About a week ago, I got my first COVID shot. Immediately afterward, I sat in a folding chair, as instructed, in the back aisle of a drugstore in Windsor, CT. It’s been over 30 years since I lived in Windsor, and while I waited for the clipboard-wielding woman to give me the all-clear to leave, I couldn’t help but think how right it felt to have come “home” to be vaccinated.
I had fifteen minutes to kill, so I spent the first minute texting my husband the requisite pic of my vaccination card. While I waited for his response, I glanced up at the display in front of me. Turns out I was in the health and beauty section. And suddenly, my hometown didn’t feel quite so familiar anymore. Before me were row after row of smiling Black models. They sported du-rags, satin wraps, wide edge bonnets, turbans, and something called a pineapple cap. I didn’t know what most of these hair accessories were, but I knew I’d never need any of them. I looked to the right and found “silicone cover ups” and “no-show concealers” (for breasts, I realized after squinting at them for a few moments), offered here in “dark skin tones” only. I swiveled to my left to check out the hairbrushes. Unlike every drugstore I’ve frequented for the past 30 years, my go-to blowout brush wasn’t at eye-level. In its place were picks, rake combs, and edge brushes. The message was clear: welcome as I was to receive a vaccine at the pharmacy, in this drugstore, black shoppers matter more.
And that’s when it dawned on me, belated and gradually (as epiphanies tend to dawn on the not-very-bright): I was experiencing in a temporal and trivial and utterly harmless way what Black people have experienced—are experiencing—in pervasive and complex and often lethal ways every day in this country. They are told, explicitly and implicitly, that here, white lives matter more. And it’s not just about space on store shelves. (Though I did imagine, in that moment, what it would be like to be a young Black girl staring at a row of white dolls in another aisle, in another store. To know that if I wanted to pretend, I had to pretend with a baby that looked nothing like me, or with the single black doll I had to stoop to reach at the bottom of the display because in this store, white girls matter more.)
Of course, one might argue it makes good sense for a store to market to its largest demographic. But what if we’re not talking about a drugstore? What if we're talking about our country? And what if the market isn’t hair products or baby dolls? What if it’s employment? Housing? Political representation? What if it’s education? Health care? Human dignity?
All of my life, I will shamefully admit, I’ve walked into stores expecting to find what I need. Expecting that what I’m looking for will be at eye level. Within easy reach. Easy access.
White lives do not matter more. And of course, Black lives don’t, either. But my white friends, that’s not what the yard signs say. They state simply that “Black Lives Matter.” So let's check the defensive posturing. Let's stop responding that All Lives Matter. It’s not about any group mattering more. It’s about basic human dignity. At eye level, within easy reach, and easy access. No stooping required.