Listening, part I: Supporting merchants of color

When members of a Facebook group to which I belong were asked if they knew of any local Black-owned businesses, the conversation immediately and predictably devolved into an us-versus-them point / counterpoint. Why, some members demanded to know, was the color of a business owner’s skin relevant? Why would anyone intentionally seek out a business owned by a person of color? Why should white people care about the color of a shopkeeper’s skin?

Does it sound like I’m taking a side by the tenor of those questions?

Let me be clear on one crucial point: a white person’s decision to seek out merchants of color is not a condemnation of white merchants, as some people seem to believe. The instinct to immediately turn defensive is utterly counterproductive. Doing so effectively declares any intentional commerce conducted by a white person with a merchant of color to be a slap in the face of hard-working white businesspeople. It’s not.

When you live in a town where 86 percent of the population is white, it stands to reason that the overwhelming majority of local merchants are also white. There are many long-term reasons why white people might wish to support businesses owned by Black people. Most of these reasons involve closing the wealth gap or strengthening the economies of Black communities. But a white person might also intentionally seek out a merchant of color just to show support and solidarity with a group that might not enjoy the same enthusiasm among broad groups of (mostly white) consumers, an advantage that an average white-owned business might have. Sometimes, seeking out a merchant of color is just a nice gesture, considering the disturbing number of white people who actively avoid using minority-owned businesses as a protest against affirmative action or worse. Occasionally, a white person might even wish to expand his or her horizons by visiting a merchant of an unfamiliar culture.

When I was a food and beverage writer, I had great fun covering lesser-known businesses owned by immigrants. From the Eastern European deli (you could actually buy a facsimile of the legendary Stalin wine and the hardcore Pertsovka vodka) to the tiny Mexican taco cart (try the lengua — look it up if you don’t know), my own tastes were generously expanded by exploring. In a time when many people are making an effort to actively embrace people of ethnic identities who haven’t always been welcomed, it should surprise and offend no one when a white person innocently asks if there are Black-owned businesses in the area that he might support.

Realistically, it’s not like everyone is suddenly going to divert all their spending to merchants of color, causing white-owned businesses to close up shop en masse.

As early as 25 years ago, I encouraged white consumers to occasionally drop in to any of the small Latinx tiendas dotting the Yamhill Valley. Back then there were only a few but now there are many. My intent was to introduce shoppers who had never entered a small family-owned Latinx store to do so, knowing most would be delighted by the abundance of fresh produce and meats coupled with a level of personal attention and friendliness they might not experience elsewhere.

Today, I hear white people constantly say they’re colorblind. They often say this right before they defend their habitual use of white-owned businesses. They say they go where they get good value and service. Few of these people know the meaning of the word “tienda” and even fewer have ever ventured inside one.

I dislike how the word colorblind is being used defensively. Personally, I think we should acknowledge and celebrate all the world’s abundant color. If we’re going to aspire to colorblindness, we should do so like children do — like the kids in my daughter’s two-way Spanish immersion program did when she was in elementary school: the kids were absolutely aware of color, they just didn’t particularly care about it. Skin color was down the list, akin to having bushy eyebrows, a long nose or wearing glasses. Color was a detail they noticed but it was a purely incidental detail. Color was separate from culture, in their minds.

As adults, we could take a lesson from that childish perspective. We could see color, acknowledge it, put it in its place among the details, then treat everyone with value while celebrating all the vibrant, colorful cultural practices, traditions and quirks that make this world so interesting.

In a perfect world, of course, the defensive folks would be absolutely right. I’ll go one step further and say they’re correct when they suggest if we all — everyone — took the step of treating skin color like an inconsequential detail right now, we’d find a far more equitable world. But there’s one significant problem: it’s not a perfect world, it never has been and there is no chance that everyone will suddenly see the light and commit to anti-racist ideals. Any thought to the contrary is either naive or intentionally myopic.

Next time you see a white person asking for merchants of color to support, chill. Don’t take it as an affront to all the hard-working white businesspeople in our community because it’s not. Don’t automatically see such a question as political or intentionally divisive. And remember, you can seek out minority-owned businesses yourself, even as you continue to support your favorite white-owned shops. You might just find you’re expanding your own horizons even as your small effort contributes to achieving a truly united local community.

This essay originally appeared in the June 4, 2021 edition of the News-Register, McMinnville, Oregon.

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