Wegmans encounter: City clerk a victim of racial profiling

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Gwen Williams, who was racially profiled by a Wegmans employee, says it was hurtful and shameful, but she hopes to turn the negatives into positives by advocating new training for the grocery chain’s employees. Photo by Eze Amos

‘‘You gotta be kidding me, right?”

That was Gwen Williams’ initial response when a manager at the local Wegmans approached her in her car on May 2, said he’d received a complaint that an African-American woman in an orange top was panhandling in the grocery store’s parking lot, and asked if it was her.

Williams’ next response was to ask to speak to the complaining customer, and when the manager said the customer was already gone, she said, “So you just assumed it was me?”

As she sat in her truck in a coral-colored dress, with the employee peering at her through her driver’s side window, Williams showed him her brown shopping bag with the green Wegmans logo. She told him she often shops at his store on her lunch break, and said his inquisition was insulting.

When the initial shock wore off, “I said, ‘I’m just hurt,’ and I started crying,” recounts Williams. And when she got back to her job at Charlottesville Circuit Court, the tears were still in her eyes.

Williams is a deputy clerk at the courthouse, where she’s worked for 14 years. And while she’s seen racial profiling cases come through the circuit court, she’s never been a target.

“That was the hardest part for me to accept,” she says. “You hear it and you can see it out there, but you never think it will actually happen to you, and then when it does, it’s such a sting that you don’t even know how to describe it.”

After Chief Deputy Clerk David Schmidt called Wegmans on her behalf, the general manager requested to meet with Williams the following day, on May 3. He apologized, but Williams says she felt compelled to take the incident up the chain of command.

That’s when Bob Farr, the senior vice president and Virginia division manager of Wegmans, drove from Gainesville to meet with her on May 4.

“He said, ‘I don’t want to talk to you on the phone, I want to see you face to face,’” says Williams. “He told me what was done was absolutely wrong and should not have happened. He wanted to make it right with me.”

According to Williams, Farr said, “I can see the hurt in you,” and she says she’s continued to receive calls and emails from him checking up on her.

Jo Natale, vice president of Wegmans media relations, says, “What happened cannot be erased, but we are taking steps to help our people get it right in the future.”

She adds, “Our hope is that we will be able to restore her trust in Wegmans.”

On April 30, three black women leaving an Airbnb in Rialto, California, were detained when a neighbor called the police and reported a potential robbery next door. This came after two black men, who met at a Philadelphia Starbucks for a business meeting, were arrested on suspicion of trespassing, sparking the BoycottStarbucks hashtag.

Some locals have declared that they’ll no longer shop at Wegmans, and Williams says it’ll take time before she feels comfortable going back to the store.

“This whole ordeal has been really hard for me,” she says. “It was just hurtful. I was ashamed. I felt degraded. …As time goes on, I’m beginning to heal from this—to pick myself up and keep going.”

But she says it’s not about hard feelings—it’s about turning a negative into a positive.

“I’m feeling hopeful,” she adds. “We all make mistakes out there, but we can learn from them. You can educate these people, you can train them.”

She’s not only choosing to speak out for herself, but for her children and grandchildren, who she hopes will never have to have the same experience.

“Just speaking out about it makes me feel like I have a voice,” says Williams. “I’m a person that doesn’t let things stick on me or control my life, because if I did, that’s giving them all the power.”

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