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I make it a habit not to patronize establishments with poor lighting. And the notion of being able to stock up on lingerie and motor oil in one fell (shopping) swoop has always struck me as the opposite of desirable. Moreover, as much as I love saving a buck, I will happily pay a premium to shop in spaces that elevate rather than depress my zest for life. So you can take my word for it when I tell you that I am no fan of Walmart.

But following the beat down the big box retailer has been taking for doing the right thing at the wrong time, I kinda’ feel bad for them.

It all began when a Virginia man took his three daughters to their neighborhood Walmart to cash a check, before picking up his wife (the girls’ mother) at a separate location, then driving home to find a police officer waiting for them outside their Prince William County home. According to the dad, Joseph, (who wishes to keep his last name private) the officer said he’d been sent by Walmart security “to make sure that the children you have are your own.

Joseph’s wife, Keana, described her initial response to the inquiry as “dumbfounded” when speaking to a FOX 5-News reporter after the fact. Adding, “I sat there for a minute and I thought, ‘Did he just ask us if these were our kids knowing what we went through to have our children?’ ”

Baring the cop’s ignorance of such intimate details and his apparent lack of insight on whether or not couples who have  surmounted fertility challenges (or whatever may have been the impediment to Joseph and Keana expanding their family) ought to be above suspicion when harming minors is at issue– the policeman who drew the short straw on this awkward assignment did have one thing going for him. A winning personality. Or, as Joseph said he (the cop) asked some very difficult questions “very sincerely.” Which is probably the only reason this incident didn’t escalate and lead to an arrest, followed by a “Beer Summit” at the White House with President Obama presiding…

…because Mama Bear was not taking any crap without asking a few questions of her own.

After she and her hubby showed the officer their ID, and their daughters confirmed that the gobsmacked couple were in fact Mommy and Daddy, Keana called Walmart to demand an explanation. The answer “that a customer was concerned because they saw the children with your husband and he didn’t think that they fit,” only inspired Keana to press for clarification. “What do you mean by they don’t fit?,” she asked. “I was trying to get her to say it. And she says, ‘Well, they just don’t match up’.

Well, I’ll just cut to the chase and tell those of you not familiar with the story that Keana is black, Joseph is white and their little girls are brown.

Why a Walmart shopper might have called attention to Joseph and his daughters on a family outing is anyone’s guess. As is the shopper-in-question’s motivation for expressing his “alarm” over the threesome to Walmart security. Potential answers cover a gamut that ranges from good ole’ xenophobia, to hyper-vigilance-bordering-on-paranoia thanks to a 24-hour news cycle that pedals the notion that we are all straddling a razor’s edge between death and destruction at any given moment. Perhaps a well-meaning stranger had Ariel Castro on the brain and thought he (the stranger, not Castro) was preventing the potential abduction and decade-long incarceration of three more little girls. Or, maybe some good samaritan just acted on a gut reaction and chose to alert someone charged with protecting the public.

Hell, I was actually pleased that it was a man (according to the Walmart staffer who spoke with Keana) who pulled the trigger on the whole shebang– as women generally get the lion’s share of credit for nurturing and protecting children.

Hindsight being what it is, we all know it was a hideously bad call.  But when it comes to looking out for the most vulnerable of us, can society really afford the alternative? Are we prepared to look the other way as we debate the political correctness of possibly offending our neighbors? And, most critically, do we really want to abdicate the responsibility for distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys to a corporation with notoriously bad policies as they pertain to employee pay and benefits?

I regret that Joseph was an object of suspicion when he did nothing wrong. I’m sorry his little tykes had witness the two most important authority figures in their young lives being questioned by an even higher authority. And if I didn’t have such an aversion to Walmart, I would actually be sorry that Keana had to forfeit the joy of ever hearing “Attention: Walmart Shoppers!” again. (According to FOX 5 News, the distraught mom said she would “never shop at a Walmart again.” Which to me is a silver lining, but to each his own I suppose…)

If Facebook, Twitter and chat rooms are any indication of where America stands on the topic, my thinking puts me in the minority. Which is neither here nor there. But following are three examples of where the conversation is going, as well as my responses to each.

1.  “Why is the state of Virginia going backwards?,” asked one commenter at huffingtonpost.com. “This father’s rights were clearly violated. What was the probable cause?

Probable cause?

Seriously?!

Unless Walmart is lucky enough to have police academy graduates moonlighting as security guards at their superstores, I think this standard might be a tad lofty.

The security guard was merely the messenger: telegraphing information from one eye-witness to the police, who then acted upon what they were told. Is no one else proud of the rapid response on the part of law enforcement and the quick-thinking bystander who likely recorded Joseph’s license plate number to help track him down? Sure, the person-of-suspicion wound up being related to the kids; but in a world where abusive mothers, fathers,  football coaches and members of the clergy run roughshod over the innocence, integrity and dignity of children day in and day out, I am happy that somebody has their eyes peeled for OPK (Other People’s Kids). And until things change for the better, I don’t think anyone should be entitled to a free pass when the welfare of a child is at stake.

2.  “It’s just sad,” said one woman on Facebook. “I didn’t grow up like this… my FRIENDS didn’t grow up like this… to be honest, I never saw any kind of racism myself until I was an adult.

I have two observation on this post. First, has the writer reached the age of reason? And, if so, where did she and her friends grow up because I’d like to move there.

Tangentially, even if one were lucky enough never to have been victimized by racism, I’m afraid bearing witness to it is inescapable because racism is pervasive. Which begs the question of whether this twisted case of Who’s Your Daddy was even racist to begin with?

From what little I know, I would argue that it was not.

Short-sighted? Perhaps.

Living la vida Leave it to Beaver in the Age of Obama? Sure.

But racist? I am having trouble making that leap.

In fact, given America’s checkered past on race relations I’d have to say that what happened in the parking lot was the antithesis of racism. Ditto if the disparity in mass-media reporting on missing and exploited children, owing to race, is any barometer of how far we still have to go when it comes to equal protection for all demographics. So when the (alleged) damsels in distress are brown, and there is no breakdown in police protocol to ensure the children’s well-being, I consider that a plus. For that matter– big-up to the dude in the parking lot who saw something and said something to somebody who could actually do something. That is my definition of brotherly love.

3.  Finally, from Twitter came an ironic, “Welcome to post-racial America.

But what could be more post-racial than a white man not being granted the presumption of innocence in America merely because of the color of his skin? Yes, having a black president of the United States is a close second, but I am encouraged by the fact that Walmart did what they believed to be in the interest of three children of color– even if it meant inconveniencing a white man who happened to be their father. Can you imagine the outcome were Daddy-O not the good guy in this story, and managed to kidnap three innocents in broad daylight because no bystander had the heart or mind to say something when their instincts prevailed?

Of course, the elephant in the room is race.

Despite the rise in multiracial families due to interracial marriages, cross-racial adoptions, and a heightened awareness of what it means to be a modern family in 2013 (thanks in part to states like Virginia which lead the nation in marriages between blacks and whites) we evidently have not reached the promised land. And while I am sympathetic to the uphill battle families at the vanguard of this movement are facing, there must be room for discussion if the alternative is no discussion at all.

 I say this in solidarity with any mother who has ever had her parentage called into question because her skin color is not identical to that of the child for whom her heart beats– whether through the miracle of adoption or birth. I say it as the auntie of a nephew (whose father is black and mother is white) who asked his grandmother “Why do people treat me better when they think I’m white?,” when he was just 12-years-old and developing his perspectives on race and identity. And I say it with respect and admiration for women like Thien-Kim (AKA Kim): a woman who was so fed up with the stares and inappropriate questions she’s had to field since bringing her Hapa (Vietnamese-American and African-American) babies into the world that she started a blog called “I’m Not the Nanny”.

Kim’s blog is as brilliant as its title. And she has introduced me to a community where questions I’d never dare raise are asked and answered for me. Stuff like whether or not it’s OK to ask if someone’s kids are adopted?:

 Or what not to say to the parent of a biracial child?:

 I also discovered a wonderful guide for parents raising multiracial children called Does Anybody Else Look Like Me?.

And I don’t even have any kids!

But I am grateful for the opportunity to dialogue with anybody who can broaden my horizons without being shamed into silence. Likewise, I am open to questions, and firmly believe that the only stupid ones are those that go unasked. One of the wisest I’ve ever heard came from a young charge I used to babysit when working as an au pair during a college semester abroad in Paris. Julie was seated in my lap, caressing my hand absent-mindedly (or so I thought) as I was telling her a bedtime story one night when she suddenly looked up at me and asked “…êtes-vous marron partout?” (…are you brown everywhere?) When I answered yes, her already big blue eyes widened considerably as it dawned on her that she and I were simultaneously different and alike.

Of course, Julie was only six-years-old when she had her eureka moment, but wouldn’t it be cool if we could somehow keep such conversations going from the cradle to the grave– as long as our intent was pure and we exercised judgement when asking in front of the children? Which, according to Kristen at “Rage Against the Minivan” (see link above) is thoroughly uncool.

At the risk of getting tarred and feathered by my multi-culti friends and family, I take my hat off to the anonymous Walmart shopper who was (and, I pray, is still) looking out for the little peeps among us. I give massive props to the policeman who managed to very sincerely ask some seriously tough questions. And I thank Walmart for sounding the alarm. If the retailer is guilty of anything, it is of holding up a mirror that shows us who we are as a society. If we don’t like the reflection we have to fix ourselves: not the looking-glass.

In the meantime, I think the mad men of Walmart need to page Dr. John, STAT (Sooner Than Already There), because his song “Right Place Wrong Time” would be a kick-ass anthem for the low-price leader going forward. At the very least, the good doctor’s mug would be a vast improvement over that unimaginative smiley face currently used in the chain’s advertising campaign.

And should Walmart really get serious about putting on a happy face, they might as well go whole hog and upgrade the lighting in every store. Sure, people would still try holding the corporation accountable for that which is neither its fault nor its responsibility… but at least all those disgruntled shoppers would have a shot at looking halfway decent while filing their ceaseless complaints with customer service.

 

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