Black, White, & Yellow

February 12, 2008

Jill impatiently stood at the cash register, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, feeling the ache of hours of standing strain her back and calves. Her eyes scrolled over the walls, all glittering with costume jewelry, slowing as she scanned each customer individually. As she started from left to right, she would look each person over up and down, taking in their appearance, their hand gestures, their speech, the people they were with. Sometimes they'd catch her looking and shoot her a dirty glare in return. Despite the reddening of her face and churning of her stomach, Jen feared her boss sitting behind the wall in back, probably sifting through new boxes of merchandise, and, so, stayed alert.

Emelina, Jill's coworker, took off for lunch nearly an hour and a half ago. Jill grumbled to herself as she took a peek at the clock. Every weekend, every goddamn eight-hour shift she did this. Slyly, she'd grab her Gucci bag and her cell phone, give Jill a pretty smile, putting her hand pseudo-affectionately on her arm, and chirped, "I'm going out for lunch, honey. Cover for me." If Seung would just look up once, just once, at the hidden camera in his office, he'd see he was paying her seven bucks and hour to shop at Bebe and Forever 21. As usual, unfortunately, Seung was oblivious. It wasn't like Jill could go in and talk to him either. Usually if she did knock, he was barking to someone in Korean. Then he'd look up and say, "Yuh-huuh, Jeeel?"

Jill sighed and simply opted to keep watching for shoplifters. If a customer came up, she droned, "Hello, did you find everything okay? Your total today is blah. Did you want these in a box? These have a matching set, just so you know. Thank-you, have a nice day." She wondered how the customers perceived her, if she was like every other teenager working in the mall: scrubby, with ripped jeans and a crappy attitude.

Jill couldn't help it though. She was working at a counter for eight hours at a time (with no break) over six months in futile hope to pay for a $30,000 tuition at the school she'd be attending in the fall. (She really was a good student, even if the customers didn't know it.) Besides, no matter how hard she worked, she was still the equal of Emelina, a high school dropout and an impulse spender who never thanked the customers and was usually chatting away on her cell phone at the counter. It wasn't that Jill didn't work hard. She always showed up to work on time and was at least polite to the people at the cash register. But her heart wasn't in the failing costume jewelry business of an undeniably kind, but fiscally-impaired Korean man.

Suddenly, a woman approached the counter. She was enormous, with huge puffy cheeks and easily four or five chins. The fat of her stomach rolled over her too-tight jeans and baby-doll T-shirt. She also wore a large amount of gaudy, sparkling accessories: a huge rhinestone necklace, ten to twenty silver bangles, hoops that had to have been three inches in length, and a ring with the word JUICY inscribed in faux-diamonds. The woman smacked her hand on the counter, letting her arm dangle over the side lazily. She barely looked at Jill as she hung there, gazing instead over all the merchandise in the store. As she nearly drooled over the cash register, she asked Jill a question. A rather bizarre question.

"Hey y'all, is it okay to have a look around?" she slurred. She still refused to look Jill in the eye, only giving her a second's worth of a glance.

Jill was bamboozled. What on earth did this woman mean? Wasn't this a capitalist society? Wasn't this the United States of American? Wasn't this was an American mall? Who comes up to a counter and asks if they can look around –when it's painfully clear there are nearly a dozen customers in the store, all doing the same thing!? Jill looked outside the door archway at the vending machine and shoppers strolling around outside her store. Everything seemed normal. Everyone was going in and out of the other stores as usual; nobody was asking anybody at Babies R' Us if it was okay to shop around. Or the Beauty Shoppe. Or Burlington Coat Factory.

Maybe this woman was joking? Jill had customers do this before where they'd ask bizarre questions and then mock her for her serious retail professional response. One time she'd told a woman to have a nice day only to have the woman turn around and ridicule her by saying the same thing in a mocking voice. Perhaps she should just play along.

Jill half-smiled then, giving the customer a wary look, before blurting out the stupidest thing she could have said.

"Well, yeah, so long as you don't steal anything."

The woman suddenly looked her in the eye this time. "What did you say?" she asked slowly.

Jill shrugged. "Anybody's free to look, so long as they don't shoplift. I mean, not that I think you would."

And then it clicked in Jill's brain.

The woman's face contorting with anger, the way her fists clenched as they still hung over the counter, the way she puffed out her fat chest in fury—she was black. And Jill was very white. Oh shit, Jill thought.

"What did you say to me!? What did you to me, you scrawny-assed white bitch? You think I'm gonna steal from your store? You think cuz I'm black I'ma thief? Well, listen, I don't need to take this shit from your people! Y'all better have a lawyer, cuz I'll sue. I'll sue your cracker ass. You just wait. I'ma put you outta business!"

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, was all Jill could think. She had never intended for her comment to come off that way. She wasn't even thinking about race! And yet, here she was, probably having said one of the most racist things a white person could say to a black person's face. Death seemed to her a most marvelous prospect at that moment.

Suddenly, Seung came out from the back. As usual, he was wearing a baseball cap sporting the University of Michigan logo, jeans, and a striped polo tee. As he saw the woman at the counter shouting at Jill, he rushed over.

"What go on hey-ure?" Seung asked in his Korean-inflected English. Jill remembered painfully the first few weeks of work when she could barely understand her boss. He must have yelled orders at her three or four times before she understood what he said.

"You the manager?" the woman barked.

"I am the boss-uh, yush," Seung replied calmly.

"Well, y'all have about the worst damn girl work'n for you! Y'all should fire her. She's a racist. She just called me a shoplifter! Do I look like a shoplifter to you? I just wanna buy some jewelry, y'know."

And, of course, it got worse from there. While Seung spoke little English, there was no way he could understand the Ebonics of the inner city black woman.

"You-uh shop-lif-ding?" Seung's lower lip protruded and he waggled his finger at the woman. "You-uh shop-lif-duh? Jeeel catch you-uh stea-ring my mercharn-dise?"

Jill could tell her face was a deep, bright red at this point. The heat was simply flooding to her cheeks. And it was certainly inevitable that the black woman exploded.

"No, I ain't shoplifting! She's accusing me because I'm black!"

Seung replied with equal anger. "I don't-uh want shop-lif-duhs in my sto-ore! Take-uh your bish-ness elsh-ware!"

"I'm not shoplifting!" the woman nearly screamed.

"Go ah-way now!" Seung ordered. "No shop-lif-duhs in my sto-ore."

Jill just wanted to crawl into a corner and die. All she could feel in the moment was total humiliation. The black woman flailed her arms in anger and stormed out of the store shouting obscenities. Jill cringed as she could still hear the woman's voice outside. As the next customer approached the counter, Jill checked her out nervously, her hands shaking, her face still burning hot. Seung, on the other hand, seemed rather pleased with the whole situation.

"Jeeel, you is-uh good work-uh. I-I am on-uh your side. No wor-ees, okay? Okay, okay." Then he ambled back into his office and started shouting into his cell phone in Korean again. Jill nearly collapsed.

The End

Based on a true story, with deep apologies to the offended black woman and praise and gratitude to my wonderful, incoherent Korean boss.