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Someone says "Thank you," and we reply "You're welcome." An automatic response. Sometimes this means that we are glad that we were able to give what we did. Other times, there is a reluctant tone to the response as we had not wanted to interrupt what we were doing, or we did not agree with giving what we did. Welcome can be reluctant.

Going to a store, we open the door and step inside. In some places, the shopper is greeted right away. "Good morning!" says the associate. Go in with a specific question, and the greeting invites the shopper to ask for help.

The greeting at the door has another purpose as well. It says, "We see you." If your purpose is shoplifting, you are warned there are eyes on you.

There are stores where every employee is hurrying somewhere. Some of these are stores where I could use some directions. I am not sure exactly what aisle will have what I am looking for. In a store like this, it feels as if stocking shelves is more important than selling things.

Sometimes I want to browse and think about the purchase I intend, not knowing exactly what I want. The associate who is right at my elbow asking if they can help interferes with my wandering.

In a yarn store, I am totally comfortable browsing. I have a weaving project in mind and am looking for the right yarns to make it work. I wander around once, then on the second tour make my choice. As I walk up to the desk to pay, the store worker gives me a look. From the yarn I have chosen, it is obvious I am not knitting a traditional project. I have done enough weaving to be pretty confident in my choice, so I describe why this selection of yarn is perfect.

I am much less confident at the fabric store. There, I can't tell the associate exactly what I want. I need to look on my own without them looking over my shoulder. I don't have the right technical language so my answers to questions they ask show my ignorance. Sometimes they listen well and can guide my choice. Sometimes the frown on their face as they look around shows they don't think much of my idea.

By the time I bring a bolt of fabric for them to cut, I have to look confident. I have to tell them how much I need. If I hesitate, they respond with subsidiary questions that I sometimes don't understand. I have done enough sewing that I know that I can accomplish the project I have in mind in my own way, but I am aware that my way is not the "right" way. 

Recently, after I made my choice, the associate asked if I had the right sewing machine needle for one fabric. They then showed me a selection of seven to choose from. While they waited for me to make a decision, my brain blanked. I chose one randomly. Then I hemmed the piece by hand while watching TV.

I have walked into a clothing store where after the first greeting, I am ignored. I look at the expensive price tags, and I know why. With one glance, the owner can guess that I am not buying anything. They watch until I leave.

In clothing shops in this area, I can usually find things that fit. When I used to take my daughter shopping in Toronto, there was no point looking at tops. They almost never had extra large or size sixteen. I might see something I liked in a chain store, and if there was one of these stores in Owen Sound, I would be able to get my size here. Stores in different communities assume their clients will be a certain size. I was not expected on Queen Street in Toronto.

The message "You don't belong here" can be communicated in so many subtle ways. Building an honestly welcome community takes work. There are assumptions to be dismantled and expectations to be put aside.

I just ordered packets of the new flesh tone crayons and markers. This pack of eight ranges in colour so that the child who draws a picture of themselves can match their skin colour. There was a time not long ago when the pencil called "flesh tone" was a pale pink. That was racist. My not noticing was racist. I want to make sure that when I am working with children, I expect a diverse group. I should have done this long ago.

Cathy Hird lives on the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway


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