My Mother’s Day gift a few years ago was a designer Penn State purse. It also came with a wallet and wristlet, both bearing the Nittany Lion insignia. I am usually seen carrying one of these, and the larger purse celebrating my alma mater has become something of a trademark.
There is a small problem with it, however. For some reason, it sets off security systems. Perhaps there is a tag or chip buried deep in the purse’s lining, but no one can seem to find anything.
So, when the alarms start sounding and the lights flash red, I seize the moment of instant fame by making inane jokes and explaining my predicament. I usually share a good laugh with a store manager, sometimes need to show my purchase and receipt, and then I go on my merry way.
But one day, as I exited a department store, my purse led to an epiphany.
I made a stop on my way home from work to make a quick purchase. As I walked out through the security posts, true to form, bells started ringing and lights began to flicker. As is my habit, I paused and waited for management or security to approach me. I was preparing to drape my purse open as well as my shopping bag.
I heard a voice behind me and turned to see a woman about my age, a black woman, also carrying a purse and a bag. She was asking what was going on, saying she didn’t take anything, and why was this alarm going off? I quickly reassured her this issue was due to me and not her. I told her about my quirky purse.
At that moment, two store personnel approached us. I started to show the gentleman my purse and bag. He was not interested in me, and he half-smiled at my “the security company must be Pitt fans” comment. He told me to just go. I stood still for a few moments.
Both people walked toward the other woman. She was wide-eyed and kept repeating she had not taken anything. They asked to see inside her bags. She produced receipts.
I stepped forward, excused myself and said again my purse was the culprit. The manager nodded and told me I could leave. I did, and then I hovered around a corner. It was clear the woman was being questioned thoroughly, and she complied with their requests. After a few minutes, she also was cleared to move on.
I was walking slowly to my car when another light bulb flashed in my head: I had just come face to face with the reality of white privilege.
I used to think my personality, quick wit or perhaps ease of engagement were assets that served me well in challenging or precarious situations. I realize now, while these do make up my strong set, they are also social capital — skills that create success when navigating through systems and society.
The thing about social capital is this finesse is learned, passed down from parents and others who have influence over one’s life. However, among the poor and other disenfranchised groups of people, these skills are often not part of their managing conflict toolbox. One cannot pass on what one has not had the opportunity to possess.
As a white woman, professional and educated, social capital is not in short supply for me. And looking like I did, I apparently presented as the lesser likely of the two shoppers who might have committed a crime — except I didn’t have to prove it.
I got in my car and drove home pondering the events of the last five minutes. I found myself with a sinking feeling in my heart. I should have done more. I should have stood my ground and not walked away. I should have invoked my persistence. But I didn’t. I was hurrying and tired. I was complying. I was hearing a little voice from my own upbringing saying “Don’t get involved.”
I had committed a crime — a crime of omission — in walking away from injustice.
I have thought of this incident many times since it happened. I am upset with myself for not taking a stand. I wonder how many other times I have been part of little slights that have huge impacts and contribute to systemic oppression.
After the events of the weekend of May 30, I vowed to take a new position. First, I needed to forgive myself for past choices and actions. Second, I needed to examine and discard some long-held beliefs that had been ingrained in me — namely “Don’t get involved.” Then, I made a promise to never stand by and let injustice roll off my back. Situations like George Floyd’s abuse and murder are the tip of the iceberg — the visible outcomes of systemic prejudice in our society. Situations like mine are the undercurrents, the crimes of omission and the sustainability of oppression.
I have heard it said that our society — perhaps our civilization — is going to hell in a handbag. I am not sure I fully agree with this, but I do know one thing: My handbag was instrumental in helping me unpack my previously held beliefs about the pervasiveness of racism and the need to speak out against injustice.
Editor’s note: Denise Continenza is the family and consumer sciences educator with Penn State Extension, Lehigh and Northampton counties.