[Racial Reality] Check Out At a Berkeley Organic Grocery Store…and the Challenge of 'White' Apology vs. Engaged Compassion


I created the image above after my racial reality check out at a Berkeley organic grocery store the other day. I had my 1, 3 and 6 year olds in tow. They were helping me pick out their organic vegan treats for the playground. The store is located in a predominantly white area of Berkeley. I rarely see Black patrons there. Oh, and for those of you who are reading my blog for the first time, I am a Black American cisgender woman with two daughters and a son.

Usually, after I am done paying for my groceries, my 3 and 6 year olds always ask the person working at the register for a sticker. There is a very kind Black woman who works there with a very big heart. She was stationed at the register that day. I see her there at the store all the time and she is always asking about the children if I don’t have them with me.

Upon the children’s request for a sticker, she reached into the sticker drawer and pulled out a bunch of stickers. The first one she selected was going to be for my 6 year old son. However, after looking at what it was, she said, “Oh, I don’t want to give this to a young Black man. It’s one with the police on it. No way.” She turned the sticker towards me and there was a cartoon drawing of a police car with a white police offer in it wearing sunglasses and looking ‘authoritative’. The police officer wasn’t even smiling. I said, “My kids often pretend one is a cop while the other one is a bank robber. I don’t know how to tell them that the criminal justice system isn’t as simple as the game they play.” She folded her hands together and I saw the look of both connection and desperation in her brown eyes. She has a son who is 4 years old. She responded, “But how do you explain that to them? They are just babies. How do you explain everything that’s happening between us and the police right now to someone so young?”

…and then somehow, we started talking about the killings; of “driving while Black,” “walking while Black”, and “breathing while Black”…and of course Sandra Bland.

I shop at this store all the time and have been a patron for about 6 years now. It is located in a predominantly white section of Berkeley. The consciousness around what me and the woman at the register were talking about is basically non-existent in that section of Berkeley; and by this, I mean a consciousness formed out of the visceral and embodied knowledge of “driving while Black”, “walking while Black”, “breathing while Black”, and even “looking at a police sticker for children while Black” ; particularly since the murder of Oscar Grant in Oakland CA and within the context of the of Black Lives Matter movement. And I don’t mean to say Grant’s murder was the beginning; however, it is a newer type of racial violence marked by the distinct era of Mass Incarceration and a militarized police state targeting brown and black people. And it’s supposed to only happen in the ‘racist’ South? Surely not in the SF Bay area! (Sarcasm).

The Black mother of the 4 year old son who was working at the checkout didn’t say it directly to me, but I know we both experienced each other as acknowledging a different racial reality in comparison to a predominantly white area where the store is located.  I am 99% certain that handing that police sticker to a white father or mother’s white child simply could not have created such a space to un-silence the white [supremacist] elephant in the room (– and yes, I know there can be a white mom or dad with a non-white child. I am not talking about this). And as I write this, I can’t stop thinking about that desperation and worry in her eyes. I knew she was thinking about her own Black son and his future if the current state of systemic anti-Black violence didn’t change quickly. I can’t stop thinking about all the healing and healthful foods and products in that store along with the absence of Black Lives Matter signage in that neighborhood; after all, the signage and symbols seem to be in many places in Oakland CA providing food. Of course this makes sense because Oakland is not predominantly white and class privileged like North Berkeley for sure. (I do see a lot of “All Lives Matter” signage or “Everyone Matters” in Berkeley, and you know how I feel about that 😉

I think about all the symbols and suggestions of healing and health in this Berkeley store that I frequent that put ‘good health’ into a vacuum; a vacuum that is suggesting that all one needs to be healthy is to buy and eat the right organic/natural and local foods. I see so many white and smiling faces on these products or magazines that are void of any conversations around how unhealthy racism and normative whiteness are; that refuse to even try to explain that the food system, health system, and systems of racism are interlocking…and that all the Spirulina, kale, or beets in the world cannot create a healthy USA if the food system– even the local and organic food system– exists in a foodscape anchored on centuries of systemic racism, white supremacy, and the demonization of Black bodies as ‘worthy of being brutalized’. I use foodscape by Gisele Yasmee to “emphasize the spatialization of foodways and the interconnections between people, food, and places. ‘Foodscape,’ drawn from ‘landscape,’ is a term used to describe a process of viewing place in which food is used as a lens to bring into focus selected human relations.” (Source: The FOOD SECTION.)

These ‘human relations’ I speak are human relationship dictated and shaped by hundreds of years of racialized power dynamics in which normative whiteness/anti-blackness continue to be the dialectical center. Maybe you recall the frustrations I had with finding ‘big name’ natural food companies to support the Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matters conference this past year? It felt like many of their ‘neutral’ stances were not convincing to me. As a matter of fact, their lack of interest in even learning about how Black Lives Matter matters as health and nutrition issues was both heartbreaking and disappointing. “Okay, so you say you are ‘sorry’ you can’t support us but I don’t think sorry is solidarity.” is what I was thinking. Hence, the image I began this blog post with…And how I feel in spaces like the Berkeley store I often go to that are plastered with post-racial products and information about achieving healthy living that assumes everyone is a white middle class able-bodied person whose mental and physical health are not negatively influenced by systemic racism. Yea, I know you could argue that not every organic products company should be rushing to join Black Lives Matter…but isn’t it interesting that it’s not ‘too political’ when many of these companies have their profits going to saving a certain species of non-human animals or conservation sites outside of the USA? It’s interesting that it’s not ‘too political’ when a lot of these companies give some of their profits to help non-white villages outside of the USA become part of the green economy (i.e. non-white villages growing fair trade coffee, or cocoa, or shea butter to ‘get out of poverty’). What is so scary about publicly supporting human beings in the USA who have been affected by systems of racism and whiteness? Why does this particular focus get the answer of, “Well, we just want to be neutral” or “It’s too political?” (And If I’m not making sense, I do apologize. Today is one of those ‘stream of consciousness’ Breeze days…but see what the sticker with a police car and officer on it, between two Black moms, can illicit?)

If you have been following my posts over the last few weeks, you have also learned how difficult it has been for many of us– including myself– to emotionally survive and do my activist work within this continuum of anti-Black violence in the USA (and beyond). Since SC shootings, I wrote a blog post asking why most of my white friends have been silent about talking about such violence or even inquiring how these events are affecting me as a Black woman. Coincidently, the same day I spoke with the woman at the natural grocery story was the same day that my fantastic spiritual, anti-racism, and critical thinking mentor, Zenju published an article that has helped me better articulate how I feel about everything over the past month. Zenju is one of the key spirits in my life that helped me practice “engaged Buddhism” as a critical race feminist and ahimsa oriented vegan.

Zenju wrote an article called The Misuse of Apology for Black Genocide: A Clarification of Compassion. That beautifully articulates what I could not these past few weeks. She writes below:

I have received three apologies from white-skinned strangers in the last three weeks in public places. They each said, “I am sorry for what is happening to black people in this country.” Their comments refer to the recent murders of black men, women and children. Each time this occurred I sat there blinking very slowly and then I’d smiled. I was not smiling because of the apology. I was smiling because I thought for a moment that they might cry like I have been crying. I almost laughed in one instance in response to a deep tremor of anger inside me. Although an apology is an effort to acknowledge the suffering, using the presence of my blackness in a public space (this includes the internet) is far too convenient for a situation we used to call genocide and not police brutality. It is not a time for personal confession in which there is no punishment. It is not kind. It is not courteous. It is not Zen. When someone you care about is murdered an apology is as pale as the whiteness worn by some who utter such a thing at such a time. If they felt the way I felt an apology would never come to mind. They would be enraged, rendered speechless and hurt to a degree in which healing feels impossible. They would suffer not for being “bad people” but for the loss of particular kinds of people-those living in dark bodies. For what we regret can only remain regrettable. What we see as pitiful remains pitiful. Perhaps the apology is loaded with:

  1. I can only feel pity, shame and guilt
  2. I am not suffering as much as you are
  3. I can feel your rage but I’m not a rageful person
  4. I cannot look you in the eye
  5. I feel hopeless
  6. I can’t change the way things are
  7. You are my cause to fight for
  8. I’m worried
  9. Take Care

In essence, there is confusion between apology and compassion. Compassion is not as simple as saying I’m sorry. Compassion is a felt visceral nauseating feeling that occurs in the gut of one’s body. Compassion as an emotion doesn’t feel so good. Are you with me? One would have to take the time to remove the shields that keep you from feeling safe and whole. You would feel vulnerable each time you walked out your door. You would attempt to live a full life every day knowing you will be shunned, looked upon as worthless or maybe murdered that day. Apology would be far from your mind in the midst of the annihilation of a group of people. Here’s the reason we are confused about apology and compassion: An internet dictionary: a·pol·o·gy (əˈpäləjē/ ) noun: apology; plural noun: apologies

  1. a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.
  2. a very poor or inadequate example of.

com·pas·sion (kəmˈpaSHən/ ) noun: compassion; plural noun: compassions

  1. sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.

So, in our general society apology and compassion are simultaneously about pity and regret. What a pity to reduce compassion to such a thing as pity! Compassion is born from intimately knowing suffering. Compassion is not something in which you say a few words or take an action and you’re done. Compassion is a lifetime awakening to the nature of suffering. As we mourn these horrendous murders, could this be the time to see into suffering in a way we having never seen before? Yes, for it is only now that the country sees it’s own terrorists. What is it going to take to uproot the neglected bones buried in slavery and the cold war of the confederacy? Certainly not an apology. (Source: http://zenju.org/the-misuse-of-apology-for-black-genocide-a-clarification-of-compassion/)

So, now that the country sees its own terrorists, will there be more apologies from the racial status quo? Or, can there be engaged compassion + anti-racist action? Can the pity stop and the undoing begin?

I am reading Zenju’s The Way of Tenderness: Awakening through Race, Sexuality, and Gender to help me strategize the next steps. I need to be anchored in compassion and tenderness if I’m going to get through this alive…we all do.


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12 thoughts on “[Racial Reality] Check Out At a Berkeley Organic Grocery Store…and the Challenge of 'White' Apology vs. Engaged Compassion

  1. As my awareness stumblingly increases, phrases in common use take on different meanings…phrases like “it’s too political” for instance. One substitution I try to make when the word politics is used is the phrase “having to do with the distribution of power and resources within a given community”. I’m learning that this concern with distribution can be overt…such as some of the stances the “political parties” take…or…issues about this distribution can also be covert or hidden or (one word I really like) invisible. While the overt stuff can be repugnant and disgusting, at least it’s not hidden…it’s the invisible stuff that offers the most challenge for not only can it support odious distributions…to even figure out what the distributions are…it has to be de-invisibled.

    For you and for the black woman working in the store many distributions that operate are not invisible…they’re clearly comprehended and understood. For white people like me (and I’m presuming like those who work in the store) who consider themselves to be ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’, etc…the distributions having to do with race are mostly invisibled. And…one factor that serves to maintain that invisibility is to consider something “too political”. I sometime think, on a level out of awareness, when that which has been hidden starts becoming exposed, one of the gatekeeper phrases that pop up to re-hide it is that it’s “too political”.

    So…for me to challenge or resist or object to those hidden distributions two steps have to occur…deinvisibling and then evaluation of the previously hidden distributions. I can usually fairly quickly identify a distribution that repels me or appeals to me…it’s the deinvisibling that causes trouble. If I don’t do the work of unhiding that which was hidden then I’m left just to see the results of various distributions without grasping the structures and dynamics of the distributions that produced those results. If I’m responding to results without deinvisibling…that’s when I end up at “I’m sorry” instead of what Zenju calls compassion.

    If I don’t do the work of deinvisibling…I lament what’s happening but I’m virtually clueless about the why of its happening. If I’m clueless I start grasping for trivial details about the immediate circumstances of any given tragedy. Once some unhiding happens, I’m in a place to see the systemic and widespread abuse and injury visited on people of color by the police (and by white society)…that’s when I can experience outrage and wordlessness. But if I don’t…I’m stuck with “I’m sorry” and a feeling of inadequate bewilderment…of looking for someone to blame…and that search won’t zero in on the distributions…because they stay hidden…because they’re “too political”.

    I find I’m wanting to curse now because as I write these words my outrage and disgust rises and strengthens. I’ll minimize cursing here…but I want to let it rip. Working to deinvisble distributions of power and resources predicated on race means being made more and more aware of my belonging to a group of humans who behave monstrously and who deny that monstrousness. It means acknowledging and accepting my own complicity…my own monstrousness. It’s confusing and scary and disorienting and sad making and disgust evoking. It pisses me off. It devastates me.

    But I’m not going to quit the work of deinvisibling. It doesn’t have to be this way…it is wrong that these distributions are structured the way they are…and it is people with white skin like me who are responsible…and goddam it…this crap has to stop. If I were the emperor I would zip zoop fix it. But I’m not, so I can’t, but I can struggle to get out of it and I will. As Dr Beverly Tatum noted…the shame and the guilt is the hardest part for white people to journey through…and it is a pain in the gut and heart and brain and ass…but the pain of remaining at “I’m sorry” is worse…I refuse to stay there…we gotta get beyond that and get on with the undoing. I feel like I’m babbling so I’ll stop.

  2. What is to be said about BLACK Congregations who will not mention, nor in anyway acknowledgement of Charleston; while simultaneously taking “Religious Doctrine” tips from white separatists. I don’t even have the words. Perhaps that is its own sin. When I witness 21st century religious black people cower under the watchful gaze of white overlords insisting they “The Blacks” not make mention of the Charleston kliegs at all. Dumbfounded, I found my way to a predominantly white congregation who at least mentioned the dead in prayer. Black are being silenced by blacks. And our congregation is in direct path of the KEYSTONE XL PIPELINE and not a word is to be mentioned. It is not “doctrinal”, don’t you know. Who would think I, a well nigh 6 year old black woman, must need ESCAPE BLACK PEOPLE to consider better paths of healing & enlightenment for BLACK people? ZENJU might comprehend. I am a member of the Church of Christ, as divided racially as ever it was, and more hat filled in its “doctrinal” superiority as it ever was when white CoC members used to HANG black CoC members. Now the white folk teach a “ONE TRUE CHURCH” doctrine and the black-on-black self-hatred proliferates and the BLACK PEOPLE do not seem to recognize it. And I’ve escaped to a :white congregation. I will really be happy when JESUS returns wearing a saffron abaya with a bindi magnifying HIS 3rd Eye and tender dread locks flowing across HER gentle face. Then we can simply WORSHIP & say THANK YOU even for the nud-niks who bank on hate, calling it doctrine. What happened to our all LIVING IN PEACE?

  3. Thank you for writing your experience and posting a link on COMFOOD. I especially like your question, “What is so scary about publicly supporting human beings in the USA who have been affected by systems of racism and whiteness?” I am a newer resident to the vast Bay Area and want to keep learning.

    1. Thanks Kelly. Overall, I also think ComFood doesn’t really talk about systems of whiteness and racism within the context of the food system. It’s a difficult space for me to broach the topic…
      I do love living in the Bay area, but also want to remind my friends (well, the mostly white ones who may not realize it) that one does not need to live in the US South to experience racialized violence. As Malcolm X would say, anyone living South of the Canadian border in the USA is living in the ‘south’. (not to say Canada doesn’t have it’s racist and xenophobic systems of oppression…)

  4. I found this on Comfood too, and it was a punch in the gut. I’m a white woman in my late twenties working at a food bank in Charleston, SC. Now that the media has left our city, most of the people I know (who are mostly white) have largely stopped talking about race. It’s easy for us to let it fade into the background again, because we can. This seems especially true in progression white middle class circles (at least culturally middle class), where we all agree that racism is bad and we’re angry about it, but we can ignore it when we want. I see and participate in the kind of white washed holistic/organic “healthy lifestyle” mindset you describe here, and I hadn’t thought much about what that perpetuates. The stress that the kind of true compassion you’re talking about creates doesn’t exactly fit in that lifestyle, which reveals a flaw in the lifestyle, not in compassion.

    Anyway, this might all be a little rambling, but I want to thank you for writing this. I have to learn to look for and see these realities on my own and not rely on others to wake me up.

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