It was with great joy that I made a casual visit to your East End location this past Friday. With vacation time on my side I could finally cross your prolific gift shop and floral boutique off my grew up in Rochester but never visited list. Initially this visit was pleasant and business as usual from a local neighborhood establishment. A friendly greeting from the front desk clerk, my eyes wide and in awe after circling the lower level and gazing at all the gifts, trinkets, and plants in abundance; thinking who would be the best recipient of a well thought out gift from a local staple. It wasn’t until I attempted to venture upstairs that my visit ultimately led to this letter.
Before I could set foot on the top step, I was hastily stopped by a gentleman that approached me from behind friendly yet firmly telling me that before I could wander the second floor, I would have to remove my shoulder bag and set it behind the front counter. I initially gave pause to the request but in place of “making a scene” or seeming difficult quickly agreed to the request with a smile. Had it not been for the sole other patron in the shop, I more than likely would not have given this interaction a second thought. You see this middle aged white woman had also wandered from the first to second floor with not one but two bags on her shoulders. She apparently hadn’t been sequestered to remove her everyday luggage and was allowed to shop uninterrupted and without the same scrutiny as I, a black young black man had received. This scenario on the surface seems rather trivial. What is the big deal you may ask? But after reflecting on the situation and facts from my vantage point for the rest of my visit and into the rest of my day; several issues and unanswered questions remain.
Was I racially profiled? Is the most pressing question that I was left with after exiting your store. This burden in itself is tough enough as a man of color but even more disconcerting facing it after leaving an establishment that is literally down the street and around the corner from where I live, work, and walk daily.
The second question is: Why wasn’t the female customer also asked to remove her bag before she was allowed to the second floor? Did your two staff members miss her by mistake? How could this be since the two of us were the only customers in the store at the time?
Additionally, if this is standard practice and policy why is there no posted signage informing customers about the no bag policy? Why was I treated differently in that moment from another customer?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. Only theories based on anecdotal evidence. However this incident and these thoughts are daily burdens that black and brown residents have the burden of facing as we navigate Rochester spaces and increasingly; East End establishments that are quite literally gentrifying right before our eyes.
I write this letter not to accuse but to take a stand for myself and many others who have encountered similar treatment in Arena’s and other places in Rochester but chose to remain silent. This and many other microaggressions are one of many that happen daily that for the sake of being politically correct, for the sake of niceness, for the sake of turning the other cheek we are culturally forced to give establishments like yours the benefit of the doubt. Our silence leads to unanswered questions, broken egos, and hurt feelings. We vent to our friends. We vent on social media. We vow never to return again. But this silence fosters nothing but more complicity, more status quo, and more allowances for racism to fester and divide our City.
I write this letter openly to share my one experience. To be transparent and let others know that it is ok to speak up. To let you know that my voice matters. My feelings matter and that as a customer and more importantly as a human, I deserve to be treated the same as everyone else. I do not deserve to be treated differently, or thought of differently, because of the color of my skin.
This letter is a letter to foster positive yet difficult conversation on how we as a community both in the East End and at large are treating each other through our daily interactions and in the policies we create and promote in our places of business. I hope that your staff and owners join me in this conversation.
Founder & Executive Director