Thursday, 16 April 2015

How We Are Seen or The Bananas Incident

The thing about the bananas incident is that I could still feel it in my body for weeks after it happened. And it really wasn’t a huge deal. And it probably lasted less than half an hour in all. But it revealed so much to me about how we are seen and how this determines who we “are”. So:

The Bananas Incident

The bananas incident happened seven weeks ago. Since then, small moments have re-created the story for me. It's not an unusual story, but it's unusual that it would be mine. And in owning that story, in holding it as part of my past, it has changed me. But in telling it, in sharing it, in gathering ammunition against it and sympathy for my own view of it, I've left it behind. It has changed my views, but it hasn't changed me. And that's because I'm privileged. I have the privilege of leaving it behind.

The story goes like this.

I was in Mons, Belgium, preparing for a concert with two local musicians and my friend and collaborator Suzie Shrubb. We were there for a week to improvise together, with a concert on the Saturday evening. On Friday night, Suzie had become quite ill, and by Saturday afternoon she hadn’t emerged from her hotel room or texted me, so I headed back from the venue to the hotel, a little worried. Before I left, I grabbed a small packet of bananas that one of the tech team had bought for us – in case Suzie was feeling better enough to eat something.

On the way back to the hotel, I passed through the town centre, and popped into the mini Carrefour to buy a few more things: some crackers, and some chocolate, if I remember correctly. I probably looked a bit tired and worried, and it was really cold so I had my scarf wrapped around my (shaved, brown) head. When I got to the checkout and was putting things away in my backpack, the cashier asked to see what was in my bag. I showed him. He asked me if I had bought the small packet of bananas from the Carrefour and I said ‘no’; then he picked up the packet of bananas and asked another cashier if these bananas were from the Carrefour, and she said yes. At which point I tried to explain (in French) that I hadn’t bought them, and they might be from that shop, but I hadn’t stolen them. But it was too late.

What followed was, you might say, hilarious. At the time it almost destroyed me.
The cashier called another cashier over and told her I had stolen the bananas.
I said that I hadn’t stolen them, and tried to explain what had happened.
She said they would have to check the CCTV footage.
Someone behind me in the checkout line offered to pay for the bananas.
I thanked him but explained again that I hadn’t stolen them.
I offered to leave the incriminating bananas behind.
I offered to pay for the bananas.
I told them I was in a hurry and had to get back to the hotel to see someone who was quite ill, and asked what I could do to make them believe me.
I tried to leave the bananas behind and walk out of the shop.
The cashier came after me and hauled me back into the supermarket.
Finally, the other cashier said she had looked at the CCTV footage and realised I hadn’t stolen the bananas.
I was free to go – no apologies.

The thing is that none of this happened calmly. I felt so trapped in the conviction they all had that I was a thief, and that I had stolen a packet containing two bananas, that I got very worked up – by the end, I’m pretty sure I was swearing, and shouting. I was so hurt by the whole incident, and the reality that was playing out in front of me: that once people see you as a criminal everything you say sounds like a crime. And even more distressing: that if someone was so desperate that they had stolen two bananas from the supermarket, this was how they would be treated.

Most of all, I understood how it felt to be seen as a criminal. I’ve never really understood this before, but I know that it’s an everyday reality for many people. I could feel it in my body for weeks afterwards. And I understood that this kind of situation would only need to repeat itself a few times to completely change not only how I felt in public space, but how I acted. If the space you’re given in the world is to be seen as a criminal, then that’s the space you have to fill.

Me – I went back to my hotel, organised a taxi to take Suzie to the hospital, and then went back to the venue to make some music. I told the story to my friends, and they were shocked at what had happened. Eventually, this was enough to put it behind me.

1 comment:

  1. the unquantifiable privilege of being able to avoid inhabiting the skin others would have us wear, and the infinite concern for those who don't have it