When I first came to Toronto, I was mesmerized by the malls. The sheer volume and variety of stuff for sale was astonishing. I slipped into the habit of going to the mall every week. It did not matter if I wanted nothing. Visiting the mall was fun.
In Canada, shopping is the panacea for all of life’s little problems. If you are sad because of troubles with the man – go shopping. If you are happy due to a promotion at work – go shopping. And if you are broke because the bills are piling up – go shopping.
The one thing shopping could not solve was the Black reflex. When rummaging in my handbag for the phone or a tissue, I still do so in the middle of the aisle. There I can easily be seen. I did not want to walk down these aisles with security guards as my men of honour. These reactions are not paranoia. They are just a reflection of the Black experience when shopping.
Teenagers hang out at the mall. The security guards are not so keen on their gathering. With their acne, loud voices and free manners teenagers are bad for business when huddled in their little groups. They annoy and scare shoppers. Annoyed shoppers don’t spend much. So the teenagers are encouraged to go shopping or to leave the mall.
Black male teenagers used to gather at one entrance of my local mall. I felt tense and wary when approaching them. With head high and shoulders squared I walked up to the doors. A firm and polite ‘excuse me’, and the teenagers moved out of the way.
I was less concerned walking through a group of white male teens – even the ones with all the tattoos and piercings. Asian male teenagers were never an issue. They moved out of the way without being asked.
Two decades ago, it was delightful eating at the mall. White staff took my order, served my food and cleaned up my mess. It was a reversal of our historic roles. In today’s mall the eaters, servers and cleaners are a polyglot group. They reflect the diversity of Toronto with their babble of accents and languages, and skin tones from ebony to snow.
There is always a kid having a screaming fit in the mall. Or an adult talking too loudly on the phone. I always hope that they are not black or ethnic. These reflexes are instant and will not go away. As long as race still matters in society, it also matters in the shopping mall.
These days I only go to the mall when I need something. And I take along a shopping list. It takes a lot of self-control to stick with the list. It is easy to be seduced with the deals – buy two get one free, 50% discount off the items that are already on sale, and so on.
It is easier to turn down the persistent offers of store’s credit card and use it to get more discounts. I know from painful experience that this is a sure way to get into more debt. Shuffling the deck is a fun part of card games. Shuffling credit cards debts is no fun at all.
In the past I used to hold my breath at the check-out. I was getting ready for the interrogation. I always had other I.D. to prove that the gold credit card was mine. This would not happen today. Credit cards are as common as chocolates. Everyone has one.
I am comfortable in my local mall. When visiting other malls I can feel my racial antenna on alert. I hope for the best, but expect a little bit of attitude. When a too perky shop assistant asks ‘can I help you?’ I am never quite sure how to react. Do they genuinely want to help, or is it a coded why of saying ‘you are black and therefore I am watching you?’
© Jacqueline L. Scott
Jacqueline L. Scott is a writer in Toronto, Canada. She riffs on travel, race and culture.