Wichita thrift store won't sell racially charged donations - KTEN.com - Texoma news, weather and sports

Wichita thrift store won't sell racially charged donations

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Leiah Lawrence and Michelle Armster discuss their experiences deciding what donated items count as racially charged and can't be sold at their thrift stores during a presentation at TKAAM on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. Leiah Lawrence and Michelle Armster discuss their experiences deciding what donated items count as racially charged and can't be sold at their thrift stores during a presentation at TKAAM on Wednesday, June 19, 2019.
Some of the racially charged items Lawrence refused to sell at the MCC thrift store she manages in Newton, on exhibit at TKAAM through August. Some of the racially charged items Lawrence refused to sell at the MCC thrift store she manages in Newton, on exhibit at TKAAM through August.
Visitors to TKAAM on Wednesday browsing the exhibits on racially charged items donated to local thrift stores. Visitors to TKAAM on Wednesday browsing the exhibits on racially charged items donated to local thrift stores.
WICHITA, Kan. (KAKE) -

"In my home it might be something that is celebratory, part of history," said Denise Sherman.  "In someone else's home it may be considered differently."

A thrift store is a great place to find bits and pieces of our history.  But a new Wichita thrift store says it's time to shelve some of that history and talk about why it shouldn't be a part of our present.

"Recognizing that items that are coming into the stores are stereotypes, they're caricatures, they're insulting," said Michelle Armster, operator of Thrift on Woodlawn.

The thrift store at Woodlawn and Lincoln opened a month ago.  Even before opening the doors that first day, Armster knew there were some donations the store wouldn't sell.

"We will not sell any racially charged items that happen to be donated," she said.  "We just won't sell them."

In just a month of operations, Armster has already collected a binful of things the store won't sell, everything from a Confederate flag crocheted blanket to a handworked portrait of a Native American warrior or a kimono doll figurine.

Armster is following the lead of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), of which her thrift store is a part.  None of the MCC's stores sell racially charged items.

The ban is the brainchild of Leiah Lawrence, a store manager in Newton.

"Having to confront the Mammy stereotype, the sexualized Indian princess, all of these things that really have been part and parcel of the way white society has oppressed so many groups of people, just seemed wrong," Lawrence said about what led her to initiate the ban in her store a decade ago.  

The decision not to sell racially charged items at a thrift store actually raises a much more difficult question for the operators, what is racially charged?  The answer depends on who's speaking.

"Context is important and so are the experiences that you have," said Sherman, the executive director of The Kansas African American Museum (TKAAM).

At TKAAM the results of the ban in Lawrence's store are now on display, part of a traveling exhibit curated by the Kaufman Museum at Bethel College.

Sherman sees the exhibit as a way to jump start a long-needed conversation about race and racial stereotypes in the country.

"We don't necessarily always think that something might have a deeper meaning.  This exhibit brings it to the forefront and makes you think differently," Sherman explained.  "I was pleasantly (surprised) and horrified at some of the things I harbor as an assumption or a bias or a perception, and it made me think differently."

"We need to start having honest conversation," Armster agreed.  

She said the ban has certainly been a catalyst for such discussions in her store.

"I think it's often difficult for us to look at an item and say, 'But that's kind of cute.'  But still it was created to be an exaggeration, a caricaturization, a stereotype of a particular people," Armster said.  "We may think it's cute, but it still is like, 'I'm not sure this is what we want to convey.'  It's not easy.  We have conversations.  We have to go over and over and over again because some of it is just so much a part of our culture."

Both Lawrence and Armster say they're willing to give up profits that could help others in order to help get that conversation rolling.

"It's a hard choice," Armster said.  "Because some of it has a market.  Some of the more racist items have a market."

Lawrence remembers early on when the ban led to an uncomfortable exchange with a customer.

She had set aside an Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose salt and pepper shaker set, but somehow they ended up out on the sales floor.  The set had a high sales value and a customer, very excited to find them, wanted to make the purchase.

"I felt very strongly that I couldn't sell them.  And so, contrary to all standards for how you run a shop, you never pull things out of a customer's hand, I just... I had to," Lawrence said.  "I talked to her about it and explained what we were doing.  She wasn't happy about it."

Lawrence and Armster shared their experiences with a crowded room at TKAAM Wednesday afternoon, surrounded by many of the items from Lawrence's original ban. The exhibit will be on display at TKAAM through August.

"Having conversations that deal with stereotypes, race, racial identity, biases and assumptions, all of those are hard to have," Sherman said.  "We think it's important to have an opportunity for people to come, to really kind of think through that."