I have to tell you something: I am a chronic shoplifter.
It’s accidental thievery, I promise, and infrequent too, but nonetheless it amounts to the same thing. At last count, I had inadvertently stolen a case of soda, a pack of toilet paper, an electric fan, a pillow, a huge bag of rice and a bottle of vitamins over the last few years.
I blame a combination of distraction and technology. (And blissful ignorance, but I’ll get to that in a little bit.)
Let me explain:
Distraction accounts for the soda and the toilet paper. In both cases, the items had been stowed on the bottom shelf of a huge grocery cart full of food. I had my children with me, and anyone who knows my children knows it’s challenging to think with them nearby let alone do anything that requires concentration.
They are full of endless questions about the temperature of Mercury and whether the Ottoman Empire still exists and can they please have Fruit Loops please please please please. They’re also prone to trying to kill one another, in the way that siblings who are best friends and huge enemies will do at the drop of a hat. Last week, a battle royale broke out at the upstairs landing in our house over whether or not eggnog is good or gross, and I had to explain to them – again – that it’s not worth the bodily injury that results from falling in a two-person tumbling heap to the bottom of the stairs to debate an OPINION. You can agree to disagree over goddamn eggnog. Please. For the love of god.
At any rate, you can perhaps imagine how it’s possible that I might unload groceries, bag them, move them back into my cart, all while fending off questions about the Ottoman Empire, stopping them from egg-nog-inspired violence, talking to the clerk (probably about something deep from our childhoods because that’s what I do with strangers), locating and handing over my points card and bonus card and member card and bank card and credit card and how many cards do you seriously need here, and THEN in the midst of all that not notice that the toilet paper has never made it up onto the conveyor belt.
In fact, it was fully onto the next day before I suddenly sat bolt upright and thought: DID I EVEN PAY FOR THAT TOILET PAPER?
When I confessed the deed to one of my best friends, she encouraged me to return it to the store, explain the mistake and pay the difference. I meant to, and kept the receipt in my purse, but I felt foolish and never got around to it.
Technology: in the case of the fan, I was on a self-serve checkout. I loathe these self-serve checkouts. I know that people love them because they like being able to do their thing without interacting with other people. I like the interaction (see previous description of delving into heavy conversations with strangers) and I also have these strange ideas about not replacing every human job (that pays for human food and human school supplies and human field trip fees and human rent) with machines. I’m weird like that.
On top of this propensity for enjoying other people, I am convinced there is something in my body (infinity stone? alien probe? sonic screwdriver?) that messes with technology. It is not creative license to tell you that I have never made it through a self check-out without the machine beeping madly or freezing, needing the help of a staff member, or being forced to start all over again from scratch. These machines don’t like me (and I don’t like them) and I avoid them at all costs.
But sometimes they’re necessary. Sometimes, in some places, they don’t man the regular cashiers until the store reaches a particular capacity. Sometimes all the other lines are really long and you have an eight-year-old who just announced that they might barf. You do what you gotta do.
I swiped all the items from my cart, set them on the weighted pad (don’t even get me started on the PLEASE PLACE ITEM ON THE BAGGING AREA nonsense) and then paid. The fan was in a box. I swiped the box over the scanner. I swear I heard the beep, and then I set it down – and because of its size, I can only assume that I set it back in the cart and not in the bagging area – and carried on with the next item in my cart. I even had a staff member come over and assist me when the system froze (because of the infinity stone inside my body, presumably).
In retrospect, I assume that when I thought I had swiped it properly, I had not. And because it went back into the cart and not onto the devil’s workshop that is the bagging area, the machine didn’t “realize” that I had a huge item that had not been paid for.
I didn’t realize either, obviously. I paid. I left. I set up my fan and enjoyed the glorious cool breeze in the midst of a heat wave. And a few days later, out of the blue, I thought to myself: how come my bill was only $54.35 that day? The fan ALONE was $40, and I bought a bunch of other stuff at the same time. Conclusion: you have stolen the fan, you thieving sinful girl.
Again, I considered going back – but the box was gone, I couldn’t find the receipt, and I kept putting it off. I felt really guilty every time I enjoyed its cool breeze. My husband took to calling it the Shame Fan.
In other instances, I have realized what I’ve done right away, and corrected the problem: I got all the way to the car with a huge bottle of multivitamins tucked under one arm, and a bag of shampoo, conditioner, a lipstick and soap over the other. Everything in the bag had been paid for but the vitamins had not been – I had wandered the store picking things up without a basket, and when my hands got full I’d shifted the vitamins under the crook of my arm. And when I got to the front counter, there they stayed through the entire transaction. I didn’t notice till I got to the car and needed to use that arm to open the trunk. So I went back, explained the situation and they looked at me like a crazy person.
Just this week, I almost stole a leather purse when the harried, exhausted, overworked clerk behind the counter mistakenly assumed the purse was already mine and didn’t ring it in with the rest of my purchases. I almost walked away, purse in hand, before realizing what had happened: the tag was tucked inside the purse and he’d assumed I’d just set my own purse up on the counter while readying to pay for everything else. When I explained what happened, we both chuckled, and re-did the payment. No purses were stolen.
All that to say: I’m a chronic (albeit accidental) shoplifter.
And up till now, I’ve mostly kept this secret (because I feel like an idiot) but my stolen Shame Fan has been on my mind a lot after hearing the story earlier this week of a young indigenous man who was repeatedly followed around a store.
Because what I’ve really realized over the last few years is that I can chalk up this accidental thievery to distraction or talk about the nonsense that is self check-out lanes, but the real reason this happens – the real reason that I do this without realizing it, and the real reason that no one ever stops me – is simple blissful ignorance.
To be more precise: I have fair skin, long blonde hair. I’m “respectably” middle class. I am (usually) well dressed, if casual. I am friendly, chatty and cheerful. I’m chubby but not big enough to draw disdain or stares. I am able-bodied. I have no odd quirks, tics, or behaviours.
And here’s the big question, which is really no question at all: if I HAD been stopped walking out of the store with an unpaid fan, or a case of Coke hiding under a full cart, or a bottle of vitamins tucked under my arm, what would have happened?
I can almost guarantee it would go down like this:
Me: shock, surprise, laughter, explanation. Turning around to go back in and straighten it all out while still chuckling. Pay. Smile. Leave.
Store staff: pleasant, benefit of the doubt, look me over, believe me, let me pay, let me leave. Probably thank me on the way out.
Why? Because I’m in the sweet spot: white enough, tidy enough, friendly enough to be deemed a good customer. I am visible enough that I get help as soon as I need it, and invisible enough that I can do whatever I want.
I live in a state of blissful ignorance. I get to assume that the world is trusting, good, and safe because for the most part it trusts ME, is good TO ME, is safe FOR ME.
This is privilege. I have learned that people hear that word and they get their backs up, immediately listing off all the ways that they, in fact, did not have any of this so-called privilege just by virtue of their skin colour (or their heterosexuality, or their family background, and so on). In other words: If I have so much privilege, shouldn’t my life be perfect? And since it’s not, this privilege thing is crap. Stop whining.
I get it. I didn’t grow up rich (but I did grow up in largely “nice” communities). I didn’t have a perfect childhood (in fact, there were a lot of things about it that I’m still struggling with today). I didn’t have my education paid for (took me years and years of directing about a quarter of every paycheque to pay off the student loans), my parents didn’t give me money for a down payment on a house, I worked at a lot of crappy, sweaty, unpleasant jobs to pay my rent over the years. In truth, I probably had more months in which the money ran out before the calendar did for much of my young adulthood. I didn’t choose the most financially stable or well-paying career (I’m looking at you, newspaper industry) but got lucky with a good, long-term job. Like many people I know, I spent a long time building the life I get to live now – and today’s life is still hard in lots of ways, big and small. We look at all that and then we like to ask ourselves: how is that supposed to be privilege? It’s been hard, really hard sometimes. I didn’t just get lucky. I worked for what I got, right?
But that’s not really what privilege is. It might be part of it, but “good childhood, lots of money, educated” is a small part of privilege. It’s the corner pieces on the puzzle that is privilege, and it ignores a massive system of day-to-day puzzle pieces that make up the rest of the picture.
Privilege is also being approached in a store to see if I need some help, and not ever being followed around to make sure I don’t steal something. It is not having to monitor and be aware of my own behaviour – in fact, being so clueless that I don’t notice a bottle of vitamins under my arm as I walk right out the door. Privilege is my assumption that if I got stopped at the door, someone would listen to my explanation and think it was funny and not call the police.
I watched a youtube video recently in which a man was arguing against the concept of privilege. He’d had a crappy childhood and struggled with an absent father, with alcoholism in the family, with poverty. He didn’t grow up to have a successful business and drive an Audi because he was privileged but because he’d worked hard for it.
Stranger on the internet: I wish you had not had a crappy childhood. I wish you had never gone to bed hungry – no one should have to, ever. I wish you had not had to work twice as hard as your peers who were sent off to college with full wallets. I see and respect you for the hard work you’ve done. I have no doubt that your life has been a challenge. No one wants to undermine you for that. No one is suggesting that your successful business and your Audi were handed to you just because.
But when you – an able-bodied, white, good looking, well-dressed man – get into your car and turn on the engine and back out of the driveway, does your brain even once wonder if a police officer might pull you over and assume that you do not own this car? Do you have to think in advance about what to say or do or where to put your hands if that happens? Do you drive your Audi in nice neighbourhoods and notice people watching you suspiciously?
My stolen Shame Fan and your ability to drive your Audi without worrying you’ll be pulled over for auto theft are the same thing: they are a reflection of the blissful ignorance we get to live in. It’s so blissful and so ignorant and so deeply entrenched in our existence we can’t even wrap our heads around what it would feel like to not be treated this way.
All of our beliefs about the world are built on the way in which the world interacts with us, and the reception we get when we step out into it. If you believe that the world is just, and that hard work is rewarded, and things are equitable, it’s because it has been that way for you. Maybe not 100%. Maybe not completely. Maybe you’ve had some hurdles to cross. But on the whole, the world operates in a way that seems just and fair and equitable.
Your gender, your sexuality, your social status, your able-bodied-ness and yes, most of all, your skin colour, and the way that these intersect with each other, all impact the view you have and the way that you walk in the world.
If you cannot see that, then me talking about my accidental-white-lady-shoplifting sure isn’t going to change your mind.
But I invite you, all the same, to think about what might happen if you got caught at the door of a store with something tucked under your arm that you’d forgotten to pay for – and if the notion is terrifying, or a little worrisome, or perhaps just slightly comical.
Your answer will tell you more about the world you live in than this long tale of stolen fans and fancy cars ever will.