As a follow-up to my post about why people without resources buy luxury goods, I think I should clarify another point:
People of colour buy their acceptability with consumer goods, whereas white people generally do not have to.
In fact, it is a sign of your privilege either that you are white and/or with a lot of resources or rich, that you actively disengage yourself from the status climbing via consumer goods.
The fact that you can just say: I don’t subscribe to consumerist society to buy anything fancy when a nice bag will do, says a lot about your status and privilege.
(I AM NOT knocking anyone who is white, I have two of them in my household, one of which I gave birth to, as he presents as white.. hah!)
A white woman carrying a ratty bag can be seen as “frugal”, “smart with her money”, “unaffected by society’s rules”, but a woman of colour doing the same, is looked at as simply “poor” or “cheap”.
A white man wearing pair of cheap no name sweatpants, a fleece hoodie and white running shoes, is seen as comfortable, unaffected, maybe even a bit eccentric in their circles if everyone else is very dressed up. (By the way, this is my partner, and he has had ZERO side eyes and weird looks when he wears these items, even with his ragged cutoff sweat shorts in summer.)
A person of colour doing it? They’re a bit suspect – they’re going to subconsciously check the labels of those shoes to see if they’re Yeezy or Wal-mart to figure out where to place them, and to surreptitiously check to see if those ragged sweat shorts were an intentional sartorial statement, or.. simply because they’re too poor to afford a nice pair. And perhaps, get teased for it.
(Why else do you think these poor children in the projects are begging their parents for expensive sneakers? It’s so they can fit in, and belong, otherwise with their secondhand or Wal-mart goods, they’re “out”. Or parents telling their kids they have to look EXTRA NICE to be respected?)
If you can switch OFF that mentality, and even refuse to buy anything of status, luxury or as a marker to your lot in life, it means you don’t need to care about what other people think of you, and your immediate disadvantage via your skin colour or race either doesn’t exist because you’re white and already “accepted”, or you have enough money that you really couldn’t care what people think of you because it doesn’t affect your life negatively.
I am firmly in the latter group – I buy things I love, luxury or not because I can and I want them. I really couldn’t give two figs about whether or not I am carrying the latest It bag to fit in. If I buy the It bag, it’s because I wanted it.
In the same vein, if I buy secondhand goods, I won’t be teased for it because I don’t NEED to buy secondhand or to thrift, and when I do it, I am in a position of privilege to do so and to do it for reasons other than money/cost — environmental, sustainability, etc. If it’s vintage and not brand new, it’s because I chose to buy something with a history.
I am PRIVILEGED to personally be able to choose to buy used clothing, not because I had to, unlike my partner and my mother who grew up dirt poor and now have a complex against owning anything used (outside of items given by family members and friends) because of their childhoods.
TPM’s article: Why do poor people waste money on luxury goods gives more examples of this very situation:
One manager at the apartment complex where I worked while in college told me, repeatedly, that she knew I was “Okay” because my little Nissan was clean. That I had worn a Jones of New York suit to the interview really sealed the deal. She could call the suit by name because she asked me about the label in the interview.
Another hiring manager at my first professional job looked me up and down in the waiting room, cataloging my outfit, and later told me that she had decided I was too classy to be on the call center floor. I was hired as a trainer instead. The difference meant no shift work, greater prestige, better pay and a baseline salary for all my future employment.
Her experiences and observations above, are not uncommon, and unless you’re in a very urban, progressive, open-minded community (and EVEN THEN), people of colour ALL signal to the gatekeepers of society (generally white) that they are acceptable, good, honest, hard working folk, by way of buying status items, by staying “clean”, by acting proper and neat.
How about another example? A famous Zurich one (and not her only example of stereotypical racism) is of Oprah walking into a designer store in Switzerland:
“I was in Zurich the other day at a store whose name I will not mention. I didn’t have my eyelashes on, but I was in full Oprah Winfrey gear. I had my little Donna Karan skirt and sandals, but obviously The Oprah Winfrey Show is not shown in Zurich.”
“I go into a store and say to the woman, ‘Excuse me, may I see that bag over your head?’ and she says to me ‘No, it’s too expensive.’”
Winfrey says she asked again to see the bag – a $38,000 crocodile skin number by Tom Ford – and the woman again refused, saying, “No no no, you don’t want to see that one, you want to see this one, because that one will cost too much and you will not be able to afford that.”
Winfrey says she asked a final time to see the bag: “One more time I tried – I said, ‘But I really do just want to see that one,’ and she said, ‘I don’t want to to hurt your feelings,’ and I said, ‘Ok thank you so much, you’re probably right, I can’t afford it and walked out of the store. Now why did she do that?”
Right there. Even one of the richest women in the world, being ‘presentable’ wasn’t enough. She wasn’t kitted out in Oprah gear as she calls it, and was just a simple, plain-wearing black woman trying to buy an expensive bag, and being rejected for it. Why?
If a white woman had done it, I reckon salesperson may have assumed she was eccentric instead, and/or quietly trying to stay under the radar with her understated clothes, especially listening to way they move, act and speak – you can tell with other signifiers if someone is educated or not. Some people can turn this on/off, and people of colour especially are able to flip this on/off out of survival.
You all know Oprah is class personified, yet even with her perfect bearing, manners and speech, she got zero respect or benefit of the doubt that maybe, just maybe, she’s filthy freaking rich ($3 billion? I’d say so.) She wasn’t dirty, she was dressed clean, neat and respectably, and the only difference in treatment is her skin colour.
Without the right clothes, shoes, hairstyle (for black people this means straightened hair and nothing too “ethnic” or authentic because it doesn’t conform to white standards), most people of colour are looked at with a disadvantage in status; to make up for that, they need to buy items that make them MORE than just ‘clean and presentable’ which is what white people can get away with.
They need to wear the NICEST outfits they have and they need to carry the cleanest, most expensive bags, shoes and jewellery they own, just to be seen as “acceptable” for … well, white standards.
You’re also representing your whole community
I KNOW people of colour feel this. When you present yourself anywhere, you are representing your whole community, in a bit of fear that they’ll start to stereotype “well ALL ____ people are like this”, which is why being clean and having certain goods of status is so important for them as well.
They carry their communities on their backs to SHOW that they’re respectable, because any slip up can have a much bigger impact than you think in terms of perception.
Your car is dirty? Well. For a white person it may not even register as a big deal – it’s dirty, but for people of colour, they may think: I don’t want people thinking (collective) “We” are all slobs. I better keep it clean.
Some status items are very important because they’re what give that edge up that is required to be considered to be at a baseline of acceptance.
Other things that signal status?
The way you walk, and talk – all behaviours that signal what class you are from, where you were educated, etc.
Example: “I am not” versus “I ain’t” – which one do you think sounds more educated and therefore ‘acceptable’?
Or your accent – What kind of English? White-accented (Spanish, French, German) or from an Asian country? Which one do you think people consider to be more “educated”? Someone speaking with a strong Asian accent will be looked down versus a European one.
We all know this. It’s a KNOWN thing that we all have to actively fight against because we’ve been so indoctrinated into thinking it’s true. To ignore it and say you don’t see skin colour, accent, or whatever else – is ignoring that you see the person as who they are. It’s disrespectful to them, and frankly, ignorant.
This class divide is not new.
What also isn’t new, is people buying their status with luxury goods, driving a nice car (I have personal experience with the way the same people in my building treated me before and after my nice car purchase), with their homes, and status things inside their homes.
In the past, people used to buy paintings to put up in their homes because rich people bought paintings to put up in their homes, and as paintings became more mass market, rich people chose even more eccentric or expensive pieces that are so out of the range of the masses, that it sets them apart, still.
(Think: Damien Hirst – His pieces are unique and $$$$$… therefore coveted for that very reason even though I found his famous skull piece to be quite creepy.)
It’s just that people of colour have a higher need to subscribe to these social pressures, than white people. It’s something that isn’t considered if you’re white because you’re already used to having that privilege given to you by your skin colour, but it’s something all people of colour have some familiarity with.