Last Friday I had a little spare time before work, so I stopped by the Crossroads Trading store on Broadway, where I’ve shopped for more than a decade. 

When I walked inside, I noticed the first thing that I always notice as a Black person existing and shopping in public: the energy of the shopkeepers. 

As a Black person with dark brown skin and long box braids that I’ve worn consistently and proudly for about four years, I have been trained to operate with extreme caution when shopping. I don’t put my hands in my pockets or in my bag. I greet the salespeople, but I am also respectfully protective of myself. 

On this day, the White woman at the counter greeted me with a stern face. I expected a “hello” or a “welcome in,” but I got that face instead. I chalked up her apparent scorn to the possibility that she may have been having a hard day, and I moved on.

Then, as I walked toward a clothing rack, the security guard, a man of Latin American descent who hadn’t even seen my face by this point, muttered something that sounded aggressive and accusatory. He said something along the lines of, “What are you doing here?” That question seemed too bizarre and inappropriate to be real, so I told myself that he said “Hi.” In response, I turned around and said, “Hello.”

I browsed a rack or two, and within one minute of being in the store, the guard walked over to the woman at the counter, exchanged whispers with her, and then darted toward me. 

“You need to get out of here,” he said, aggressively. My stomach dropped. I was confused and afraid. 

“Why?” I asked. 

“You know why. Get out,” he said.

I pleaded with him to tell me why this was happening, because I did not know why. 

“We saw you walk out with an armload of clothes last week. Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. Get out,” he said. 

I told him I’d never stolen a thing in my life. I told him he was mistaken, that they were making a huge mistake. I became flustered and embarrassed. These people were annihilating my character in public, and I felt completely helpless and misunderstood. Demonized. 

When he claimed to have video footage, I felt relieved, knowing that it would exonerate me. But when I asked him to show me the footage, he refused. 

When I told him that they were racially profiling me, that they must have been confusing me for another Black woman with braids, the guard said, “If we’re wrong, then sorry. But you need to get out now.” 

The White woman then summoned me over to her with her fingers. I could tell that she immediately doubted her accusation. In my opinion, she saw my face and knew she had it wrong. 

I told her what I told him: You’re profiling me, and you’re making a mistake. She seemed apologetic in her responses to me, and she shook a bit as she handed me the card for her manager, but she sent me packing just the same. 

I went outside and started shaking. I made it to my car and sobbed. I screamed for the better part of an hour. I can’t describe what that kind of anger felt like. The kind when someone singles you out, accuses you of something you didn’t do—would never do–and then berates and attacks you and makes you leave. It felt like I had been stripped and spit on. 

I was born in Seattle and raised in the Central District by a West African immigrant mother and an Irish-descending White father. I have learned since childhood—and it is unfortunate to have to say this, or even face this reality—that it is dangerous to be a Black person in this country.

Even growing up with a White parent, it is dangerous to be a Black person in this country. For centuries we have seen the outright violence, exclusion, and harm that Black people have endured, but it can be hard for some to see the ways in which micro-aggressions can manifest into unsafe situations for us. I remember being young and watching a garbage truck run into my mother’s car, and when she called the police, they came and interrogated her. They chastised her as I watched, confused and afraid. I remember going into a Seattle grocery store with my father. We were getting candy, or a bag of chips. I was around seven or eight years old. When he realized he forgot his wallet, he went out to the car. The second he left, the shopkeeper stood in the aisle that I was in and watched me. I was confused and afraid. 

Over the last 30 years, I’ve seen Seattle change massively. The Central District’s change has been the starkest. For me—and for my sister, who wrote an article for Seattle Times about her own recent racist encounter–those changes have not always been positive. These kinds of incidents happen far too often in a city that claims to be anti-racist, in a city of people who stick signs in their yard claiming that all are welcome in their home, when I am not even welcome in a local thrift store in, arguably, one of the more diverse neighborhoods still left in Seattle.

Now I am an assistant preschool teacher. I am also a marathon runner, a painter, a freak, a writer, a lover. I am a student, too. I attend the University of Washington and study in the Early Childhood and Family studies program. This quarter, I am taking a class on policy and advocacy for children. For this class, we focus on a topic we chose last quarter and then find policies and bills surrounding that topic to support. Ironically, I chose the importance of race education in schools as my topic. I am writing this article because I must be an advocate for myself if I am going to be an advocate for children experiencing racism. 

Crossroads has since reached out to resolve the situation, and we are currently in communication about how to make this right. In a statement, a spokesperson said they “deeply regret” the experience I had, and they “apologize for the impact it had.” My interaction with the clerk and the guard, they said, did not align or reflect their "corporate values of respect and inclusivity.” In response, they’re “revisiting the appropriate training with our staff to prevent this from happening again.” 

One thing that I asked for, along with an apology from all staff members present that day, was mandatory Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training for their employees. While it is dangerous to be a Black person in this country, it is also beautiful. It is an honor. It is the aspect of my being that I am most proud of. Being Black is my identity, and it is my mission to speak out against systems that attempt to hold us down. As somebody who is currently advocating for policies, one that I would like to encourage all businesses to require is DEI training for their staff.

Gemma O’Neil is a 30-year-old woman born and raised in Seattle’s Central District. She is majoring in Early Childhood and Family Studies at UW. She currently works at a preschool where she does administration and assistant teaching. She is passionate about working for and with children to advocate for their needs.