(The Root) —
Dear Shawn Carter:
I just read your heated blog posting about "negligent, erroneous reports and attacks on my character, intentions, and the spirit of this collaboration" with the retailer Barneys, with whom you are partnering. Barneys, of course, is the store where a young man was arrested for quite legally buying a $349 belt. You reiterated that the funds of the designer-store-artist collaboration were for your foundation, and that you didn't want to say more about the incident while facts were still being sorted out.
Although I appreciate avoiding a rush to judgment, there are ways to push the goals of equality forward without maligning anyone. First of all, you and Barneys could create a powerful forum on racial and socioeconomic stereotypes about consumers, either for a business audience and/or including a general public. One talk won't accomplish that much. So how about a series on race, class and commerce? On what it means for those in retail to serve a multiracial, income-diverse constituency, and also how to hire well in a city that is majority nonwhite and Hispanic? That is an easy win and doesn't require any blame game or name-calling to accomplish.
And wouldn't it be great if we had an honest conversation about the ways in which money can and can't buy you respect? I would like to channel my inner Pollyanna and say that money can't buy you respect. But that's a lie — on one level at least. I am comfortable, not wealthy, but my life in the media and my sense of adventure have brought me onto Air Force One and to dinners with billionaires.
Those moments remind me of LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman's book on the networked economy, The Start-Up of You, and his acknowledgment of social hierarchies in networking. If someone has way more money or status than you (or way less), it will probably change how you communicate. Someone of less status and wealth can't lean too hard on the higher-ranking person for a timely response to a query, for example. The dreaded act of rear-end kissing those in power may not be necessary, but if you are of lower status or wealth, you may have to be patient to connect … even open to not being responded to or acknowledged at all.
On the other hand, there's the question of intrinsic worth. Money does not bring you intrinsic value as a person. Nor does the lack of it erode the fact that you are — in a spiritual sense — no more and no less than anyone around you. When you were a man of modest means and extraordinary talent and promise, you were just as full of intrinsic worth as you are today.
So let's return to the belt incident. You are uniquely equipped to discuss with the fans who have paid toward your millions the difference between monetary and intrinsic worth. Wouldn't it be amazing and transformative to acknowledge that a $349 belt is not a morally wrong thing to buy, but that it doesn't change you, and that the happiness you get from it will likely be fleeting?
You, Shawn Carter, are a great success story of American enterprise. So you must know that money can't buy happiness. It can buy diversion, excitement, sex (legally or illegally, depending on the state or country) and many other things. But being wealthy or fashionable does not guarantee happiness. (Cue: any reality-TV show.) Apparently, having money to spend doesn't even prevent you from being stopped by the police.
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 farai.com.