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My Desire to Shoplift Comes from Privilege

I know that white privilege exists in the US and that I’m it’s beneficiary. Denying that fact would be absurd. It’s unlikely that I’ll change it much in my lifetime and I’m never sure if I’m a fool for not taking advantage of it more or a jerk for not declining the nice things I get.

It’s good to be me, though admittedly it would be easier to be a man. White men in America have it easy (though some of that is assumption since I’ve never been a man). Maybe one day I’ll have the opportunity to go undercover and see how the world treats me as a him instead of a her.

I want to know what I can steal. I fantasize about it every time I go to a store. I don’t want to actually take anything from anyone but I want to experience the act of theft because it’s an activity where I can say with absolute certainly I’d excel.

I don’t think I could walk into a bank with a machine gun and a ski mask and get away with anything but I am pretty sure that just about every department store in the nation would let me walk out of there with something, maybe a lipstick, maybe a coat. I know I could get it. Much like mothers all over America I shop for four people. This means that I know everyone’s shirt and waist sizes. I go to the mall load up on 15 shirts for Mr G and return 12 of them. I pick up 8 pair of pants for Alexander and 6 go back. I used to shop for Jane but now I just buy myself things that I know she’ll steal from me and hand her a credit card to fill in the blanks. Sales people are very kind to me when I walk in the store empty handed. When I’m clutching three tattered bags and looking like I’m about to make a return they avoid eye contact.

Returns are easy when you’re me. My mom actually has some stories about returns I made when I was kid but that’s neither here nor there. My friend Erik calls me an empowered consumer. I like to think of myself a good shopper. I’ve never asked for a return, I’ve just explained that I’ll be returning things and every so often it dawns on me how insanely easy it would be to steal from department stores.

Just this last winter someone gave Mr. G a wallet. It’s a beautiful Bottega Veneta wallet with the traditional woven leather in a deep rich brown. He brought it home in it’s box where there was a little gift receipt to accompany it should he wish to return it to Barneys. Barneys is one of the many stores Mr G despises walking into and he was clearly uninformed as to the pricepoint of men’s accessories there when he tossed the box and gift receipt in the trash and handed the wallet to our 12 year son as a gift.

[Insert shrieking sounds here]

I was unable to rescue the the packaging from the trash and, foaming at the mouth, demanded that Mr. G accompany me to Barneys to exchange said wallet (shortly you’ll see what a disastrous move that was) so that he could see what a complete and utter pain in the ass time suck it is to be constantly returning and exchanging things you don’t want to own. We packed up the kids and headed to Barneys during the Christmas season. In fact I’m pretty sure we took Junior too because I remember feeling badly about having him walking so close to the restaurant just off the elevator.

During the holidays men’s accessories is a crowded section. Wallets, keychains, bowties and silky underthings (for him!) fly off the shelves. So we waited a moment and a very harassed looking middle aged man just stared at me as I handed him the wallet that came complete with a Barneys New York price tag, a hefty one for such a small bit of leather, and nothing more. There was a sigh and some eye rolling but Mr. G couldn’t possibly have seen it as he was standing slightly behind me and to the right engrossed in work emails on his iPhone.

The sales clerk asked me if I’d bought it myself and I replied that I hadn’t. I explained that it was a gift to my husband and that he’d thrown out all the packaging but we promised that no one had used it. The clerk asked a manager what to do and ultimately they decided that only a few of those had been purchased in the last few weeks so they read off names of purchasers until Mr G said, “Yes, that’s the one.”

You see, he didn’t know who exactly bought it for him. It was a group gift of some sort and he thought he’d recognize a name. I marveled that everyone just nodded, printed up some things and handed us a store credit. My husband, my kids, my dog and I could have easily stolen that wallet and then returned it weeks later. There was nothing about this that would have been terribly complicated because we’re a family that appears to be solidly upper middle class, white and not thieves.

Clearly we were not mistaken for bankers.

Even if we had stolen the wallet Barneys would have come out ahead. We walked past a blazer Mr. G just had to own and it was a couple thousand dollars more than the wallet, which I now see as a gateway drug. We should’a just given it to the kid and left well enough alone.

Every week I’ll walk out of a store like Target, Barnes and Noble or even the grocery store and hear beeping as though a tag’s been left on one of my items. I’ll give them a patdown if I’ve bought clothing but if I haven’t I’ll just wave and leave. Security never stops me and most often they wave back. Sometimes they look at me confused as though perhaps they ought to do something but, really, who has the gall to stop the middle aged white lady with the poodle and the Benz? 

I go to jewelry stores, clothing stores and department stores where small pocketable items are left in front of me as clerks march off to help other people, answer phones or to oversee teens. Every time I have an event like this I want to go find the store manager and say, “Listen, I’m pretty sure I can rob you blind. Can you let me do a little experiment because I’m dying to steal from you but I don’t actually want to steal. I just want to get outside your doors and then hand everything back. I want to show everyone how dumb they are for watching the 14 year olds and ignoring the 40’s.”

I know it would work. I know I’d get away with theft and I think it might be really fun. It would also be sad, tragic even, which is probably why I’ve never had the temerity to ask. I already had to rescue my adolescent neighbor from grocery checkers who assumed that he’s a thief because of the color of his skin. I know I get away with things because white ladies who stay at home to watch their kids aren’t thought to be bad people. It’s like spy vs. spy. White is good and black is bad. I guess brown is less bad? I don’t know.

I do know this. I’d make an excellent professional shoplifter if you ever want me to come visit your store and fake steal while your employees watch. Maybe this is a real job? Like a secret shopper, there’s a secret shoplifter? I think about it all the time and I know that your employees don’t so it’ll probably go well (for me anyhow).