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As calm music played throughout the shoe department, the woman standing in front of me was anything but. Her head was shaking, her arms flailing, and all I could do while trapped behind the register was nod and confirm that I was listening to her every word. I’d dealt with angry clients in the short span of my illustrious part-time retail career, but this was a first of its kind. I imagined that from a distance, it looked like the customer was giving me the verbal thrashing of a lifetime; however, her anger was not directed toward me. This woman was furious that Donald Trump was running for president and wanted me, a black Muslim woman wearing a hijab, to know it.
“I mean, it’s just crazy to think that this idiot is running for president! It’s ridiculous!”
All I could manage to reply was “...did you want your receipt in the bag or with you?”
I didn’t think politics would seep into my professional life in the way that they did. After all, I was a sales advisor working on the first floor of my local Nordstrom. The most I would normally hear about politics on the clock was when someone accidentally tuned to CNN on the break room television, which was almost exclusively used to catch up on Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta. But during the summer of 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign put me in the spotlight. His bid for presidency affected the way customers, especially white women, approached me at my workplace.
I was taken aback the first time something like this occurred, but I brushed it off as an strange one-off incident. However, a pattern developed. Before I could ask “What are you looking for today, ma’am?” I would be met with a firm touch on the shoulder and a somber “How. Are. You?” Day in and day out, white female customers quizzed me on my mental state, family, and religion, and then updated me on their own shock and outrage at the latest Trump scandal. They would take it upon themselves to physically console me in an effort to show their own grief. The unsolicited hugs always caught me by surprise.
It was a lonely complaint to have because I couldn’t share my misery with anyone. There was no form I could fill out with HR, and there was nothing I could say to these women that wouldn’t put my job on the line. A sales advisor, especially one working on commission, is balancing a fine line when it comes to their customer relationships. Having a good repertoire with a client can mean a guaranteed sale every time that customer chooses to shop in store. However, being personable does not mean a sales rep should have to divulge personal information: not how they feel an election is going, not how Trump is affecting their daily life, and certainly not how to pronounce “hijab.”
At first, I was receptive to these conversations. I was heavily interested in the status of the election, and since I regularly spoke about it with friends, family, and communities online, it seemed natural to converse with strangers about it. This was the first election that I was voting in, and I wanted to know every detail. I was excited to register at my local polling place and encouraged others to do the same. In college, the campaigns came up in courses that had nothing to do with politics. For a moment, albeit a short one, I was genuinely excited to have a say in who became the next president of the United States of America. Since it was something that was already on my mind, I had the energy and knowledge to have these discussions in a usual manner. For the most part, I forgot about these awkward encounters once I was off the clock.
But when I was at work, there were endless customers clamoring to tell me about their own political views. It felt like a solidarity performance in which I was expected to applaud the fact that a given woman did not agree with a man who ran a campaign on hate speech.
The most confusing aspect of these conversations was that these women felt like I should be able to speak about my personal experiences and give them shoe advice in the same breath. While a customer was spilling her guts to me about her racist best friend, I had to find the right pause to let her know that our Half Yearly sale was coming up in store and online. Most of the time, it ended up sounding like this:
“I mean, this man is insane if he thinks he can kick you all out! Could you grab a size 9 as well for me? The 8 and a half was a little too tight.”
“Yes, it is crazy, ma’am. We’re all sold out of the size 9s right now, but I can have a pair shipped to your home and at your door in three days!”
“And to think, it must be so hard for you! I see my friends on Facebook saying all kinds of things and I’m like... it’s just wrong. I actually wanted to try them on before I order. Can you check if a store close by has it?”
“Yes, it is hard. About the shoes, I can definitely check that out for you! Let me know if there’s anything else you need today!”
When shopping with me, some customers would add items to their purchases in the same way they added their worries to our conversations. A woman might check her Facebook feed while I bagged up her new boots, look up at me (again: a black, hijab-wearing woman), and proceed to tell me that she didn’t think it was moral to try to ban an entire religion because she had a Muslim neighbor, frantically grabbing a bottle of suede cleaner and adding it to her receipt.
It was an unforeseen effect, but I wasn’t complaining. I happily rang them up and thanked them for shopping with me. I even texted a couple of my friends that Donald Trump was indirectly helping me reach my sales goal. From impulse shoe care products to an extra pair of sandals, customers seemed to be trying to erase their guilt with their wallets. And as funny as it initially was to me that white guilt made me a little bit of extra cash this summer, there was power in that money. There is no way to buy into allyship; however, money can be one part of a continuous line of work. But while financially supporting a person or a cause is a huge component of solidarity, that does not mean the supporter is entitled to emotionally exhaust anyone.
And yet too often, with a one-sided confession and the swipe of a card, white women walked out of my department with a seemingly clear conscience and new shoes, leaving me with their emotional baggage and a copy of their receipt.