Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Adventures in Retail- The Delimma of the Black Mermaid

In our shopping and travelling adventures, I've gotten so used to be asked: "Are you together?" that I hardly get aggravated by it anymore. We get asked by gate agents as we cluster together to get on airplanes during the family boarding calls. We get asked by the hostesses in restaurants. And of course, we get asked when we stand in line together to buy something in every kind of store imaginable. (I'll save the differences in how I'm treated and how Kev is treated in some stores for another blog-- for this one, I'll leave it at the ubiquitous "Are you together?" question). "Yes," we reply and the salesperson blinks, looks from face to face and moves on. That's pretty much the end of the encounter.

This weekend, however, while vacationing at the beach, we had an unusual experience that had us leaving the store, scratching our heads.

We went to one of those "Christmas all year" shops, looking for a unique souvenir. Something that, on a colder day as we put up our holiday tree, would remind us of 100 degree weather, white sand and waves at the shore. Lil Bit was enthralled by all the creative decorations, touching everything, imagining everything on our Christmas tree. We promised her she could choose one thing as her very own memento. Indeed, each of us picked one ornament: I got a little beach bag ornament engraved with the name of the beach we were visiting, Kev (in a Homer Simpson moment) chose an ornament that looked and--amazingly, felt-- like a donut, and Lil Bit...

Could NOT make up her mind. She liked the mermaid. She liked the crab. She liked the sand vials. She liked the seahorse. She liked the fish. She liked the mermaid...and the crab, and the seahorse and the fish. And the mermaid...

After a few rounds of this, we steered her toward the mermaid-- had we not done so, I'd be unable to write this post. We'd still be in the store, watching Lil Bit pick up every item, trying to decide. We narrowed her choices a bit by suggesting a mermaid. But there were still several. Brown hair? Blonde hair?

We dawdled and dawdled, then finally she grabbed the one that looked the most like Ariel from Disney's "Little Mermaid" and we hurried to the counter with it before she could change her mind.

I put our three ornaments on the counter. The saleslady's eyes swept over us: brown me, pink Kevin (hey, we were at the beach!) and beige Sommer.

"We have an African American mermaid too--at slightly higher cost," she said. "She's in the back."

I was curious. Kevin was curious. We looked at each other and at Lil Bit, who now that her choice was made was getting kind of restless. Lil Bit has dolls and toys of every skin shade and ethnicity--brown, black, tan, pink white. I notice no favoritism in her play: they all get played with in rotations based on her moods and her games. Until the late sixties, there were very few toys, art images or products that represented African Americans at all. But insisting on those images--especially for a mixed race child-- seems a particularly shallow way of reinforcing identity.

I saw no reason to relay all of this to the clerk and, at that moment, I couldn't think of a short and sweet way to ask the questions I wanted to ask. So I just said: "I think we're good. Since she's a bit of both white and black and she's had enough difficulty making her choice already so we'll go with this one."

As soon as we were outside, Kevin asked, "Why on earth is the African American mermaid in the back? How are they going to sell them back there?"

"Why does she cost more?" I asked.

"Do you think she would have asked me that if I'd been with Lil Bit by myself?" he asked.

"Is she suggesting some kind of 'one drop' rule? That Lil Bit is all black because she has one black parent?"

We went back and forth, analyzing it. I was most puzzled by why the African American mermaid wasn't on display at all-- leaving the clerk to "mention it" to customers on her own initiative. Kev was more fascinated by the price differential. Was the difference explained by supply and demand: that, because of less demand, fewer were available, meaning the black mermaid was available at a premium?

Of course, that wasn't the fate a black Barbie. A few months ago, the Internet was on fire with criticism because Walmart had offered a deep discount on black Barbie because she wasn't selling well. The implication was that in doing so, Walmart wasn't simply making a business decision-- they were devaluing blackness. Some saw in the discounting of black Barbie the famous studies from the 1960s in which even black children showed a preference for white dolls. Of course some progressive non-black parents do buy their children dolls of other ethnicities. And it's also true that many toys, like Barbie, are identified as white characters. A brown or black version may seem politically correct, but kids seem to appreciate the difference.

Our experience, however, takes a different flip on the story...but still left us uncomfortable. The African American doll costs more-- in all likelihood because of the same reason that Walmart's black Barbie's cost less: less demand. And while the beach town we visited wasn't crawling with African Americans, there were certainly a representative share (and a goodly number of black/white couples like ours, too). How on earth is this store going to ever sell their black Mermaids-- at any price-- if they aren't even on display? And is it discriminatory for the clerk to mention her existence to some customers and not to others?

In the end, while I seriously doubt failure to display black Ariel rises to the level of any actionable discrimination it was a confusing business decision at best, since it's in the store's interest to sell the merchandise that it already expended cash on acquiring. I wanted to go back and ask a million questions... but Lil Bit wanted ice cream. Besides--and here's the real dilemma in a society where race is still very touchy subject that can easily go from a simple comment to a massive argument-- how do you raise these questions with a stranger in ways that encourage understanding and sensitivity-- not defensiveness and distrust? Could I have asked "Why aren't the black ones on display?" or "Do you ask non-black customers if they'd like a black mermaid?" without sounding like I'm accusing someone of racism? Are those questions really accusations in disguise?

Probably. Even if that were not my intention, they would probably be heard that way. Kevin points out that most white Americans feel that racial conversations are a "lose-lose" proposition: anything they do and say will be wrong, so they approach all comments with wariness. Wariness doesn't usually lead to sensitivity and understanding.

Of course, for all our questions and reactions, there might have been an even simpler explanation: the African American mermaids were in the back because they'd just arrived and, on a busy weekend when the shop was filled with tourists, they hadn't yet had time to put them out.

Could it be that simple?

I'd like to believe that, but I don't. No matter how busy the store, when an item is in demand, it gets unpacked and put out. So that leads me back to the clerk "mentioning" the availability of the item to certain customers... and I'm still bothered.

I can't help but feel that I missed an opportunity here.

What would you have done, if you were me?


  1. K, you know I can't really write down in a public forum what I would have done and said. But know this, there are Budinskis in all races, shapes and genders. Perhaps your experience was nothing more, and nothing less than that.....but, I guess you could have said "Thanks for the info., but why do you care so much?".


  2. -I would have said the same thing you did. You got to the point
    -I don't believe that you missed an opportunity because your presence with your husband and child opened the clerk's eyes to a different kind of family.
    -It is a waste of time to speculate ont he reasons the black princess was locked away in the back:it could simple or complicated either way that was the reality of the situation

  3. 'Could I have asked "Why aren't the black ones on display?" or "Do you ask non-black customers if they'd like a black mermaid?" without sounding like I'm accusing someone of racism? Are those questions really accusations in disguise?'

    They don't have to be.
    In answer to your question "What would you have done?" I would have asked those questions in the most non-accusatory and neutral tone of voice I could muster.

    But I wouldn't have refrained from asking the questions.

    Now whether that would have been enough for the clerk, or whoever received the question (the manager, perhaps?) *not* to take it as an accusation?

    That's another question altogether, and one I'd submit is entirely "on them".

    After all, I'm sure I don't need to tell you how many people -- generally (though not always) white -- have asked for the vaunted "benefit of the doubt" after asking a question of a person of color that, even if just thoughtless instead of intentionally hurtful, was followed by the protest "But I didn't intend to be racist!" as a slipline for evading any racist impact of the question.

    Now, if they'd refuse *you* the same "benefit of the doubt" in asking *your* questions, even when you suspect they'd ask for that ol' benefit when asking *their* questions (with the additional benefit of their privilege!), well ...