How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

by Jerald Walker

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Thieves Summary and Analysis

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Walker parks his Toyota next to a Mercedes in the Whole Foods parking lot, a light rain greeting him as he makes his way to the entrance. He stands near the produce section as he tries to decipher his wife’s list and makes note of several women nearby. One woman, selecting corn, makes eye contact with him and quickly grabs the purse from her cart, placing it over her shoulder. As he approaches two women near the apricots, they quickly move to “secure their belongings” as well. An older woman looking for arugula mistakes him for an employee, even though his “smart casual” professional attire doesn’t match that of the nearby Whole Foods employees.

As he continues shopping, Walker is greeted by an employee who is no older than twenty and who asks him “What’s up?” in an overly familiar manner. Although Walker intentionally tries to display his graying hair, which should negate such a casual interaction, the young man fails to notice. After assisting Walker with his order of salmon, he parts company with “Thanks, bro.”

Finishing his shopping, Walker heads for the register, where he ends up behind the “corn gatherer,” whose purse still dangles from her shoulder. He wonders if her actions even registered mentally or if her body was driven by an unconscious response. Later, as he tries to forgive her, Walker tries to convince himself that the latter is true. As he walks outside to return to his car, Walker finds that the rain is now much steadier; he breaks into a run, desperately wanting to get away from Whole Foods.

Analysis 

Walker uses Whole Foods, whose client base features wealthy and presumably well-educated people, to demonstrate the reflex reactions that white people, particularly women, have to his physical presence. Much like any husband in the store, Walker is on a routine and mundane mission to obtain needed grocery items for his wife. Yet unlike other customers, he isn’t allowed to move invisibly through the store. Instead, his presence is viewed as a constant threat; women are willing to leave their purses in their buggies until he approaches, at which point they secure their wallets. Young employees fail to show him appropriate respect, calling him “bro” and breaching overfamiliarity. Older customers mistake him for an employee of the store, ignoring the fact that Walker is wearing a professional blazer instead of the store’s uniform. Because he is a Black man, even a “simple” shopping trip to an upscale grocery store is not a routine or mundane experience. Instead, racism confronts him at every turn as both customers and employees visibly react to his presence in ways that are both insulting and infuriating. While Walker maintains a composed presence, trying to forgive those who have wronged him—and imagining that they may have done so without even realizing it—the store’s environment makes him uncomfortable. Whole Foods “always” makes Walker feel this way, reflecting as it does a basic truth of his daily life: his presence as a Black man alters others’ behaviors, and he isn’t even sure how much they are aware of their own reactions to his proximity.

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