Joan's Blog

"Watch Me Pull A Rabbit Out Of My Hat"
MARCH 20, 2010 8:58AM

Please Leave My Husband Alone

Rate: 80 Flag

Older white women will not leave my husband alone. There is something about him that makes women want him. They want him to find the avocados that are on sale. They would like him to reach something on the top shelf. 

My husband looks like everyone else in the supermarket. He wears an old Berkeley sweatshirt and khakis with sneakers. This is pretty much his grocery store uniform. His customer uniform. Not his employee uniform. My husband does not work for a grocery store.  Yet nearly every time he goes into one he is asked, "Do you work here?"

Usually he gives the short answer. "No."

Yesterday he said he asked the woman in search of asparagus why she thought he was an employee. He said she looked at him and his Berkeley sweatshirt and stammered something about him looking like he knew what he was doing. 

Good save, white lady. We both agreed she tried to get out of it nicely.  She even went on to flatter him a bit more. She told him he had a way with thumping the melons and squeezing the lemons. He told me he thanked her and moved on.

There is something a little pathetic about this. This is a fairly diverse neighborhood. Yet inside the grocery store my husband is seen as an employee because of the color of his skin.

I ask him if black women have ever asked "Do you work here?" The answer is  a definite "no."

We are getting used to it. On some level it is a little funny. I am not sure who it bothers more. I know that it irritates me. I know that personally I am offended for him. It is the assumption that a black man is the employee even though he is not dressed for the job. He is not wearing a Whole Foods apron or hat. 

For all the older white women shopping today in the grocery store, please remember. Every black man is not working there. And if you see the black man in the ratty Berkeley sweatshirt thumping the cantaloupes, please leave him alone.  Unless you are just looking for some friendly Saturday morning conversation in the produce department. Then by all means, talk to the man.



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Must be that melon squeezing that turns those women on:):)
Maybe they were flirting?
I am thinking he must be good looking and they are flirting too.
Is it possible they're asking him because he looks like he knows the answers? Every time I go into a grocery store, I get asked if I know where something is. And I don't take it as an assumption that I work there. I can see how you wouldn't want to take it as a compliment, but perhaps at least in some cases it is.
I find this post amusing... and sad... but amusing none the less. And I am sorry because I understand that it isn't funny for you, it is hurtful. But... I get asked by women for help with finding products all the time at all kinds of store, but mostly Wal-Mart. But the local Shaw's too. And I am of English decent... so my only guess is they take one look at me and figure I am to stupid to be anything more then a stockboy at 48 years.
This cracks me up because at our grocery store, I get asked for help be college students all the time. It isn't because I look like I work there, but because I am so clearly A Mom who knows if you can put apples in the freezer, or which kind of breadcrumbs are good in meatballs. If they are asking him because f his skin color, shame on them. If on the other hand, it's because he's adorable and/or has a commanding air about him...that's still annoying but much more flattering.
I never get asked anything. But that has more to do with my unapproachable aura than the color of my skin. -r
Hard to put another spin on this one. It is kinda funny, in the third person. In the first person, I'm sure it's quite frustrating. In any person, it's sad.
Joan, I hope you are not being too sensitive about this. Perhaps the older black women are asking the white men. Have you thought about it? I love being asked an opinion at a supermarker or a store, it's a nice people interaction. I don't see color when I talk to people, and I think, I hope we are beyond that. Look at waht Kathy wrote. I'm sure she doesn't look like she works in a supermarket. . . It's just people's way of connecting in some cases. A beautiful woman, a good looking, kind man, a lost soul, someone who looks like she knows what to do with an eggplant. . . . Rated.
I would love to be wrong about this being a form of subtle racism. I hope some people of color read this and offer their thoughts about this.
You sure he's "thumping the melons and squeezing the lemons" only at home? Sounds like he knows his way around the body divine.
My vote is that it's because he's adorable and those women are cougar wannabes. I'm African American and it is tempting to believe they are keying on his skin color, but I say give the old birds some credit for recognizing a high-quality man when they see one.
Joan, I'm going to add that I also frequently ask people in stores if they know where something is located, and I don't base that question on skin color, age, or gender. I'd likely ask your husband if he was around, and it wouldn't reflect on the color of his skin whatever. Nor would I be flirting.
He is obviously a friendly and warm appearing individual. He is painted as a target for those traits. Tell him to scowl more and act bellicose they will tip toe around him then. lol Nice post thank you.
@Kathy, I'm wondering how many times you get asked "Do you work here?" I've never been asked that in my life. People start friendly conversations with me at times, but no one ever asks if I work there.
I wouldn't worry too much about that happening. Back when Walmart employees use to wear those goofy blue vests, nearly every one of us, at one time or another has been accosted by a customer who looked directly at our vests, our name badges, any and all other badges we may be wearing and ask: "Do you work here?"

"Uh.....NO. This is how I spend my vacation."

Even funnier than that was the time I was standing at the front of the store, talking to my store manager who is about twenty years younger than me. This customer came up and said TO ME:

"The lady in the back sent me up here to talk to you, I have a complaint."

I told her I couldn't help her and she got rather pissed off. "Well, you ARE the manager aren't you?" She demanded.

I pointed to the man next to me and walked away laughing.

Customers.....what can you do?
I dunno, maybe I'm weird, but I see a well dressed, confident black man, and my first thought is, "how cute is he?" :-D
Joan, maybe you have been married too long to know that supermarkets are the new singles bars, especially on Friday nights. Hubby should not linger over the produce testing for ripeness when at the market alone. You might never see him again.
Interesting... I ask tall people (who I know are just shoppers) to get things off the high shelves for me. I never assume anyone works at a store unless they have a name badge that says the name of the store or they are wearing an identifying uniform or apron. I am a short white woman. I frequently have people ask me questions when I am shopping too... I can't explain why people might ask me but sometimes it bugs me and I get kind of snappy and say, "I don't know. I'm shopping just like you why don't you ask someone who works here." I'm assuming you don't live in a major city or a place like Maine that is predominantly white - up here, they think Italians are dark and a different race (seriously!)... oh well... my daughter was really different in high school and towered over by a sea of tall blonde people. Your husband needs a new shopping uniform - a T-shirt that says WHATEVER THE QUESTION, THE ANSWER IS NO!!
More evidence that we are not "post-racial." I am convinced that much of our political divide now is unspoken -- society doesn't really like our professorial, intelligent, thoughtful president not because he's an elitist from Chicago, but because he is black. This makes me sick.
PS I don't think you are being too sensitive about this. I see racism every single day in my job, every single day and it makes me ill. We should be WAY past this by now. R
@Blackflon, well, there is that too...
@Trudge164, maybe "do you work here" is the new pick up line. Thanks for reading.
@Ladyfarmerjed, maybe...
@Mr. Coffee, your comment made me laugh.
@Ann, moms are supposed to get asked stuff. I enjoy that myself. Somehow this thing with my husband feels different. But I'm exploring all possibilities.
@Densie, ha! Way to get left alone!
@AHP, there is a bit of humor in this, for sure.
@FusunA, I agree, I don't want to be overly sensitive to this. But having never been faced with racism myself, I have to respect how it feels to my husband. I do believe that racism is much more subtle than we care to admit. Thank you for your comment.
@Lin, thank you for adding your thoughts here. I appreciate it.
@Leon, you'd have to ask him...
@GiannaFL, that is so funny. I think he looks very unapproachable to strangers!
@Torman, funny story. Thank you for coming by.
@ame i, undercover cop? that's hilarious.
It takes between 7 and 12 seconds for us to size someone up based solely on race, gender, age, clothing and make a whole host of assumptions about them including education level, type of job, etc. Not everyone is aware of the assumptions they make, but everyone makes them.
@Bonnie, you are very funny. He told you about the apples in the freezer? He never mentioned that to me.
@Placebo, I hear you. But he is anything but well dressed in grocery shopping attire.
@greenheron, maybe he has been missing the signals from these 75 year old ladies!
@Leonde, the t-shirt might be the answer!
@Bernadine, in all seriousness, I thank you for recognizing that racism is very much alive in this country. It is just very subtle.
This happens to my partner constantly. I have always thought it is because she looks competent and approachable, but she dresses a lot like your husband and she looks mom-ish. So who knows. Great post.
Joan, actually I have many times been asked if I worked somewhere. Worse, when I travel abroad, people assume I'm local, and ask me for directions/restaurant recommendations/help in the local language. I think it has to do with looking approachable. Still, I appreciate there could be some subtle racism going on in the case with your husband, and your sensitivity to it. I'm only saying I wouldn't universally assume it. Some of us are actually post-racial, and will ask a person a question without looking at the color of their skin.
I hear you. I'm sure your hubby is cute. But they could flirt without making the assumption he worked there. My husband (also black) hasn't had the grocery store experience, he has had the valet experience experience where white women (sometimes men) give him their keys to park their car. And at social parties where he is in a group of people conversing, someone comes and asks if he could bring another tray of stuffed shrimp. It has happened. More than once. And I have seen it. It isn't imagination. And yes we laugh about it. We laugh about a lot of things because that is how we maintain our sanity. "R"
@Caroline, thanks for your comment. We all make assumptions. It's when we don't try to let go of them we get into dangerous territory.
@sophieh, you are right. Who knows what another person is really thinking? Thanks for reading.
@Kathy,I agree it is not a good idea to universally assume it is based in racism. I am just suggesting that some people are not even aware of their racism because it is so subtle and often subconscious. Thanks for your comments. I appreciate them.
Almost every store I am in people assume I am working there. Sometimes asking me for help before suddenly realizing I have my trench coat on and my purse hanging off one arm. I must just look comfortable or something. Of course the flip side is I can walk into stores and not even get a glance from the salesperson who is working there. It's like I'm invisible or something.

Maybe it's the dumpy white lady of a certain age syndrome...

Not excusing it, but am saying that while some people have innate biases they can be wide-ranging and encompass more than just race.
I always get asked by little old ladies to get them stuff off the top shelf but that's because I'm tall. My usual answer is either "get it yourself shorty," or "Okay, for a buck." :)
I think they are flirting with him.

But, then I think anyone who pays Whole Foods prices is a bit demented so who knows what those ladies are thinking .
My neighbor, who is black, was once asked by a new resident on the street if the owner of the house was home. She thought he was a gardener. Very insulting! But I have often seen people ask for help from someone who doesn't work in a store--I think sometimes people really do have a confident way about them that makes them look like they know their surroundings.
People ask me that, too! All the time! And here I am...I've been in Chicago for a little over a week and already people ask me where train stops you know me...I never discount someone's perception of racism...99.9% of the time it's absolutely true...but I think your husband and I must either look approachable or hot or hot and smart and approachable! Love to you! xox
Do men ever ask him for "help?"

Well, on second thought, men never ask anybody for help. (r)
Speaking only for myself, I often have a problem figuring out who works in any given place because it seems like so few places have any kind of uniform or other means of identifying employees. Attire is so casual everywhere, and I have found myself asking occasionally, "Do you work here?" of someone who looks like they might. I'd have to do some serious soul-searching as to whether or not that would be based on the color of someone's skin.

But, generally, I'm not sure if it's racism to assume that someone is an employee. After all, aren't most of us "employees" somewhere?

Rated for being thought-provoking, which is always a good thing.
Hey, I would begin to wonder if maybe all these women were just trying to meet him . . . Our local market is like a singles, mix and meet.
@Stellaa, I wish. No, we live on the east coast. My husband just loves his ratty sweatshirt.
I don't have this problem cause I look like I don't work anywhere...
You should be careful about assumptions. I am about the whitest of White guys and people are always asking me for help or directions. Sometimes it's just an "I know what I am doing" attitude that attracts questions.
Sigh. I totally thought, from the headline, that this was going to be about how hot your husband was. What is the matter with people? Both the people who ask your hubby if he works at the store (@greenheron, since when is that a good pick-up line? Really?) and the people who post here saying, well I'm white and people ask me the same question, therefore my experience proves that racism doesn't exist, because it is not at all possible that the same question can have a different implicit assumption when posed to a different person, or by a different person. Do you really think that the whole African-American community is under some kind of group delusion about stereotyping? Any given incident could be racist or innocent, but when it happens to many times and starts becoming a trend, I tend to get suspicious. I'm not white or black, I'm just an observer.
About a year ago, I was at the airport. I can't remember which one, but the signage was terrible, and it was really hard to find the monitors that show the updated flight times. I had a long layover, so I found my gate (not easily) and settled in to wait. While there, an african-american man with his daughter in tow, who obviously had a much shorter layover and was rushing to make a flight, asked an airline employee if she knew where the gate for flight XX was. She was so condescending and rude to this man in front of his daughter, I was disgusted. And she didn't help him (though I believe she could have either looked up the info on her computer, or at least directed him to one of the hard to find monitors). Maybe she was having a bad day. But when I approached her later to ask for an update my flight time, she just gave me the information. Maybe she felt bad about her earlier customer disservice. Maybe she's generally nicer to non-african americans. My point is, it's hard to ascribe a motive to any one person's good/bad/ignorant behaviour, but when it becomes a trend with multiple people talking to you a certain way, or one person who consistently changes their behaviour in a way that correlates with race ... well correlation is not cause-and-effect, but it's a damn good place to start some hypothesis testing!
ocularnervosa just proved my point. People ask him for help because he looks like he knows what he is doing. Therefore, when people ask your hubby for help, it MUST be because he looks like he knows what he is doing. Because he looks exactly like ocularnervosa. Stereotyping doesn't apply to ocularnervosa therefore it doesn't apply to your hubby. QED.
I think you're probably right. I wish you weren't...(sigh).
My dad was deeply involved in civil rights in the '60s. One of the valuable things I learned from him was how tough it is to tell, from a single act described on paper, whether it can be ascribed to racism. And many of the innocent comments here bear that out. The ONLY way to cut through the "noise" would be to dress up a white man of similar age, similar charm, and similar melon-thumping expertise in your husband's clothes, and send him shopping. Then do the same with an asian, then native american, etc. And then repeat the experiment at many stores.

Joan, I have a feeling you're right. This sort of "benign" racism is utterly invisible to the carriers, and the signal is distorted by your husband's apparent friendliness.
Great post, Joan. This morning I read a 1955 Good HouseKeeping ad about how to be a "pleasing housewife." Our society still has a long way to go~!
I see your point and never really thought anything about it. I am always having older gentlemen show me how to thump melons and in my scrubs from work in a clinic have been asked questions. No I didn't answer. I just wonder how much was flirting cause he is good looking and how much is racist. NOT arguing just thinking these women may find him hot! If not then HELL YES totally wrong!!!
Even now my 20 yr old black son and I--I'm white--get a few peculiar looks from Enquiring Minds in Frozen Peas--and we live in DC burbs.
I dated a Philipino man for a while - educated, worked in the wine industry. He told many stories of being approached in stores under the assumption that he worked there. Drove him nuts. I am sure in his case it was his youth and race, and your point is very well taken. I however, am often approached by 50-and-60-something men in stores. I'm not gorgeous, but I know they're flirting!
Some really interesting points made here. When I worked in a suit i was often approached after work while shopping by folks thinking I worked wherever I was. However, I do distinguish the difference in how I am perceived and how people of color can be perceived, and sadly I believe you in your innate feeling that this is deeper than it appears.
I'm wondering how all of the people who actually do work in retail or in grocery stores are feeling about this. Because the assumption seems to be that it's a job that's beneath us. It's like, "How dare you think that I would be doing this menial job!".

So, yes, I don't deny that there is racism. But, on top of that, no one seems to want to acknowledge he "class-ism" inherent in the indignation at being mistaken for an employee.
@Jeanette, oh my. That is not my point at all. My husband and I both worked in retail for many years. That was actually how we met and fell in love.
I don't think it is your point, Joan. But, like a lot of unintended things, that doesn't mean that someone reading this might not interpret it that way.
Of COURSE it's racism. A lot nicer than something like, "Boy, hand me that bag of flour" which I overhead in stores everywhere as a kid. Any black person was a servant, period.

It's the snowstorm of DENIAL that it could be what it is...that perpetuates it. We don't have to hate ourselves for similar slips. But human up. Examine how obvious it is.

I'm in the South, so maybe it's easier for me to recognize. No fooling, that's all it is. Joan and her hub are no dummies, nor leaping to take offense.

One has to forgive oneself first, then one can own the truth that such subtle white privilege and prejudicial assumptions are kneaded into us all by the culture. Once you make peace with that, then you can spot them and whap them when they happen.

It's like playing Whack-A-Mole.

I've made similar slips myself. One time, I stopped and said in a mild way, "That was racist of me, sorry." And the person I'd just jumped to conclusions about nodded at me in a friendly way, and we both went off feeling better, I think.

We're so damn afraid of SPEAKING to each other, that's half the reason all this constipated hopping around the obvious goes on...(forgive my tone, grumpy today).
@Jeanette DeMain
I think you make a very good point. As I was commenting earlier, I had a hesitation - was I being classist or denigrating to store clerks? This is worth thinking about and not glossing over. But I do not think this is about not respecting the service industry, here's why. When you ask a store clerk for help, they have a certain obligation to help you because that is what they are paid to do (but, I hasten to add, no obligation to put up with rude or harassing behaviour). On the other hand when you ask a fellow customer for help you are asking for a favour that he has no obligation beyond the normal limits of civility to fulfill. If your implicit assumption is that he works at the store (and by extension, works for you as a customer), this is insulting not because the job is menial, but because you have put someone under obligation of service to you without paying them (in your own head, anyway).
Your thoughtful attitude would make so many interpersonal interactions better. If we all think, who is this person and how do I approach them civilly and respectfully, what would that be like? Doesn't the very fact that people mistake someone who doesn't even work at the store for an employee reveal how invisible the employees actually are? You don't even look closely enough to see who you are talking to? You just throw out a request without acknowledging the individual?
Also, it's just annoying to be mistaken for someone you are not, because you don't fit someone's idea of what you should look like. It's not that the person you are not is a bad person, just that they are not you. If that makes any sense at all.
ah, yes...the melon squeezing will get them every time! :-)

you should see the dirty looks i get from old women of all colors when they figure out that i am bill's wife and not his daughter! they get pissed, i mean really pissed, like i took a live one out of the pool. i thought i was gonna get beat up in a Hardees once...

but the old men look at bill and just sort of sigh and wink at him. (r)
black women will not stop commenting on my husbands blue eyes... just sayin'

I should have married rich, not cute! hahahaha
First off, you know I'm Puerto Rican, of the vanilla variety, born of a light colored man and a darker colored woman. I say this so what I will tell you now makes sense.
I once took a trip with my cousin to St. Thomas. While waiting on the very small airport I got bored and when I get bored I make small talk because I'm stupid that way. There were a group of people and I asked them if they were from St. Thomas. One of them, a man, said, "are you asking because we're black?" Then he burst out laughing along with everyone else. Except me. I just turned tomato red and tried to explain myself, because that had just not crossed my mind. Then he just told me he was just pulling my leg and introduced himself. By his last name alone I knew they were a really famous group of a dance troupe company from my island.

So, whatever is happening at the grocery store might be completely innocent or, and this also happens in my country even though we are a rainbowed colored people, not so.

This post reminds me of the beanie babies one and it makes me understand that one better.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but this ain't just a "black thang". I am frequently asked "Do you work here?" Don't know exactly what to attribute that to other than somehow giving the impression I know something I don't. The ultimate example of this phenomenon is that sometimes people continue to ask my help even AFTER I've told them I don't work there.

I remember once being asked for some "medical advice" while standing in line at a K-Mart by some woman who after my demurring explained that she thought I looked like a doctor. But that was before I let my hair grow long -- long hair has apparently reduced me to a "stock clerk" type.
I'm going to take this seriously and say I don't like it, but at least it's only older white women. They lived through a different time, were hard-coded with asinine assumptions and still cling to racial stereotypes without even realizing it. I bet many would be horrified to hear we think they're bigoted idiots.

Btw, no matter what your race or gender, don't ever wear a red shirt when shopping at Target.
Hmmm - a bit of denial in the comment section.
I admit to being a notorious flirt, but I've never used "do you work here?" as a pick up line in the aisles of a grocery store. Cooking tip requests, yes. "Are you a stock boy?" No.
What an excellent post and wonderfully written, which is of no surprise to me when it comes from you my dear.

"And if you see the black man in the ratty Berkeley sweatshirt thumping the cantaloupes, please leave him alone." Do I have to? ;)

I have grown up in the Pacific Northwest and spent most of my life here between Alaska and Washington. However, I also went to school on the East Coast (CT) for a time and was, don't gasp, in the Army at 17 and spent over a year in the south.

From that experience, I think geography does play a key.

I grew up being racially blind - I was actually surprised by it when I first encountered it when my foster brother, who was Vietnamese, was called a racial slur by another kid. It is so rare, but, it does exist. In Washington, if it comes out, it is in the subtle form.

However, I am not so naive to think I don't have beliefs that still don't need to be challenged. For me, when I see bigotry or stereotyping as a problem outside of myself, I cease to be a part of the solution. I know I have uncovered a bigoted belief in my lifetime, I will openly admit it, I was taught it even though my geographic environment wasn't blatantly racist. I can't unlearn it until I am honest about it.

Yes, I just used the word 'unlearn.'

I try not to assume other people's motives, I usually ask and like that your husband did, too. If any thing, it makes us all think a little more and question ourselves.
I get that all the time ... at Home Depot. From guys, too.
Thats hilarious.....I constantly have people offering me help. I guess I sort of look confused......great post as always....loved it...R
Okay, I get what you are saying. Here is my idea. It is his aura. It is an awesome one!
I can see it from both angles.

It is true that people approach people who appear approachable. I spent twenty minutes in the produce aisle last week talking to a produce employee about how to make shrimp and cheese stuffed chile rellenos. In the past, I've tutored a Vietnamese refuge on cornbread in the baking aisle, helped many an elderly shopper read fine print, and caught a few ill-watched toddlers as they lunged from the shopping cart seat.

On the other hand, I fully get that I read "harmless, female, mommy-type, white." Coming at those experiences from any other perspective might mean something entirely different. I can't imagine that I'd see someone in a grocery store dressed in sneakers and a sweatshirt and think "They must work here." That's strange. And suspect.

My only advice (from experience) is don't wear a red shirt while shopping at Target, or a green shirt while shopping at Publix! (Plus, I'm sure your husband is a totally hotty, which only complicates matters. You need to do something about that. I make my husband wear a neck brace and an offset shoe so that he limps rather dramtically.)
I know the experience all too well. It would be nice if they were asking because they thought him to be endowed with some special knowledge about produce, but you and I know that isn't the reason. Maybe someday Joan.
Oh Joan! God love him -- and you. xox.
I get something similar whenever I am travelling anywhere. People always think I'm the cousin of someone they know. I think it's just a familiar friendly face thing? I dk. This is funny.
I'm surprised at how many people seem to want to put a different spin on this. Given the information, it feels like his race does have something to do with their assumptions.
I told my girlfriend that women at the supermarket were always asking me questions and talking to me.

Now she does all the shopping.

@Larry, she is one smart cookie.
This was all a very interesting read!
Excellent post and wow. I am never not stunned by these things. Thanks for this post. Much love to you and your husband.
I'm not sure this is a racial issue unless you want it to be. When I need help in any store, I look for a person who seems approachable and appears to have some brains between their ears. Can't say I ever noticed the color of his/her skin, but to be honest, I tend to ask a man before a woman....mostly because men tend to be nicer. I'm not opposed to using the "poor little me" card every now and then.
@Dear Donna,
Why would I want it to be?
Joan, I read this when it was first posted and rated it. As you know I have been busy with other stuff. I was compelled this morning to come back and comment because it is such an important and timely discussion. Thanks for making the subtlety in racism, not so subtle. You're so right, change evolves with the intimacy and humanity between people who think before they speak.
I guess I worded that comment wrong. My point was that not everything that happens is racially motivated. Are there far too many racists among us, oh, boy, yes, there are. But, I would hate to have to stop approaching people based on the color of their skin because I fear they will misinterpret my reasons. I don't want to start hesitating about talking to people because a seed has been planted and I will be misjudged. Am I making sense?
If I were your husband, I might take it upon myself to turn around and ask the inquisitor, "If you saw me in the Mercedes dealership, would you have the same assumption?" That would shut them up pretty quickly and teach them a lesson. I'd pay to see that play out.
I'm sorry that your husband experiences what he does. I'm also sorry that in looking at the comments, it seems that he gets the typical PoC double whammy of a) experiencing a racial slight and b) being told by a majority person that perhaps it was something else, or that he was just being "too sensitive."

I've been there too many times and it nauseates me.

Perhaps he and you might want to direct these folks to the site, Derailing for Dummies:

I keep it linked on the regular when I'm too damn tired to explain Racism 101 for the 57,926th time.
I am nonplussed, though not surprised, by the vast majority of these comments. It's virtually impossible to have open, honest and frank discussions about race and racism when the behavior being described here is either disputed, discarded, or made the stuff of banter. In point of fact, this is a near ubiquitous experience for black men. I have been asked the question so much that I've developed a set response; to wit: "Excuse me, do you work here?" --"Uhm, no, but if you're looking for a job, I think they have applications at the front desk?" In thus turning the table, you'd be surprised to see how livid people get at the mere suggestion that I (of all people) was suggesting that they ("I, mean, really") needed a job.

Rather than deal directly with these issues, we hear in these comments some variation of the following:
1) Oh, that happens to me too. And I'm white, so this can't be racist. (Here, the litmus test is rather restrictive, limiting racist behavior to only those things that happen to blacks, but never to whites)
2) Ahh, he must be cute (though certainly unwittingly, this harkens back to white women's gaze and the Big Black Buck. See recent criticism of Oscar-nominated film, "The Blind Side" for more on that point.
3) Related to #2: At least these women are old and from a day when racism was alright. (When, pray tell, did that day begin? When will it end?)
4) Yes, this may be racist, but at least its subtle (little consolation, I'm sad to say. When posed in this way subtle is in fact a euphemism for ubiquitous. But even this misses the point. For those following the news, there has been a sharp rise in hate crimes over the past few years. Whence this subtlety? )
5) In a New-Age turn, we even hear that he might have a great aura. (Oh, great, maybe he also knows if there's a drum circle somewhere this weekend.)

What if...just what if the story is just as it was told? What, then, is (y)our responsibility to change these circumstances?
I really hate hearing about this Joan - but I don't doubt for a minute that you know exactly what is happening there in your Whole Foods. I would dare to say that if you lived here in the midwest, you'd experience the same exact thing. We've come so far and yet we haven't. How very sad ... and infuriating.
It's funny because I wrote about my own experiences with this phenomenon here on open salon a couple of months ago. It was one of my first posts. I often get mistaken for an employee of a store.
I would be so tempted to answer back with a southern "yas 'em" and behave like a moron -- then wink at them later at the checkout.
One of the commenters here wonders why so many people are trying to put a spin on this that would suggest something other than racism is involved. Maybe the "spin" is because most of the folks whose work I read here come across as intelligent and enlightened and fairly trusting of human nature. Most of us don't see absolutes, but rather possibilities and alternatives. We try to work thru the grays and the mottleds and the more complex explanations behind things.

If the commenter is suggesting that because we don't all immediately jump to one conclusion - oh, yeah, that's racism, without a doubt! - that this somehow marks us as something other than color neutral, then I would have to say something along the lines of hogwash. Maybe it is racism. Joan and her husband are certainly in a better position than any of us to know. But I, for one, am not inclined to go easily along with any explanation of anything, unless, of course, the evidence is blatantly obvious.

Reading Joan's post again, I see that she is fairly convinced that this phenomenon with her husband derives from his race rather than from anything else. I respect Joan's opinion.

Yet, when I comment on something in which the facts as presented don't strike me as pointing to an exclusive conclusion, I figure I'm almost obligated to offer an opinion that comes from thought, not simply reaction.
I'm still thinking about this and trying to get my head around what kind of person could think that only black people would be employees at a store. They must be not only racist, but complete and utterly clueless morons.

Or is it that they think that, if there are white and black employees, they would rather have a black person in a position of "subservience" to them?

I'm really not having much luck understanding the mindset that could be at work here!
I'm often asked questions by older white women in the grocery store. One burst out in apologetic laughter when I answered with my strong foreign accent, (I don't live in the US). She never guessed I was a foreigner, and I suppose she thought foreigners would be found touring Red Square, not buying groceries. It was pretty clear she was going to have a story to tell over dinner.

I figure I get asked because middle aged and unthreatening. I'm not very elegant, so I'm unlikely to be a snob. I'm young enough that I probably can read the fine print on the labels (which is what they usually ask for).

I'd be far more likely to assume a man in a grocery store was an employee if he was not pushing a cart.
And in Berkeley! Disillusioning.
@Hawley, we don't live in Berkeley. We are on the east coast. He just loves his ratty old Berkeley sweatshirt!
Sorry I missed this when it originally came out.
Very thought provoking...... and sad. I imagine this is consistantly upsetting for your husband.
But try to consider it in a different way.........perhaps some of these women are not looking for groceries. Many might be looking for a boyfriend in the produce aisle....
Forgot to mention that.
Joan, I am afraid that your interpretation may be correct. Certainly, your husband's interpretation is correct-- he was there. I cannot tell you how much it hurts my father, after spending more than half of his life in this country and working his way up (past many,many barriers) the academic ladder, to be asked by strangers, to this day, if he is the owner of X Chinese restaurant. We can work past racism and stereotypes if we continue to talk openly about such incidents, so thank you for writing this.
OK. I totally missed the race aspect of this when I read it the first time! I guess I skimmed, sorry.

Hmmmm. That has to be really wierd and uncomfortable. The thing that I get is different and sort of wierd but not racist or gender specific or anything, I don't think. It's just that everybody starts talking to me and they think they know me. Also, I have a really hard time not giving ALL of my change away in a large city. I am sort of an easy target for people who want to engage someone. I think it is an eye contact thing from having grown up in a small town. We looked at everyone when we passed.

I would actually like to see a journalistic sting in the Whole Foods where you stop. Like the Tea Room incident Linda posted about a week or so ago.
I understand the subtleties with which you speak, in line at the check out there was a black man in front of me, he was talking to the cashier, and then he looked down at my purchase of the DVD of RAY and started talking to me. In his mind I was safe to have a non judgemental conversation with. There is still so much prejudice especially here in the south, people have just learned or think they've learned to hide it better. Or to put on pc behavior when there are still a lot of misunderstanding and divides in all cultures. On the other hand like a lot of the other comments, he might just be approachable. The man in the line had a beautiful smile! In fact the most beautiful man I ever saw was a black man from Egypt.
It has to be difficult to know where this comes from. In some instances it might just be that they think he looks in charge and in others maybe they are just attracted to him and in some it must just be ingrained racism. Were he my husband I don't know which would offend me more but in any event, it's good that you write about it and even better if you don't let it get to you. You know who and what you and he both are and that's the important part. Thanks for a thoughtful post.
I get that "do you work here" thing sometimes as well and I don't think that it's a coincidence that I too am African American. I'm not sure that it is racism, per se -- but it is prejudice (i.e., to pre-judge someone). Mostly, it is just ignorance and really annoying.
Ah, Joan I have a wonderful story for you. One of the richest Black men in...the WORLD, actually...was working in his huge complex of stables one day while waiting for some businessmen to arrive for a weekend of fun on his estate. And he was walking along a fence there as the swanky convoy of cars rolled up and one of them stopped. And whoever was behind the wheel--I keep forgetting details, but it was one of the actual businessmen, but one who had never met his host--leaned out, smiled and said, "Say, work here, right? Are we on the right road here?"

The very rich Black man smiled and gave him directions to the house. And then went home, changed, and came down to greet his guests later, after they'd gotten settled and were waiting for him in one of the many incredible rooms in the house.

The way he tells it, their faces, when they saw him all "cleaned up," were a study in, "OMIGOD my career is over" terror. But he managed to be gracious even so.

And by the way, I get the same thing your husband does in stores. If I'm in jeans and just standing in the aisle, no cart or anything...someone invariably sidles up to me to ask me where something is or what the price of something is or...sigh...
@Keka, that is a really incredible story. Thank you for that.
Maybe it isn't the color of his skin that makes them ask him for help, or think he is an employee. Maybe he has such a charismatic, charm, and that he has a demeanor that leaves these older ladies to think, and believe that he is safe to ask to help them.
I am not an older lady, but a short one.. I have asked for help from some men in the stores get something down for me. I won't ask just anyone, I will look around to find someone that looks like he is a safe person to ask for help. You can really tell by looking at them, and some you can look at and just sense that they are charming and caring.
Just my thought on it. Because maybe it really is the charming demeanor that your husband carries so well that attracts these women to ask him for help. Older women will not ask just anyone for help, and I am sure they don't mean it as a degrading or belittling thing against your husband. But maybe more as a compliment then anything, that he looks trust worthy to ask for help.
Great post, well written and I can understand what you are saying also. Wish you lots of luck on this one..
I haven't read all the comments yet. I fell in love with my partner when he worked at a grocery store he was a buyer and "team leader" at Whole Foods for years. I wonder what's so embarassing about being mistaken for someone who works, to the best of their abilities, at a grocery store?
I get your idea of implied racism but wonder about what else is implied here, since we have dealt with enough classist stuff in our lives about his work.
he wears his ratty UMASS sweatshirt ironically, of course:) Love you and your writing, Joan, but I have dealt with this on a different level and, believe me, people treat grocery store workers like shit.
Dear Aim,
There is nothing wrong with working in a store. My husband and I met, dated and married while we were both retail store employees.
This is not about that. It is about the presumption that a black man in a store full of white shoppers could not possibly be one of them. It is the assumption that black people are the workers and white people are the customers. As you read the comments you will see that many white people have had the experience of being asked, "Do you work here?"
I am trying to point out that I find it more prevalent with my black friends as well as my husband. People make assumptions every day based on race. This is just one example.
...and aim, I love you too. Check out mimetalker's comment. It isn't about the grocery store clerks. I promise.
I get the same thing in stores....but they tell me it is because I look like a physically fit Dick Cheney.
Joan, thanks. I guess there are two troubling phenomena happening with your husband - race AND class. And of course I can never really feel racism, so can never know how your husband feels. I can try to understand, but I can never feel that.
I still feel like your example denigrates working in a grocery store, but understand because you had an important point to make. I can be overly sensitive to classist behaviour at grocery stores because Kevin (tall, white, Irish -American) was constantly beaten upon by stupid yuppie scum of ALL races and creeds who decided that shopping at Whole Foods was their privilege. But mostly white people.
The rich liberal privileged are the worst, I think. They attempt to portray themselves as progressive but can't deal with an immigrant working in their nice, clean store. Kevin knew what was expected of him at Whole Foods - fulfill the Whole Foods fantasy that shopping there makes you a better person. The shoppers would never talk to the stockers, because they were brown. in his store, many Tibetans who had a better command of the language than many of the customers.
I am sure there WAS some sense of talking to the nice, smart, African American man. Next time, he should call over an employee, I guess - and embarass the person who is making the assumption.
The employees at Whole Foods are there for many reasons - the customers are not one of them!
xo Alison
Wow. Divorce Bard said it well; I was thinking the same thing. You can never know if the little old ladies are truly being racist until you do some experimenting. Having said that, I can appreciate that you have felt it enough that you know what you are talking about, and instinct on these type of matters is usually spot on, isn't it?

Gender and racial biases will take a long, long time to go away in our society, if they ever do. I live in a cultural melting pot, and I think that i don't see color, but...we all have biases we don't even realize we have.

I tried to explain to my 85+year-old mother that I would appreciate her not using a color to describe people she was talking about in front of my then-three-year old. At that point he was, as far as I knew, unaware that people came in different colors. It was a beautiful, fresh perspective that I wished could last forever.

Poor Mom was so insulted that I implied she was racist; after all, she is a liberal democrat who ran away from her very Southern roots as quickly as she could, at age 18, to head to the big city of Miami, and considered herself pretty worldly. She simply could not understand that when she told a story about the "nicest" black man, she was implying that other black men might not be nice.

I find it embarrassing to go anywhere with her. At this age, she holds back NOTHING. If anyone in her path has a look about them that is not light skin, light eyes, "all-American [ha!] looking," she has some silly comment to make regarding her assumption of their nationality. God help anyone who opens his or her mouth and she's within earshot to hear an accent!
try and laugh at the fools that ask him this question. People are just stupid. I am Jewish and you cannot imagine the crap I've heard from idiots who assume I am not Jewish. For the most part they are simple, stupid, foolish losers . Next time someone does that walk up to your husband in the store, and in front of the fool that just asked him some stupid question, and thank him for his help in picking out some ....... then give him a huge kiss!
Oh, joan I could tell you countless tales of well meaning white women gone wrong.. like the one who told my sister she could not return an unworn blouse because it smelled like you people, or the many white flight attendants who would smile and chat up my dad while working on the airplanes at SFO in front of my mother.. or the white guy in high school who spit in my face when he found out I was biracial and accused me of trying to pass my self as white to "fool" him into race mixing..