Saturday, January 13, 2007

Marking the poor

Via Feministe, Jane Galt has a story about a small encounter that abruptly and uncomfortably brought up the issue of her privilege as a middle-class white woman:
Stamp of shame

This post on food stamps, about which I will not comment, made me think of an incident the other day. Since I moved to Silver Spring, I have been exploring the local streets and shopping. This put me in a curious mood the other day, when I was at the market checking out my groceries. I started to wonder: what is this "EBT" thing that's on all the supermarket checkout card machines? So I asked the checkout woman. She stared at me.

"That's for food stamps," she said, finally. She was black. I am so white that sometimes, in the early morning, I blind myself in the bathroom mirror. I have never felt like such a dumb, privileged middle class white girl in my life. Ever.

And yet, the thing is, in New York I shop in a housing project. Indeed, I have lived in marginal or transitional neighbourhoods pretty much all my life. I know what food stamps (now cards) look like; indeed, when I was younger, thanks to friends whose families were on them, I had a pretty good working knowlege of what could and could not be purchased with them, and even what grocery stores in the neighbourhood would let you buy soap with your food stamps. (Don't call me, USDA! I'll never tell.) I am a privileged white woman, but not a totally clueless one. Unless you'd actually used food stamps, how would you know what the code on the checkout machine was?

But I don't think that I am imagining the words "Stupid, rich white suburban idiot" running through the checker's head as I gathered my groceries and left the store.
I can see not actually knowing what EBT is. Grocery stores around here treat it like a dirty little secret, keeping it so quiet that when someone is using it, the employee is likely to have to ask questions and slow down the progress of the line and in the process embarass the hell out of their customer. At one grocery store around town, they used to not take debit or credit (and thus I hardly ever went there, even if they had the best prices in town), so if someone did use their EBT card, it was really obvious and it's not the most common form of payment so it usually took a few times telling the checkout person, by then making your financial status obvious to the ten or twelve people standing in line around you.

They take debit now so it's not such a big deal, but I do notice that at other grocery stores when I pull out my debit card, they say "Is that credit or debit?" making anyone using EBT say "Oh no, I use the Shame Card." There is one checker who casually says "Debit, credit, or EBT?" which I think every employee should emulate.

But they don't, and as far as I know there's no store policy that they should, so Rosauers (the grocery store closest to the homeless shelter in town, by the way) is participating in the time-honored game of making poor people jump through hoops just so they can get some food in their cupboards.

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