A Hard Lesson in Unconscious Privilege

A Hard Lesson in Unconscious Privilege

At the intersection of breakfast cereal and systemic racism

About a year into the pandemic, while I was still too worried about catching COVID to go into a grocery store, I did all my shopping online. I would place an order at my local Kroger for pickup the following day. This story is about something that happened during one of those trips.

. . .

I drove into the parking lot behind Kroger and called to tell them I was there to pick up my groceries. Normally I would text my arrival, but I had an urgent need. The store had notified me that my favorite cereal was out of stock, and I had indicated “no substitutes.” So now I would have no cereal at all and was hoping I might be able to add a different kind to my order before they brought it out.

The voice of a young Black Georgia woman came over the phone. Her sentences all ran together; I couldn’t distinguish any separate words, although I could tell they ended with a question.

“Excuse me?” I said. She repeated the same sounds.

Now I was embarrassed, because I’ve been in Georgia for nearly seven years and I think I should be able to understand Southern Black speech patterns.

“I’m so sorry, could you repeat what you just said?”

“Could you give me your first and last name?” She spoke each syllable as a stand-alone.

“Oh, yes, I’m sorry. Phyllis Unterschuetz,” my old, Midwestern White voice said.

“Excuse me?” she said.

“Phyllis Un-ter-shoots.”

“What?”

“Phyllis U-N-T … ”

“Okay I got it,” she said. “Your order will be right out.”

“Oh, wait! Um, would it be possible for me to add something at this point?”

“What do you need?” she asked. Both of us were speaking in slow motion.

“Do you have Heritage Flakes, Flax Plus?”

“Say what?”

“Heritage Flakes, Flax Plus.” I said this as though it made sense. The words look so normal on a cereal box.

She: “Heritage Flakes … what’s the rest?”

I: “Flax Plus.”

She: “Heritage Flax?”

I: “No, Heritage Flakes.”

She: “Oh, I thought you said flax.”

I: “Yes, I did.”

She: “I’m not understanding at all. Flakes or flax?”

I: “Both. Flakes and flax. Heritage Flakes, Flax. I mean Flax Plus.”

She: “Plus?”

I: “Yes.”

She: “Plus what?”

By now we should both have been laughing. I surely wanted to. Who says “flakes flax” with a straight face? I imagine you started laughing several sentences ago. But her voice was strained and tired, and my urge to laugh drained away.

I said, “You know, I’m thinking that if the Heritage Flakes Original is out of stock, the Flax Plus probably is too.”

“Yes, probably,” she said, then added quickly, “I’m so sorry I couldn’t help you.”

“No problem,” I said. I was already thinking about where I might order my cereal.

“Is there anything else I can do to help you?” she asked, still pronouncing one syllable at a time.

“No, I’m good. Thanks so much.”

“Okay, your order will be right out. And you’ll be getting an email asking about my service today, and I’m so sorry I couldn’t help with your flakes — your flax — and like I said, they’ll be asking about my service …”

Ah. Now I get it. I’m worried about my cereal; she’s worried about her job. I’m in my car with my trunk popped so I can get my groceries without risking infection; she’s in the store, working with others who can’t afford not to work, doing my shopping for me.

I’ve been getting my groceries by delivery or curbside pickup since the beginning of the pandemic nearly a year ago, and every delivery person, everyone carrying bags to my car, has been young and Black. When I’ve tipped them and thanked them profusely for their service, they’ve all said how grateful they are for the job. And now I’ve brought worry into this young woman’s morning with my casual thoughtlessness.

We can find ways to understand each other, even to build trusting relationships, across the gaping chasm between Black and White, but until we’ve dismantled the system that leaves some worried about their cereal while others are worried about their jobs, there will be no justice.

1 Comment
  • Nancy Freda
    Posted at 18:17h, 29 August Reply

    Once again you’ve found the deeper meaning! Not many people think like this, I don’t believe.

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