Dear Jay Z: Don't Dodge the Barneys Thing

You've been racially profiled in the past. So use your power to start a real conversation about race and class in America.

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How much does your audience need to hear that message from you in these economically fraught times? How powerful would it be if you said, "Support my charity, come buy the gear, but know that this act of purchasing goods does not define you. Nor should you think less of people who can't afford the goods, or simply don't care to spend their money that way."

Like you, I've been racially profiled by shopkeepers. And like you, I was once a teenager, pining for designer gear. I thought my mother (operating on a tight budget) was so dismissive of my need for the fashions of the day. It was the '80s, and one popular brand of shoes was also popularly knocked off. The real ones had a certain tag. The fake ones didn't.

My mother stretched and got me a pair of "real" ones, which were three to four times as expensive as the equally well-made generics. I remember getting on the school bus. One of the cool kids examined my shoes with surprise and said, "Oh, they're real." I got a 15-second flush of pride. And then, like all material things, the shoes lost that buzz, got scuffed, were no longer sacred objects of belonging.

You of all people, Shawn, can emphasize that belonging comes from within, and that the road that takes you from being an outsider to a power insider comes with its own problems and perils. These are your kids -- the ones buying your music and concert tickets, and saving up to get one piece of paradise in the form of a designer object. Let them know what they're really buying. It's not wrong. But it's not transformative. Yet what you share with them of your wisdom -- or what you and Barneys could craft in a business conversation -- could reshape their lives.

Farai Chideya is a distinguished writer in residence at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Institute for Journalism. A contributing editor at The Root, she is the author of four books and blogs at

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