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How to shop safely while black

Recently we had stories of black people being stopped and searched when they bought expensive items from upscale stores. Jessica Williams gives advice on how to shop safely in upscale stores. This is especially important during the holiday season when you don’t want to have your holidays ruined by spending time in jail.

(This clip aired on November 21, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)

What surprises me is that anyone would be willing to pay thousands of dollars for a handbag or hundreds of dollars for a belt. Surely the quality or the looks of the item can’t be that much better than a much cheaper alternative? Is it purely to show others that you can afford such things?

I never even notice what accessories people have let along the remotest idea of how much they cost, so if for some reason you are trying to impress me with the cost of any item on your person, I should warn you that you are wasting your time, not to mention your money.

Comments

  1. hyphenman says

    Good evening Mano,

    Recently I went to Nordstrom’s at Beachwood Place to buy a pair of shoes I like ((I’ve been buying the same shoes for years) and while I was there I remembered I needed a belt as well.

    When I came to checkout, the belt came up costing more than twice the shoes.

    I canceled the purchase and went back to look for a different belt. The sales person was at best condescending when he told me that I could buy the “entry-level” belt at $55.

    That was the last time I’ll be shopping at Nordstrom’s.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff

  2. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Is it purely to show others that you can afford such things?

    Short answer: yes.
    Long answer: hell yes. Status symbols and whatnot.

    so if for some reason you are trying to impress me with the cost of any item on your person, I should warn you that you are wasting your time, not to mention your money.

    No fear of that here, I’ve never bought a piece of ‘designer’ clothing in my life – notwithstanding the fact that all items of clothing were initially designed by somebody. What many people don’t realise is that a lot of the ‘high-end’ stuff is generally made in the same factory – usually in a developing nation to keep overheads down – on the same production lines and by the same, underpaid, overworked people as the chain store and ‘bargain basement’ stuff. They are paying for the label.
    I even try to only buy clothes that don’t have the maker’s label or logo visible*; I pay for the clothing, if they want me to advertise their products they’ll have to pay me.

    *The only jeans I wear are 501′s, simply because they’re the best fitting, most comfortable jeans I’ve ever worn and a pair can last for years so justifying the higher initial cost, but the label tends to be covered by my shirts.

  3. A. Noyd says

    Surely the quality or the looks of the item can’t be that much better than a much cheaper alternative?

    I wish it worked like that. I have this ten dollar wallet I need to replace after fifteen-some years, but I can’t find anything as nice with a similar design. If only I could shell out ten times that amount and be guaranteed the same durability and functionality, I’d pay it.

  4. A. Noyd says

    Oops, forgot to copy-paste the first half of my post:
    Since being made aware of the shit PoC have to put up with while shopping, I’ve tried to pay more attention to see if things like that are going on around me. I’m determined to use my white privilege and speak up if I see any racist shenanigans. However, as I avoid shopping as much as possible, I haven’t encountered anything so far.

  5. Vicki says

    Sometimes the quality really is better. Terry Pratchett describes this as the Vimes theory of boots: you can get a cheap pair of boots, with soles that will leak after a few months, for ten dollars, or a well-made pair that will keep your feet dry for fifty dollars. So after ten years, the person who can’t afford fifty dollars at once has spent twice as much on boots and still has wet feet.

    Sometimes, yes, what people are paying for is the fancy label, not the materials or workmanship. Sometimes the only difference between the name brand product and the store brand is the label. But I’ve been finding that the store brand at what is now my local supermarket is often inferior: I am walking to a further-away supermarket to get Goya beans because the Safeway store brand were inedible.

  6. says

    Is it purely to show others that you can afford such things?

    Pecuniary emulation.

    I don’t really know how to do anything safely while Black. I’d like to help make it so that this wouldn’t even be a consideration, though.

  7. Mano Singham says

    I too never buy things with the designer name or logo showing. It seems odd to me to act like a walking billboard.

  8. Mano Singham says

    But that is reasonable. The cheapest is not always the best option and I don’t go purely by price either. But the price/value graph seems to be really skewed at the high end. If the designer name costs 100 times as much and last only ten times as much, that seems pointless.

  9. eigenperson says

    In my experience, it’s much worse than a 100-fold price increase for a 10-fold increase in quality. Frequently the expensive products are no better than the mid-price products on any dimension that actually matters.

    For example, you can buy a Corolla for $20,000, or you can buy a Ferrari FF for $300,000. The extra features you get with the Ferrari are:

    * Four-wheel drive
    * Worse gas mileage
    * Extra engine power (great for making a lot of noise while you’re stuck in that traffic jam)
    * Higher top speed (allows you to achieve more expensive traffic tickets)
    * Transmission with more gear ratios (obviously having more options is always better — you can just ignore those stuck-up Prius owners bragging about their CVTs)
    * More (or less) attractive design, depending on your taste
    * The ability to show off your Ferrari to your serfs employees

    Sure, if someone offered me the choice between a free Corolla and a free Ferrari FF, I’d take the Ferrari. But then I’d sell it and buy the Corolla.

  10. smrnda says

    For clothes, I suspect that there is a point of diminishing returns, but it seems that there are better built options. I’ve found this to be most true for footwear, but beyond a certain point I don’t think the quality is increasing.

    I have actually bought some custom-made clothes – one coat that I have is incredibly warm, has lasted for years without wear and cost quite a bit more than what I found in stores. Of course, I don’t think most ‘designer clothes’ are really built for function and it’s mostly about broadcasting a label.

    On Black people and expensive brands. Something many Black people I know tell me is that in public, they want to make sure they look as good and professional as possible since, in the end, they’re trying to send an image to racist white people that they are *decent people who have money* and will then be passed over for bad treatment that is usually meted out to Black people, but which will usually be dealt with to Black people clearly on the lower socio-economic end.

  11. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    What surprises me is that anyone would be willing to pay thousands of dollars for a handbag or hundreds of dollars for a belt. Surely the quality or the looks of the item can’t be that much better than a much cheaper alternative? Is it purely to show others that you can afford such things?

    Yup. That beats me too.

    All I want is something that works and lasts and is comfy. Preferably the cheaper the better if it does those.

    PS. Off topic here but thinking of a thread a few weeks (?) ago now – have you seen this one Mano Singham :

    http://theoatmeal.com/comics/columbus_day

    Because I know you had a thread on it a while ago and figured you might appreciate it. Then again, you could well have posted / included it already in that so if so, sorry.

    (Some of the anti-Columbus claims sound so extreme I think we have to take them with a pinch of halite but still, interesting and thought-provoking piece.)

  12. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    I guess that’s the example set by a lot of sports stars among others who many people love and wish to have something in common with even if its only a similar costume?

  13. A. Noyd says

    Something many Black people I know tell me is that in public, they want to make sure they look as good and professional as possible since, in the end, they’re trying to send an image to racist white people…

    I believe that’s what’s referred to as “respectability politics,” if you want to learn more about it.

  14. says

    (Gonna steal your format, Acolyte of Sagan!)

    “What surprises me is that anyone would be willing to pay thousands of dollars for a handbag or hundreds of dollars for a belt. Surely the quality or the looks of the item can’t be that much better than a much cheaper alternative? Is it purely to show others that you can afford such things?

    Short answer: Yes.

    Long answer:

    I grew up dirt poor. Still am, really. I also experienced being poor in a rural, impoverished area where most people were poor (Lockwood, CA–and if you know where that is, I probably know you by name!), and I’ve been poor in areas with a much higher average income (Fremont, CA and Marin County, CA). Both come with its own set of challenges. However, while I’ve certainly experienced classism, I’m also white, so I didn’t have to deal with the additional challenges of racism.

    So while I couldn’t entirely relate to this article by Tressie McMillan Cottom, “The Logic of Stupid Poor People,” I was still nodding my head all the way through. Of all the responses to this story, I think she explains the “Why do poor people spend money on status symbols?” question better than anyone else.

    Certainly, growing up, we rarely bought clothes new. In fact, it was such a rare occasion, that I literally remember every single time I got new clothes (meaning: “from WalMart” not “from Macy’s”), other than when I was a baby, of course. (And I’m pretty sure most of my baby clothes were given to my parents, too!) But we were the resident “poor” family, so we got a lot of hand-me-downs from the wealthier people around us, and relatives who had money. Several items of clothing passed down through five or six kids, one of us to the next, after already being second-hand when we received them.

    My mom happened to be the same size, approximately, as a very wealthy woman who shopped designer labels, and bought an entirely new wardrobe every two years. So while Mama’s clothes may have been a couple years out of date, they were always quality. And I know that opened doors for her.

    As for us kids, we had clothing and grooming rules that a lot of our friends didn’t have to deal with, because my parents were so concerned that we not look like “Poor White Trash”. They knew we were going to have enough struggles just coming from where we did; they didn’t want us to also have to deal with people stereotyping us immediately from one look. (Again, I recognize its is a privilege, by virtue of nothing more than an accident of genetics, that I could even do that.) My brothers couldn’t have long hair, but they also couldn’t have closely shaved hair or ever wear A-shirts (“wife-beaters”), or torn clothing, and a few other items I’m forgetting; Mom and Dad didn’t want them to look like little white supremacists, or, again, like white trash. We never wore clothes with holes, never wore anything dirty (and for very active kids, I’m sure that was a serious trial for Mama as well as for us). I’ve never worn cut-off shorts, or flip-flops, or pajama pants (other than to bed–to the point that I wasn’t allowed to participate in “Pajama Day” at school!). Like I said, friends that came families with more money (which was, um, pretty much all of them) could wear those things without a second thought. I used to get mad at my folks for their restrictions, but now, as an adult, I understand. I’m not sure I’ll do the same with my children, when I have them, but I understand.

    Anyway. Just another perspective. And I highly recommend the linked article.

  15. Dunc says

    What surprises me is that anyone would be willing to pay thousands of dollars for a handbag or hundreds of dollars for a belt.

    What you’re failing to account for is that there are plenty of people out there who do not regard those as large sums of money. For some people, a thousand dollars is a rounding error.

    I never even notice what accessories people have let along the remotest idea of how much they cost, so if for some reason you are trying to impress me with the cost of any item on your person, I should warn you that you are wasting your time, not to mention your money.

    I’m pretty sure they’re not trying to impress you, Mano. ;)

    I too never buy things with the designer name or logo showing.

    Real high-end stuff doesn’t have visible logos, and doesn’t come from stores where you can just walk in and buy stuff off the shelf. The sort of stuff you’re talking about is only mid-level, and is mainly popular with people who aspire to be rich, but don’t actually know what it really looks like.

  16. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    I have actually bought some custom-made clothes – one coat that I have is incredibly warm, has lasted for years without wear and cost quite a bit more than what I found in stores. Of course, I don’t think most ‘designer clothes’ are really built for function and it’s mostly about broadcasting a label.

    Good tailor-made clothes are- or were- supposed to not be noticeable. Ostentatiously not noticeable, perhaps, but still not noticeable. The same with made-to-measure shoes. They are also designed to be easier to mend than labelled brands.

  17. Gwen says

    I don’t buy anything with a visible logo, including purses. I do pay hundreds of dollars for my purses, but only because I usually carry a single purse for ten years or more and want them to last. I buy Lee jeans because they fit me best. I don’t believe in being free advertising for companies after I have purchased their products, although with your car, I suppose it is difficult…

  18. colnago80 says

    Or you could spend $100,000 for a Tesla Roadster which can do 0 – 60 (mph) in 4 seconds. According to CU, Teslas are the best car ever made.

  19. mmierz says

    Prof. Singham and the people that are wondering why anyone would buy expensive status items, especially ones they can’t really afford.. this article discusses the topic: http://tressiemc.com/2013/10/29/the-logic-of-stupid-poor-people/

    Basically, POC have to perform respectability, and part of that is having the “right” clothes to show they’re the “right kind of people”, so that they’re taken seriously. Privileged people don’t have to do this, so it appears wasteful.

  20. Mano Singham says

    I get that poor people and people of color are forced to dress better than people with money in order to be treated better. I have written about that in the past. But the people who buy these things are usually wealthy white people. They are the target demographic. Furthermore, it seems to me that the prices they seem to be willing to pay are way beyond what a person striving for mere respectability would pay.

  21. Mano Singham says

    Erin, thanks for the link to that article, which I had read.

    As I said in reply to mmierz on this same issue, I completely understand why poor people need to dress well in order to not be treated with contempt and have written about that before.

    My thoughts were two-fold.

    One is that the people to whom these products are marketed are rich people who shop at rich people stores, so they are not under the kinds of pressures that you and your family were under.

    The other is that these items cost way more than what a mere attempt at respectability would demand. Buying clothes from mass market department stores that are more expensive than dollar stores is one thing. Paying ten times the price at a boutique store is something else entirely and seems to be driven by a different need than what drove your family.

  22. khms says

    Over here, testers fairly often (though certainly not always) find that some of the best items come from the discount supermarkets like Aldi, and some of the highest priced ones are some of the worst.

    Price is sometimes an indicator for quality, but very often not.

  23. khms says

    I’m sure that is all true, except that people’s ideas of respectability – and who they want to be respected by – raise with their disposable incomes (and unfortunately, often never fall again even if income falls).

    Plus, their ideas of how to do this are often misguided.

    See “keeping up with the Joneses”. Also see “nouveau rich”, where there’s even a special term for people trying to impress a kind of people that will stay unimpressed because they don’t actually work that way – or at least that’s what they claim.

    Oh, and see terms like “pimp-mobile” for a similar situation. The class people are trying to impress is sometimes very aware, and impressed in a rather undesired way.

  24. mildlymagnificent says

    Price is sometimes an indicator for quality, but very often not.

    I worked something out when my kids were small. We didn’t routinely buy high quality stuff and we did buy cheap stuff when we needed to.

    The big difference with the cheap stuff was that quality wasn’t necessarily poor, but it was unreliable and unpredictable. You might buy half a dozen items on one trip. 3 months later half of them still looked near new. The others were either faded or out of shape or had some frayed stitching or had some other quite obvious defect from perfectly ordinary wear and washing that the good condition garments had survived entirely unscathed. .

    So buying cheap stuff wasn’t entirely a bad thing, but it was a bit of a gamble.

  25. Trebuchet says

    You mean the Tesla Model S. There does seem to be a problem with them catching fire lately, especially if they run over something that damages the floor under the batteries.

  26. kathleenmcnamara says

    Oops, I should read everything before posting. It seems I’m not the first person to post that link. Just ignore me…

  27. invivoMark says

    You really think so? Why do you think we’re all posting comments on your blog? We know what we have to do to impress you, and it has nothing to do with how we dress! ;-)

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