“If we get locked up, if we’re not back in three hours, send the lawyers for us, OK hon?” Kevin Westley asked his wife, Joanie, in the doorway of their East Meadow, Long Island home.
“You’re on your own!” was the reply from Joanie, who for the second year in a row has lovingly if somewhat bemusedly stood by Kevin in his campaign to get his local Walmart stores to stop carrying t-shirts that stereotype the Irish as drunks.
Westley, an Irish American radio host and Irish Dance instructor, has grown increasingly weary over the years of all the merchandise that pops up in the weeks leading up to St. Patrick’s Day promoting a connection between Irishness and drunkenness and suggesting that the holiday is primarily about drinking.
Last year, after complaining about the offensive t-shirts to the managers at the Walmart stores in his area and to the company’s corporate office (and being told by each that the decision to carry the items was in the purview of the other), Westley decided to take matters into his own hands.
After carefully and thoroughly reading Walmart’s return policy, Westley went to three Walmarts on Long Island and purchased over $800 worth of the t-shirts. He left the tags on, kept the t-shirts clean (and out of public view) in storage boxes, and returned them after St. Patrick’s Day.
“Put them on your credit card and you never spend a dime,” he told IrishCentral in a previous interview.
His experience returning the shirts last year was surprisingly positive.
This year was a different story.
In February, Westley bought $400 worth of the questionable t-shirts from two Walmart stores. The third store he had visited the previous year wasn’t stocking them this time around, he was delighted to find, though he was uncertain if that was a result of his campaign.
IrishCentral interviewed Kevin about his inventive plan in late February, and the story spread like wildfire. In Ireland, he did interviews with almost all of the major radio stations, and the Irish Mirror, The Journal and the Belfast Telegraph all covered the story. Here, it was picked up by ABC and FOX news, and a camera crew from CBS paid a visit to his home. Another station went to the Walmart in East Meadow. They were not permitted inside, though a manager did speak to one of the reporters.
So, once St. Patrick’s Day was over, Walmart knew he’d be making an appearance.
There was a short line in front of the customer service desk yesterday as Kevin pushed a shopping cart laden with two storage boxes through the store’s automatic doors.
It might have been the boxes, it might have been that his face is now familiar after all the interviews, or it might have been his Kelly green jacket, but the Walmart employees seemed to recognize him instantly.
“I got this guy,” announced one of the three women staffing the returns desk.
“Take them out of the basket,” she instructed when he reached the front of the line. “You have your receipts?”
“I sure do,” Kevin replied, pulling the t-shirts from the boxes and placing them on the counter. He produced two very long receipts. Adding insult to injury, they listed the t-shirts as “MEN ST PATTY” and had the line “Thank you! We value your opinion!” printed at the top. This has not been Kevin’s experience.
The entire process took an hour, with some politely aggressively exchanges and spirited debate about the t-shirts’ offensive qualities as each one was scanned.
Initially, they seemed to be at an impasse, with the customer service rep telling Kevin that all of the staff had been instructed to only allow him to return the shirts purchased at that specific store.
“You’re telling me I can’t return Walmart merchandise to any Walmart? There’s nothing in the return policy about returning it at the store where you bought it,” he said, walking over to re-inspect the policy, which was posted on a nearby wall.
The rep said that Walmart had faxed everyone notes about and that the store manager had instructed all of the staff to only take back the shirts from that store. Kevin asked to see both the fax and the manager, and was told that the manager wasn’t in. The assistant manager never replied to the nearly 20 calls over the intercom.
The rep also said that she had been specifically asked to deal with Kevin when he came to make the return, perhaps because she herself was Irish American.
“Where’s your family from?” Kevin asked.
“Cork,” she replied. The same county where Kevin’s grandfather is from.
“And you don’t find these shirts offensive?”
“These shirts are not offensive to everyone, only to you.”
Kevin assured her she was just as entitled to her opinion as he was.
“Want me to take them off the hangers?” he offered.
“No, that’s fine, they’re just going to put them right back out.”
“Even though it’s after St. Patrick’s Day?” I asked.
“They’re being sold for $2.00 now,” she said with a smile.
She asked him why he didn't buy t-shirts from Target or from the mall as well.
He said he probably would next year, but mentioned his dismay that last Halloween Walmart had been receptive and apologetic about two costumes offensive to Muslims and removed them from the shelves.
"Why won't they do it for the Irish?" he asked.
After the first return had been processed, she left the desk to find the assistant manager and came back saying that they would in fact be able to accept the t-shirts from the other Walmart.
“I wasn’t worried,” Kevin said later, “There’s nothing in the policy that says they’re allowed to do that.”
Four of the shirts were missing tags, but she ran their returns separately.
She added up the separate receipts to make sure the totals added up; they did.
Kevin thanked her profusely, put the lids back on the boxes, and headed back outside to his car.
Asked if it had been worth it, he replied “absolutely.”
“Stereotypes can be vicious,” he said. “They can keep you from getting a job, or finding a place to live – not just the Irish of course, but everyone.” He went on to describe moments where he had been stereotyped because of his Irish background – from teachers in high school and even from acquaintances today.
“I’m doing this in memory of my grandfather,” he added. “He was born in Boston and faced so much discrimination in his search for work – 'No Irish Need Apply' signs and so on. He was a chauffeur for the Kennedys and then went on to be a General Agent for Railway Express, a precursor to Federal Express. He made sure that all the local kids from his parish had a chance for a job.”
And will this experience deter him from doing the same thing again in 2016?
“I hope I don’t have to do it again next year,” he said. “But of course I will if they’re selling the shirts again.”