My wife and I are out shopping for a floor lamp; I’ve got a little condo close to my job that I’ve slowly been furnishing. Wandering from store to store in San Francisco, I reflect, when we are alone together in our car, on what an interesting contrast the experience has been relative to the past. Navigating the world as a heterosexual couple is a markedly different from moving through it as two lesbians. I’ve spent a lot of time recently, I tell her, just browsing through stores, watching the way salespeople react to me. Things have definitely changed.
“What do you mean?” she asks, a bit incredulous.
“I’m getting all this male privilege all of a sudden. I get read as a man and it’s a totally different interaction.”
“You know that laptop I bought a few weeks ago? I got it for half the price that was marked on it. It was open box merchandise, so I told the guy, ‘I don’t really need it. I can walk away. I already have a laptop. I’m just here to see if I can get a deal.’ So he asks me, what do I want to pay? ‘Half that price,’ I say, and he disappears for a minute. When he comes back, he’s like, ‘Okay, we can do that.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
“You think it’s because he thought you were a man?”
“Absolutely. I mean, ‘What do you want to pay?’ Are you kidding me? That’s crazy. No one’s ever asked me that in a store before.”
I’m not sure she’s buying it, but she shrugs her shoulders and we move on. It’s the end of the day and we’ve been in a dozen different shops. In the very last store I see it: the ideal chair at the ideal price. It’s marked down 30% and we’ve got five minutes til closing time and the end of the three-day sale. The staff are moving through the store removing all of the price tags. Just as I’m about to say yes to the “sale” price marked on the tag, I notice that the crossed out, “compare at” price is actually half of the so-called “sale” price. I can’t believe my eyes; someone has a made a mistake.
A salesman is pulling off tags a couple of feet away from me. “Hey,” I say, getting his attention, “the ‘compare at’ price is lower than the ‘sale’ price! Are you guys gonna give me the chair for that?”
He walks over and looks at the tag. “Wow,” he says, “you’re right. I’m sorry, sir. Let me get the manager.”
A woman approaches and he explains the situation. She, too, examines the tag. I ask her, “Are you gonna give me the chair for the lower price marked on the tag?”
“I suppose I’ll have to, sir.”
I’m stunned. I fully expected her to laugh at the question and brush it off, but no. She looks at the man, “Will you help the gentleman with the chair?” and heads back to the register to let me pay. The salesman looks at the tag again, his body language broadcasting something like defeat. “I’m sorry, sir. It’s the last day of the sale and no one saw that.” I have no idea why he’s apologizing. I feel like I just hit the chair lottery.
I pay for the chair and he loads it into our car with a lot of effort and almost no assistance from me. In my defense, my arm is in a cast, recovering from bone surgery. The salesman, for his part, keeps addressing me as if I’m his boss and I’m about to fire him as he struggles to get the too-big chair into our smallish car. “I’m sorry, sir. Just a minute, sir.” Why does he keep apologizing? Is it because I’m white and he’s Latino? Is it because I’m wearing a jacket and tie? Is it because he wants a bigger tip? I’m uncomfortable in any event.
My wife and I drive off. “That was terrible,” she says, sadly. “He was so. . .obsequious!”
“Yeah,” I have to admit, “you’re right. Great word, though. Well said.”
“It was horrible. I didn’t like it.”
“Welcome to white male privilege, honey.” I give her an apologetic smile. “At least I gave him ten bucks.”
Welcome to white male guilt.