Thursday, November 14, 2013

On the image of poor and black people

First off, I'm going to start this out by saying I'm not African American, black, brown, or any minority. But I do have a lot of friend who are the colors of the rainbow - African, African American, Asian, Asian American, Indian, Indian American, Native American, European, Southern and Northern Italian, Liberian, Lithuanian, Russian, Caribbean,  and all sorts of beautiful combinations in between. I have friends and family that live all over the world, including Turkey, China, England, France, Italy, Japan, Spain, Canada, Iceland, Netherlands, South Africa, Egypt, Chile, Peru, and more. You can feel free to tune out now if that bothers you that I'm not one of those folks writing about this piece.

Talking Points Memos often get passed around my friends and I noted with interest that amongst my friends on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, one particular article was getting a lot of discussion. "Why Do Poor People 'Waste' Money On Luxury Goods?"

I read the article. Its brilliant. It describes, in a nutshell, everything that is wrong with people today, even in a society that claims everyone is equal. This passage is particularly poignant for me:

"...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..."

Yes. This has happened to me more than half a dozen times myself. I've gotten second interviews because people thought I expressed myself so intelligently and managed to dress well, act at a higher class than I was, even when my husband and I were eating ramen noodles and PB&J every night. Honestly, I still do it, trying to find ways to fit in yet another item that is typically bought by people that are in a higher income level than my own because I know if I can play at being one of those higher income folks, one of them is more likely to bring me up with them, leading to a point where things are going to be more affordable.

A man can come into work in jeans and flip flops and not get told their attire is wrong nor get moved into the "not promotable group". A woman wears a skirt too short, happens to show a bit too much of their cleavage, wears the wrong fragrance, and poof! the impression of them is changed forever and they get moved to the "non-trustable" pile as they aren't showing that they are part of the club.

But the thing is that the article assumes that people are buying these things at full retail price (or even on sale). The thing is, I don't know many people who actually buy 100% of these items. Purses can be rented. Clothes can be rented. Outlet stores help with buying classics like suits, button downs, and classic accessories. Borrowed Clothes, Gwynnie Bee, and other "Netflix" services of fashion make it possible to borrow clothes, try them out, and return them frequently. BaubleBar makes jewelry affordable. ShoeDazzle makes knockoffs of the runway shoes within the realm of affordability. Zara, Charming Charlie, Bare Minerals, Julep, H&M, and others make jewelry, makeup, and accessories that help you look like you're in better financial shape than you are. Cricket, Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and others are helping folks acquire tech gadgets with affordable monthly price tags. Heck, you can even get an iPad for buying satellite tv now! As long as you're up to date on what to say the labels actually are (and not mention where you got them), you can get away with a lot...

You really can't assume anymore that people are buying these things full prices at the expense of food, shelter, and power unless you physically see them do it, and then you really don't know if that woman worked an extra job, saved for two years, or got a surprise inheritance and decided to make an investment in making their life better. A good Coach, Kate Spade, or Louis can last for ten+ years with good care being taken of it.

So what am I grateful for today? That there are so many services, stores, websites, and borrowing rings now helping equalize the "luxury goods divide" and making it impossible to tell the lifestyle of anyone. You can dress any way you want within reason for most middle class people, and even if these services are a splurge for someone truly poor, its better to lay out $39.95 (an electric bill) than $3,995 (six months income) for an investment. Maybe this sounds completely shallow, but people continue to make judgments of women by how they look, so you have to fight with every tool in your toolbox to make mobility happen.

[Side note: I really am rooting for anyone who is poor. Truly. It is difficult in today's day and age to pull yourself up and out of the many financial holes that develop over life than I think it was for our grandparents and great-grandparents. This column was written 11/10/13 at 2:00 pm.]

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