I was shopping at WinCo today, and when I went to pay for the $150 or so worth of food on the checkout counter, the young lady at the counter told me that “I’m sorry, it came up declined.”
I was taken aback by this, but I didn’t want to get defensive until I checked my bank account on my phone, so I did so.
“Huh. I’m pretty sure there’s plenty of money on that card,” I said, as I pulled up my app and waited for it to load.
Now, ignoring for the moment the fact that “system error” and “transaction declined” are two very different messages that mean different things, I simply said,
“That’s the problem, I’m not paying with an EBT card.”
“Oh, you’re not? Okay, debit, then?”
“Yes, it’s a debit card.”
She told me to swipe it again and enter my PIN, and lo and behold, it went through.
“That’s why it didn’t work,” she said, with a perfunctory half-shrug.
Now, again, ignoring for the moment that she didn’t apologize for her mistake of not simply asking me how I was paying for my groceries… I wanted to ask her, “what made you think that I was using an EBT card?”
Today is Easter, and Holly and I are wearing the same clothes we wore to church today, which for me, meant a nice colorful shirt with a collar, and slacks. I’m carrying keys with a black remote fob that has the Volvo logo on it, and I’m wearing a smartwatch. I’m cleanly shaven, with an old-black-man-looking hat on, and those of you who know me well know exactly what kind of hat I’m talking about. (Apparently it’s called a “flat cap.”)
Also, Holly and I were having a normal sounding conversation about taxes and road conditions and whatnot.
The point is, everything about my look and demeanor practically SCREAMS middle-class.
Now, did I bring this up to her? No, because I didn’t want to embarrass her. Am I gonna call her manager or something? No, I have stuff to do. In isolation, this is not a big deal. She made a simple mistake, and I don’t believe in punishing people who work in retail for basic mistakes. Life is too short for that.
But I wonder…
Did she even think twice when she assumed that I was using an EBT card? Was it just because it’s WinCo and everyone there uses an EBT card? Or did the fact that I’m black make it easier for her to make that assumption?
The truth is, there’s no way for me to know. And maybe even there’s no way for HER to know. These kinds of assumptions happen on a subconscious level. I’m sure she didn’t have the explicit thought, “black people are poor,” she just acted on her experiences and biases.
But when you’ve experienced these kinds of things for your whole life, you get good at recognizing them.
All of us have biases, and we all make split second judgments about people every day. When you live in a city, it’s part of how you learn to navigate the world. But those of us with more cultural competency have learned to speak and act in a way that helps us sometimes to account for those biases.
It’s not an exact science, and it’s not lost on me that earlier today at church, I might have accidentally offended someone else in the way that I answered someone’s question because of my own cultural blind spot. In a way, we’re all just doing the best we can and hoping for the best.
But yeah, I guess I just want to say that I hope that young lady at WinCo doesn’t have to learn the hard way not to make those kinds of assumptions about black people, because if it happens enough times, she’s gonna get put on BLAST and it won’t be a good situation.
After mulling over it for the last day or so, I decided to call the store.
I spoke with a manager this morning, and he apologized for the cashier’s mistake. After posting this, several people reached out to tell me about this lawsuit over something similar, and I kept that in the back of my mind as I made the phone call. Ultimately, I chose not to mention it because I could tell right away that the manager was doing his best to understand the situation and I didn’t want to escalate with anything that could be inferred to be a threat.
One thing the manager mentioned is that many of the cashiers that work there do their best to look at the card as it’s being swiped, and anticipate what kind of transaction it’s going to be, both because it speeds things up as well as because some customers are uncomfortable being asked if they’re using an EBT card — which is very understandable. What he said to me was (and I’m paraphrasing somwhat), “I would hope that she would’ve made that assumption based on what she thought the card looked like, and not based on appearance.” I told him that I would hope so, but that I couldn’t be sure, and that’s what bothered me.
For those who think that it was simply about the appearance of the card, I’ve included pictures of the Washington state EBT card (because this was in Vancouver), the Oregon state EBT card (because I mentioned that I’m an Oregonian), and the debit card for my credit union. They’re all sort of blue, but they don’t look that similar.
Thanks to those who urged me to follow up. The manager assured me that he would bring it up during the next cashier’s meeting, and I hope he does. I will be returning to that store, if only to ensure that I receive the normal level of customer service to which I’m accustomed, where cashiers refrain from making assumptions based on race.