In most cases, they have such a choice because the racism they're confronted with is directed not against them--after all, they're white--but against someone else, someone who isn't white. The well-meaning white person can either obey his or her conscience, by openly confronting racism, or else remain silent and walk away, seemingly unscathed.
The ABC television show "What Would You Do?" recently staged some racist shopping incidents for unsuspecting spectators. These stagings were an "experiment," according to the show's host, John Quiñones, an effort to see what the spectators would do in response to blatantly racist behavior.
I question the usage of that word here, "experiment,"* in part because "What Would You Do?" is corporate entertainment. That means it's actually a form of bait, an effort to draw in viewers for the real "programming," which is the commercials paid for by other corporations (which in turn means that we viewers are the real "product"--ABC sells our eyeballs to the advertisers, and the more eyeballs they can attract, the more money they can charge for the commercial slots).
Nevertheless, this "What Would You Do?" segment is well worth watching, in part because it goes beyond merely pointing out that black people are much more likely than white people to face harassment while shopping. It also asks, and demonstrates, what white shoppers tend to do when they witness the harassment of black shoppers: most ignore it, but some confront it.
What would you do, whether or not you're white? Would you go about your own business, ignoring the harassment, thereby remaining "ignorant"? Or would you go as far in an anti-racist direction as the white woman at the end of this segment does?
Personally, I've never seen this kind of in-your-face racism while shopping, but I have encountered more low-key examples. In such instances, I reject the perquisites and inducements of my white privilege, by confronting store-clerk racism.
For instance, I've asked why someone else's "further identification" was asked for, but not mine, and I've also asked why someone's change was placed on the counter, while mine was placed in my hand.
By refusing to "ignore" such incidents, I now notice them more often--I'm less "ignorant" about the racism that surrounds me, and more willing to do something about it. I spend less time pretending not to know what I actually do know.
Have you encountered racism while shopping? If so, what did you do?
*Update: For more on the dubious claim that what happened in this TV show is a viable "experiment"--and on the probability that it will increase racism as much or more as it challenges it--see Peter Herrick's post at Liberation in the Classroom.
Update II: For a great take on this TV show that illuminates the part of this show that I didn't know how to write about, see Chauncey DeVega's post at We Are Respectable Negroes. DeVega writes in part,
In my opinion, what is actually noteworthy and striking about the ABC News vignette is how the young white woman begins to cry when she witnesses the racist treatment of the black female shopper/victim. This is the real power of the "Shopping While Black" featurette. Here, the truth is not in the great reveal that black and brown folks are racially profiled. Rather, for those raised to believe in post-racial and colorblind politics, the cult that is multicultural America (where race no longer matters because hip hop is now "youth culture" and White kids can say "nigga" or that United Colors of Benetton ushered in the "cool" that is the marketing and corporatization of racial diversity in the 1990s), to actually see the ugliness of white supremacy is utterly shocking and painful.