It was an extremely unfriendly stare, one that conveyed disdain, perhaps even hate.
Traveling throughout South America I’ve grown used to stares. In small towns and rural areas especially, people aren’t used to seeing a black guy traipsing through their town with a backpack “like a gringo”, as someone in Quito once said to me. But even in a big city like Bogota, I would draw attention. I often wondered what was the fascination. Colombians come in every hue, so it couldn’t have been the color of my skin. Or maybe it could. I can only surmise that it may have been the fact of seeing a black person backpacking. Like seeing a black person on the ski slopes. Not entirely unusual, but to some still odd.
So then, those stares in an urban center like Bogota was just out of bewildered wonder, I’m thinking; thoughts of “who is this person and where is he from?” But never once were any of those stares like the one the security guard at Jumbo directed at me. Never once!
This town desperately needed a new supermarket. So it was with much anticipation that the people of Calama welcomed the opening of Jumbo. Jumbo is a large chain of supermarkets that reminds me of Publix in Florida, right down to the green signage, color schemes and layout.
Most people in Calama had been shopping at Lider, which is now not much of a surprise to me that it has the feel of a Wal-Mart in the United States. Lider is owned by Wal-Mart. But Lider would be so overcrowded with shoppers on most days that there weren’t any shopping carts left. To score a shopping cart, shoppers would have to follow someone leaving the store to their cars. Or go down to the underground parking garage and stalk people at their vehicles. And if you had a shopping cart, better keep an eye on it until it was filled with your groceries, staking claim to it. Any empty shopping cart was up for grabs. I learned that lesson the hard way when it took me almost a half hour to get a shopping cart – I followed a nice couple out the store and helped them load their groceries into their car – to take possession of their cart. Once I made it into the supermarket to begin shopping, I turned my back for a moment to grab some apples in the produce section. When I turned around, my shopping cart was gone! Gave new meaning to “how do you like them apples!”
So Jumbo, with its better quality and larger selection of everything, and enough shopping carts to go around, was seen as a blessing for this booming mining town. On Opening Day, my roommate Zach and I headed over to Jumbo. It was wall to wall people! So many shoppers it was hard to move about the aisles. We shopped, left and were very happy, as most Calamans, that Jumbo was here.
A couple of days later, I returned to Jumbo to pick up a few items. It was still busy but not nearly the insanity of Opening Day. Going about my business of shopping, I met the cold stare of the security guard in the produce section. I was walking toward him and he locked eyes on me. Weird, but okay. As I made my way around he followed, all the way to four aisles over where the “hand off” occurred. Another security guard assumed the tailing. When I looked up, he gave me a look that said “I’m watching you!” Okay, maybe I’m imaging. I’ll shift over to an aisle where there is no security guard, see what happens. Sure enough, here’s another security guard steps from me and looking directly at me. I shift aisles, he shifts to the same aisle as me. I switch aisles, here he comes. I return to the previous aisles, he’s right behind me. I switch again to another part of the store and another guard comes. Okay, let’s go all the way over to the Wine & Spirits section. Ah, wait, is that Ciroc vodka! For a second I forget about the guards as I spot my favorite vodka, in Chile! I had not found P-Diddy’s vodka – he’s the man behind it -anywhere else in South America. I reached to grab the bottle and out of nowhere a security guard appears and stands right next to me! He gives me a look. I start to say something, but instead I put the bottle back and head for the cash register. At the cash register, you guessed it, there’s a guard standing there looking at me – to make sure I pay, I guess. Now I know something’s up. But I say nothing, leave the store and share my experience with my roomie Zach. He tells me that at least in this part of Chile, racism runs deep, especially against Colombians, many of whom in town happen to be black. And of course since I got to town I am constantly mistaken for Colombian until I open my mouth to speak. Then people ask where am I from. Now, I must say here people in Calama are generally pleasant and friendly. I’ve had no problems. That is, until Jumbo came to town.
At the ice cream parlor I frequent, the Chilean women who work there said when they first saw me they thought I was Colombian, but then my jovial and confident manner was “different” and so they asked my nationality. They said Chileans naturally assume I am Colombian because I am black, as most blacks in Chile are Colombians. Okay, I have no problem with that.
Zach, a white American who has been in town for much longer than I have, tells me that his Chilean friends share with him that there is a racist attitude in town against Colombians, again, a good number of them black. So when I come in contact with Chileans in Calama their second reaction is curiosity as to who am I. Their first reaction – I see it in their facial expressions – is caution.
I tell Zach in all the time I’ve gone to Lider, I’ve never been tailed by the guards there or made to feel uncomfortable as with Jumbo. So I know I’m not imaging things, as one or two people tried to suggest. I decide to test the Jumbo waters again to make sure. I return to the store and act like any normal shopper, not doing anything unusual, not trying to draw attention. But on this day, the following by guards happens again. Okay, that’s it! I ask a store employee for the store manager.
The employee, a mid-management middle-aged man, asks what’s the problem. I point to the security guard standing nearby and express my concerns. He suggests that instead I should talk to the head of security, who turns up within minutes.
I explain the situation to Pedro, the head of store security. He listens and shows understanding. He then apologizes when I tell him I will simply return to shopping at Lider. He and the other mid-management employee practically plead with me not to do that. Pedro tells me they want all their customers to feel comfortable shopping at Jumbo. He asks if I wish to file a formal complaint. I do. But before I file the written complaint, he shares with me a confession of sorts. He says that on Opening Day, a Colombian man – who, yes, happened to be black – was caught shoplifting. He says the man left the store with 20 bottles of shampoo and was nabbed in the parking lot. He tells me it was then that the guards were placed on heightened alert and advised to keep an eye on Colombians, which in this town that generally means black people. But more specifically, to keep on eye on Colombian men. White Colombian men don’t get the same scrutiny because they blend in to the larger population. I then tell Pedro that in my country that’s called “racial profiling” and that it’s not only wrong, it’s discriminatory and dumb policing. It reminded me of when I lived in Matawan, New Jersey, and after a long day at work I went to a local 7-Eleven convenience store to buy a bread and milk. I was dressed respectably, in a nice suit, carrying my briefcase. But appearance meant nothing to the store clerk. He immediately began to watch my every move. Meanwhile, three white kids between the ages of 12 and 15 who had obviously learned from previous experience that the store clerk would focus on me – a black person -used that bit of knowledge as an opportunity to shoplift. I watched the store clerk keeping an eye on me while the three juvenile delinquents stuffed bags of potato chips, cookies and other items down their pants and under their shirts. They left the store and I, for one, was glad the idiot clerk got ripped off. And yet, as I left the store I didn’t know if I felt more sad for the wrongheaded store clerk or the kids who at their young age had already learned racism and were using it to commit a crime. I wonder where those kids are today. In jail for even worst crimes? That’s the stupidity of racial profiling, my friends.
I dictated my complaint to Pedro, he wrote it in a book he said the store manager reviews at the end of each day. The book contains praises, complaints, suggestions, concerns filed by customers. Pedro noted that I was American and not Colombian in the complaint, not that it should make a bit of difference.
Two days later I returned to Jumbo, feeling a bit uneasy about it. I grabbed a shopping cart, entered the store and was greeted by a smiling guard who said “hello…welcome.” Not once was I followed. The same security force inside the store – a dozen or more – practically ignored me. Even when I walked by one of them, a ho-hum yawn of boredom was all I got. Others simply went about just standing where I had seen them, no following, no talking into hand-held radios, nothing. Wow, what a difference a stern complaint makes. I went to the produce section and the security guard who had given me that disdainful stare just days earlier, looked at me and looked away. He also stayed put. Okay, let’s go grab that bottle of Ciroc, see what happens. Nothing. No guard suddenly at my side.
I left Jumbo feeling I had scored a victory not only against racial profiling, but for decent downtrodden-yearning-to-breathe-free Colombians who migrated to Chile just to make an honest living and send money to their families back home. And in the course of challenging stereotypes, the Chilean yo-yos have received an education in how not to make assumptions based on skin color.
Mike traveling, improving our small world one step, down one aisle, at a time.