to be more accurate. The next time I went in, I told the nurse that some of my info was incorrect.

She was happy to help and asked what field was wrong. I said race/ethnicity. Once she pulls up my file, she starts laughing, and says, “I don’t know who filled this out but yea we definitely need to fix that.” She was African American and thought it was humorous that I was listed as white. She could tell that I had one or more races and she understood. Her daughter was mixed like me and she shared that people would mistake her too, and categorize her without asking or clarifying. The first nurse was white, and she wasn’t wrong in her assumption, she was just half right!

Understanding my skin color is important 

Understanding my skin color and how I’m perceived by others is important because it speaks to how I”m treated daily. It’s true. People change how they treat me based on how they see me, regardless of color. For example, based on the way you dress people might see you as well off or classify you as poor. People have preconceived notions of others and appearance goes a long way in defining that perception whether we want to admit it or not. 

Everyone has a sketchy Walmart

Everyone has that Walmart in their town or city that is just sketch. You go there because it’s convenient but you dread it because you see the strangest, funniest, and scariest people and things. The one thing that stands out to me is that there is always an employee that stands by the exit. Waiting, watching, almost lurking. Checking for receipts.

I remember one particular day, my husband and I went to pick up a few items. A Walmart employee helped us then checked us out in electronics (all the way at the back of the store). We got our things and our receipt and headed for the door. As we got closer, panic started to set deep within my gut. I started looking for my receipt, double-checking that everything we had bought was in a grocery bag.

I started to veer towards the check-out stations, but Jonny kept walking to the front door. He was going to head straight out the entrance! He was calm and cool and I and I kept telling myself over and over – Act natural, act natural, act natural. We walked out the front door, no problems. Nada. 

I grew up in a small coastal town of Wewak in Papua New Guinea and our small town had a handful of shops. Like you could count them on your hand. Our favorite grocery store was Tang Mow, a Chinese family-owned grocery store. To be honest, all our stores in Wewak were owned by Asians. (Which is its own separate story about wealth disparity in PNG). Like all the other stores in PNG, Tang Mow had hired security guards at the entrance and exit of every door. When you go into the store, you have to check your bag (anything bigger than a small purse), and the security had the right to pat you down as they saw fit and always, always look at your receipt. 

Unless of course, you were white. Unless of course… you were me. 

You see, for the first 19 years of my life, I held my head high, walked straight ahead, and walked past 2 sometimes 3 security guards that didn’t stop me or ask for my receipt. I was a half-cuss, I was American, and my mom was a very well-known person in our town (some people even called her the queen of Wewak, true story!). 

Sometimes there would be a new guard that would dare try to check my receipt or look in my bags, and they would be shut down immediately by one of my relatives or other townspeople. I never thought twice about walking out that door. But in a mid-sized central Pennsylvania Walmart, I was scared.

At my local Walmart, every person of color slows down at the exist, pulls out their receipt. And almost always, the employee looks at it. I do that too. I slow down too. I take out my receipt too. However, 50% of the time, they don’t check it, they just wave me through. 

Back in PNG, my friends, family, and fellow Papua New Guineas always had their receipts checked thoroughly, with the guard looking through each bag, and skimming the receipt to make sure the items matched. They endured pat-downs, and bag checks. These security guards were betraying their own people by elevating me and people with my skin color. And treating their own like criminals, intent on stealing and never given a chance or benefit of the doubt. And I hated, I mean hated those security guards. I hated their uniform and who they represented. We all did.

I had the privilege, white privilege, to be able to skip all that grocery store torment that seemed normal and was widely accepted around the country. I hadn’t thought twice about this since I came to the states, but every time I go to Walmart, I slow down, take out my receipt, holding it firmly and visibly in my hand. Sometimes, I put the receipt up to my face, pretending to brush my hair or rub my eyes. Just to make sure they see it. To make sure I don’t look like I’m doing something wrong. 

Have you ever done that? Have you ever had to think about that crinkly little piece of paper? Have you ever had to use it as your ticket, your get out of jail free card? Literally.

Seeing privilege and oppression on a Walmart run

As I’m pondering my Walmart run and this elaborate security system in Papua New Guinea, I think about the rampant racism throughout both countries. I am by no means an expert and I can’t say that I understand what a Black American or all people of color in the U.S goes through. But I see my story as an allegory for racism in the U.S. Let’s spell it out.

Tang Mow (the grocery store) is the United States. It’s the schools, the jobs, the opportunities that everyone should have equal access to. You need groceries to survive, to live, and to thrive just like you need education, jobs, and opportunities. But Tang Mow has put up a security system, a barrier, an inhibitor, that makes it difficult for people of color to enter. In PNG, you’re treated like a criminal before you can even enter the building. You have to check your bag, all bags. And even then, it’s checked on the way out. 

While you’re in some stores in PNG, there are employees (Asian employees and store owners) stationed throughout every aisle watching as people shop. Making sure that no one is stealing. They’re sole job, is to sit there and watch. 

A little much right? Demeaning. horrific. racist. Can you imagine? Can you imagine walking around a store with all eyes on you, lurking, not just at the exit, but in every aisle? 

This security system divides out black people and people of color. It says inherently you are not good enough, smart enough, secure enough to shop without surveillance, without judgment. You have no rights. Instead, I assume you will steal, I assume you are criminal because of your skin color. So I will sit here, doing absolutely nothing, but watch you. I’m not talking cameras, I’m talking people.

This racism in Papua New Guinea is just accepted as normal, the Asians own the stores, Papua New Guinean security guards police their own people, and white people can walk in and out of the stores freely. It’s so blatant and in your face. It’s hard to ignore.

The systems in place in the United States, might not be as blatant to some (it is blatant if you look), but it’s there. And it’s just as harmful and painful. The systems, check, filter, analyze, people of color as they try to enter the workforce, school, and embrace opportunities that should be equal but aren’t. 

The security guards at the exit are the police, the politicians, and the systems that are set in place to slow down, stop, and examen the blacks and people of color. Those security guards go unchecked, they do as they please, and are conditioned to stop blacks and people of color. And they are conditioned to let some people, white people, privileged people, people who don’t look like they’re going to steal (however that’s determined) pass through the store and exit safely with their bags. 

In the U.S. and PNG, white people don’t need that receipt, that proof that you followed the rules during your shopping trip. It’s widely accepted that you didn’t steal. In PNG, you get to keep your bag, you get to walk around and leave without being checked. And In the U.S., I bet that Walmart employee would wave you through… no questions asked. And maybe sometimes they’d look at your receipt if you offered it, but it’s less likely.

For argument’s sake, the Walmart employee might not look at every receipt from a person of color. I’m not saying that all people of color in the US are forced to show their receipt, not all are forced to slow down and have their bags looked at. But most offer to anyways because they’ve been conditioned. Better safe than sorry.

I would bet that all people of color, especially black Americans think to ask for their receipt, make sure they have it in their hand, ready, just in case. Why? Because there are those chances that they might be stopped, and forced to prove their innocence. It’s better to have a get out of jail free card than to be stuck without one.

Who would think that a little crinkly piece of paper could hold so much power? 

2 thoughts on “What my skin color means: Seeing privilege and oppression on a Walmart run

  1. I recently returned a portable heater. I phoned and asked if I could get a refund. I was told that as long as it was still boxed and I had my receipt I could get my money back.
    You say that your father is white your mother is black. I say that you should honour both.
    My friend’s mother was an Italian Catholic, her father a Polish Jew. If we were in an Italian restaurant , she’d chat up the waiters in Italian. If she was with Jewish friends she was very Jewish. She considered herself lucky to have an insight into both cultures.
    You do know that Americans voted a black man into the White House. That the United States has more than 6,000 Black public officials. Nearly 330 of those offices, including 73 held by women, are held by black mayors who run many of America’s major cities–from New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Washington D.C., to Gary, Atlantic City, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. If things aren’t perfect, that’s human nature. If things are not perfect, then, as the black, female Mayor of Atlanta said, if people want to change things they should register for the vote,

    Like

    1. Hi Mary, thank you for sharing your comments and opinion. If you read my other blog posts you will see that I do embrace both parents cultures, this one is just geared towards race in America. I again thank you for sharing your opinion

      Like

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