Papers Can't Change My Face

Do you know what Prada is? 

Has anyone asked you that question before? Have they asked it, as they reach to retrieve the necklace you are trying on?

Every woman has a go-to store that magically produces exactly the thing they need.  Mine is was Club Monaco.  When I worked on Wall Street my suits were Club Monaco, my bags were Club Monaco, my winter gloves were Club Monaco.  I always found it a fashionable, fits my tiny ass, affordable store.  

I was in Los Angeles, staying at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for the PEN Literary Awards.  My good friend Jose Antonio Vargas was honored with the Freedom to Write Award, which I later shattered to pieces, but that’s another story for another time. Norman Lear was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Amy Poehler.  Lena Dunham, John Cusack and other Hollywood-types filled the room.  Naturally, I wanted to look my best for my first ‘Hollywood’ event.  Jose was going to have me wear a gala gown; I would have died walking into the event wearing a gown.  Luckily, I found out that the event was much more casual before disaster struck. I got the perfect LBD before catching my flight to Los Angeles but still needed heels, a necklace and a clutch— I had about an hour to find them all, which brings us back to Club Monaco (off Rodeo Drive).

I was trying on a necklace when a sales associate came up to me and said, “Do you know what Prada is? Because that’s what that necklace is.” And she proceeded to take the necklace from my hand. 

It took me a second to realize what had just transpired- I had been racially profiled.  I wanted to ask her if she really just asked me, if I knew what Prada was, and more importantly why she would ask me that? Was it the way I was dressed?   I was wearing jeans, booties, and a sweater.  Was it because my skin is brown?  But I completely froze.  I gave her the necklace and wondered around the store, my face red, my heart racing, and my throat dry.  I managed to find a very cute clutch at Club Monaco, pay for it and leave, without letting it all out. 

As I walked to the next store to buy heels, I tried to process the question I’d been asked.  I wanted to go back to the store and tell the sales associate all sorts of mean things- a) just because Club Monaco now carries Prada necklaces doesn’t mean you are Prada b) do you know what Prada is on your Club Monaco sales associate salary (but maybe she was a trust-fund baby or something) c) bitch, I know what Prada is and I can buy 5 of those necklaces if I wanted to. 

But I realized that what bothered me the most, wasn’t that she assumed I couldn’t afford the necklace, that she only asked me that question because of the way I look.  What really bothered me was the realization that the assumptions she made about me could make my face turn red, my throat go dry and leave me speechless.  She, someone who knows nothing about me, her words, could make me feel so powerless.  

I thought about all the times I shopped at Club Monaco on 5th Ave, when I worked on Wall Street, as an undocumented American.  I walked into all the stores without papers, without legal status, and yet no one ever looked at me as though I did not belong.  Now, I have a United States passport, now I officially belong to this country, and now I’ve experienced the racial bias that exists in our country.  

Papers can’t my change my face, papers let me come and go, in and out of the U.S.A as I please.  But within the U.S.A, papers, my passport, my social security, my bank account, do not guarantee me acceptance.  I always thought of papers as the end game, but now I realize they are just the beginning.  Our culture must change— to see me, to see my brown face, my long black hair, and it must learn to accept me as part of itself. 

When I got back to my fancy Beverly Wilshire room, feeling not so fancy, I cried for five minutes, and then I pulled myself together and got ready for what turned out to be an amazing, inspiring evening.  I am still mad I went without a necklace though. 

As the great Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, you do better.”  Bless the sales associate’s heart, she just didn’t know better. 

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I am still missing my necklace.