Linsane in the membrane

What do grocery store courtesy clerks have in common with NBA superstars? Jerks.

“I don’t want him bagging my groceries.”

Though she’d spoken quite clearly and plainly, my brain couldn’t process the statement.

“I’m sorry?”

The customer repeated the same sentence, this time louder, while cocking her head toward the courtesy clerk who stood next to me, as I counted down the minutes until the end of my shift as a checkout girl at the local grocery.

I still didn’t understand. I did this thing several hundred times a day, five days a week. Greet the customer, tally the customer’s groceries, take the customer’s money while a courtesy clerk put the groceries in a bag, and send the customer on his or her way. It’s not a complicated transaction, and I often tune out, going into a sort of autopilot. It’s necessary somewhere around customer number 200–if I want to hold on to any part of my sanity.

But this? This woke me from wageslave-robot mode and put me into a slight panic. My brain sent up a warning that someone had gone off script, that I should pay attention. I scrambled to make sense of what was happening.

Then, like the proverbial truck, it hit me: the customer was white and the clerk black.

My face grew dark with recognition. My body language changed. My voice went from sweet and accommodating to hard and low. I developed a growl.

“Wait, are you saying…”

The clerk, a fine gentlemen with whom I’ve worked for years, touched my arm, shook his head at me, then walked away.

The customer looked me right in the eye and raised an eyebrow, daring me to protest. She stood on the other side of the cash register, next to a man who was presumably her husband, and a child who looked like a combination of the two of them.

I returned her gaze, biting the inside of my cheek so hard that I tasted blood. The cashier at the next register, a caucasian girl, sensed trouble and hustled over, picking up one of the items and making to put it in a bag. The customer didn’t protest. I threw my arm across the helpful coworker in the classic “stop short” move.

“You’ll need to bag your own groceries, then.”

— ∮∮∮ —

Jeremy Lin, point guard for the New York Knicks and sudden superduperstar, is having quite a run.

Unknown to all but the most knowledgeable of NBA fans a mere month ago, the basketball phenom dominated twitter (@JLin7, should you care to catch the fever) in the second week of February, garnering more than 2.5 million mentions. That’s more than President Barack Obama, and it’s an election year.

Oh, and as if being a trending topic wasn’t enough, Lin has gone from crashing on his brother’s couch to staying in Trump Towers.

“Meteoric” wasn’t a strong enough word to describe the rise of the 23-year-old Harvard-educated wunderkind, so the media invented a new one: “Linsanity.”

Last week, though, the Knicks’ (L)incredible winning streak came to an end, and reported on it–as it’s sort of their thing. However, they stepped in it, fairly deeply, when their mobile site ran the story of the loss, with the headline “Chink In The Armor.”

Jeremy Lin is Asian-American. “Chink” is an ugly term used by the small-minded to refer, unkindly, to Asian people. All caught up? Super.

Even worse, in a 2009 TIME magazine article, that word is specifically mentioned as one used to taunt Lin when he played for Harvard. Imagine the equally horrible N-word being used in a punny ESPN headline. Can’t do it, right?

After 35 minutes, the headline was changed, and an apology was posted on the ESPN Media Zone website by Kevin Ota, ESPN’s Director of Communications.

Last night,’s mobile web site posted an offensive headline referencing Jeremy Lin at 2:30 am ET. The headline was removed at 3:05 am ET. We are conducting a complete review of our cross-platform editorial procedures and are determining appropriate disciplinary action to ensure this does not happen again. We regret and apologize for this mistake.

When being someone whose skills are astonishing, astonishing enough to thrill even non-sports fans, isn’t enough to get people to look beyond your skin color, what chance does a courtesy clerk have? And, whether rooted in racism or just good old-fashioned insensitivity, the headline and the customer encounter prove that we have a long way to go in viewing people based on anything other than the way they look. This is not a new problem, but a stark reminder to someone who by the chance of birth only, doesn’t have to deal with it on a daily basis.

(L)incidentally, the latest headline I read was that Kim Kardashian is interested in Jeremy Lin. You know, romantically. Of course she is. Note to the rest of the males in the world: You’re safe. For now.

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The Checkout Girl

The Checkout Girl is Jennifer Lemons. She’s a storyteller, comedian, and musician. If you don’t see her sitting behind her laptop, check the streets of Richmond for a dark-haired girl with a big smile running very, very slowly.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. I can’t believe that happened in the grocery store where you work. That woman should be so freaking deeply ashamed oh gosh I am not kidding.

  2. Thank-you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking article – and for taking a stand on racism in public – you showed great values and courage.

  3. anonymous on said:

    I made the mistake of reading some comments on a Lin article on the CNN site.

    Sadly, racism is very much still with us.

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