Stop Hating on Poor Blacks Who Buy Expensive Stuff

In response to criticism that the shoppers stopped at Barneys and Macy's shouldn't have been spending beyond their means in the first place, Tressie McMillan Cottom argues at her blog, Tressiemc, that "Poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols for the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols": They want to belong.

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The Rev. Al Sharpton has met with Barneys executives to discuss racial profiling. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

In the aftermath of allegations of racial profiling at Barneys and Macy's, Tressie McMillan Cottom checks in on criticism of the shoppers, who some say shouldn't have been spending beyond their means in the first place. "Poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols," she writes at her blog, Tressiemc,  "for the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols": They want to belong.

Why do poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols? For the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols, I suppose. We want to belong. And, not just for the psychic rewards, but belonging to one group at the right time can mean the difference between unemployment and employment, a good job as opposed to a bad job, housing or a shelter, and so on. Someone mentioned on twitter that poor people can be presentable with affordable options from Kmart. But the issue is not about being presentable. Presentable is the bare minimum of social civility. It means being clean, not smelling, wearing shirts and shoes for service and the like. Presentable as a sufficient condition for gainful, dignified work or successful social interactions is a privilege. It’s the aging white hippie who can cut the ponytail of his youthful rebellion and walk into senior management while aging black panthers can never completely outrun the effects of stigmatization against which they were courting a revolution. Presentable is relative and, like life, it ain’t fair.

In contrast, "acceptable" is about gaining access to a limited set of rewards granted upon group membership. I cannot know exactly how often my presentation of acceptable has helped me but I have enough feedback to know it is not inconsequential. 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.

I have about a half dozen other stories like this. What is remarkable is not that this happened. There is empirical evidence that women and people of color are judged by appearances differently and more harshly than are white men. What is remarkable is that these gatekeepers told me the story. They wanted me to know how I had properly signaled that I was not a typical black or a typical woman, two identities that in combination are almost always conflated with being poor.

Read Tressie McMillan Cottom's entire piece at Tressiemc.

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