By Guest Contributor Cheryl Lynn Eaton, cross-posted from Digital Femme
“Cheryl Lynn, you will have your first and last dollar.” My mother says it with blend of mirth, surprise, and exasperation–as if she cannot believe she produced a child who behaves in such a practical manner, a child who would dare complain that she had to spend twenty-four dollars on a purse due to the old one falling apart at the seams. My mother possesses a walk-in closet full of purses. Not one could be purchased for twenty-four dollars. The glint of a gold circle surrounding a bold M and K–the lack of one separating my leather satchel from her assortment–costs a great deal more.
Yet, my mother is a child of poverty; I am a child of the working-class struggle. She needs her talismans, her high-end upmarket logos, to make her feel as if she is of worth. I was taught to fear them, to believe that obtaining them would bring about financial ruin. I’ve jokingly told many friends that I’m glad I grew up working-class instead of rich, middle class, or poor because it has made me so paranoid about money that I’ll never purchase designer labels. Black working-class kids are raised to believe that one wrong move will have you back in the ghetto where your parents came from. Working-class kids are raised on fear.
I have friends who grew up (and are still) wealthy. Michael Kors bag? “Oh, I’ll take this.” They do not even remain engaged during commercial transactions. Their attention drifts elsewhere as items are rung up. They do not look at price tags. In contrast, those who are middle class always look at the tag, yet price does not seem to be a deterrent. There is an initial flinch, but the purchase is still made. “It’s a lot, but we’ll find a way.” Middle-class kids are taught to hope for the best. Rich kids are taught to expect it.
For poor kids there is no hope. Yet, purchases are still made. What’s the point of saving? You can’t fall any further, and you’ll never have that deluxe apartment in the sky, so might as well cop those sneakers, right? And so children of the ghetto will stand in line for an exclusive—and expensive—pair of Nikes. Women will gather every last dime for a pair of Louboutins–and yet may not even possess enough knowledge to properly pronounce Christian’s last name. I have had to correct my mother multiple times on the correct pronunciation of Movado. She owns one of their signature watches; I do not. For those marked by poverty, logos and labels are masks. They are an attempt to pass as a member of the “elite,” to appear “respectable.” But for those who are black and brown, the respect, though deserved, does not come. Red bottoms are not glass slippers.
“I like nice things. And I’ve worked hard!” My mother has indeed worked hard. And everyone likes nice things. But when I asked my mother if she would still purchase luxury items if no one else knew she owned them, she appeared shocked for a moment and then laughed. “No! What’s the point in that?”
There is no point in either the purchase or the announcement of it. Her purchases are tickets to an arena where she will never be accepted because of her race. We are told time and time again how blackness “devalues” a brand, of executives who blanched when informed that their product had become popular amongst racial and ethnic groups. We are to be felt (i.e., provide money and labor), but not seen. Black and brown children of poverty are told that they are nothing without a proper label. Once they have sacrificed everything to obtain said label? They are told the label is worthless due to too many of them having it. To add insult to injury, what black and brown children of poverty do produce for themselves on a massively limited budget is then co-opted by the artistic elite to provide to rich whites seeking something novel. Flesh is co-opted. A Native headdress for a music video; blackamoor earrings for an art gallery opening— brown bodies become white accessories.
There is a need–for all of us–to closely examine the purchases we make and why we make them, to examine what–or who–is allowed to become a commodity, and to reflect on how the logos we wear intersect with the culture that labels us. Not one of us is immune. Even as I boast about my practicality, I can still admit to feeling subpar when shopping with friends. Just last weekend, a date to go shopping for vintage items went horribly wrong when I discovered that rich people go boutiques, not thrift stores. And as I looked at used designer bags that were beyond my budget, I felt less than those around me–not enough to give up my dream of home ownership for a collection of Birkin bags, but small nonetheless. And I have no solution as to how to stop it. But perhaps in coming together to discuss the intersection of fashion, class, and race we can–literally–loosen the ties that bind us through the recognition of them.