Apr 18 2010

Purchasing Power: Social Inequality and Consumerism In America

Published by at 8:00 pm under Reflection Blog,Uncategorized

By Peter H. Smeallie IV

In the book Purchasing Power, author/reporter Elizabeth Chin discusses the consumerism side of America and how it affects children who are part of the lower classes. In the case of Chin’s particular book (and research), the lower class consists of African Americans living in the Newhallville region of New Haven, Connecticut.

In chapter 1, Chin starts off by telling us that in July of 1992, she stayed in New Haven, Connecticut with two young girls, Asia and Natalia, and researched their consuming/buying habits. Her first (and very important) discovery was of the girls objecting to there being only a skinny, blonde-haired, blue-eyed white Barbie doll and not one that’s “fat, pregnant, or abused.” This lead to her discussion about many of the other broad themes in the book: how consumerism affects and/or shapes inequality in America, how young children who are of the lower class tend to be more responsible, altruistic, and careful/frugal in their buying habits than those who are of the middle and/or upper class, and how, in the case of this book, middle class whites often mentally label African Americans as being criminally-minded and/or violent (even though many are not). In addition, Chin discusses the harmful and/or destructive effects that the latter attitudes by middle-upper class whites have on blacks (and other U.S. minorities as well).

In chapter 2, Chin discusses the practice of slavery in America and how the latter caused African Americans to be treated as commodities rather than human beings. She then discusses the various aspects of slavery including “conspicuous consumption” (where in which slaves would secretly take food, fish when they were supposed to be working, etc.), how the type and quality of clothes that people wore indicated whether they were free or enslaved, and how black slaves would often attempt to “pass” for white and/or free by wearing certain attires. Chin then finishes her chapter by discussing the various images of violence, crime, and drug use that become associated with “inner cities,” citing, as an example, a rather brutal case where two young boys were framed/accused of raping a young girl for her bike (when it was in fact an adult predator who did so).

In the next few chapters, Chin discusses the many consumerism-based situations that Natalia, Asia, and other children take part in. Chin explains that the chapter is called “What are you looking at, white people,” because one girl, Tionna, screamed that at a car with a white woman inside it passing by. Furthermore, Chin talks about how the suspicious attitudes that middle-upper class whites have towards the young girls in this book (being paranoid and assuming, because of their skin color and clothes, etc., that they are violent criminals, drug abusers, etc.) psychologically affect how they (and, at the same time, other poor minorities in the U.S. as well) behave: the girls act angrier and more confrontational when they believe that they are being perceived as too poor to buy goods (or, as being thieves), etc. Two important examples in these chapters that illustrate the above issue include one incident where Asia suspected that a cashier at Claire’s (a trendy uptown mall) assumed she was unable to pay for something (and so Asia later bought another item at that store, slammed a $50 bill on the counter, and cathartically exclaimed, “keep the change!”), and another incident, told by Deacon Rose (a woman in Natalie’s church/parish), where in which the respective woman protested a white saleswoman’s suggestion to buy a cheap, cotton dress instead of a fine, silky one. Chin also talks about the differences between the neighborhood store Bob’s and the public mall uptown that the children go to. When they shop at the former, the children feel comfortable, safe, and accepted, and the storeowner himself acts as a father figure of sorts for the local children. When they shop at the latter, however, the children feel like outsiders, and they feel like many of the people (middle-upper class whites) there don’t like them, don’t take them seriously as customers, and quietly don’t want them there. In fact, Chin talks about how the mall owners once redirected bus routes so that less African Americans from New Haven would arrive at that particular mall.

In chapter 5, Chin discusses several incidents of children shopping. In many of these incidents, the children, unlike those talked about in the book Born To Buy (who would scream, throw tantrums, demand toys, manipulate their parents, etc.), carefully and responsibly picked out goods. Many of the goods were the “basic” necessities, such as school supplies and clothes, and the children bought many goods as gifts for their families (including shoes for their mothers) or as commodities to share with their brothers, sisters, etc.

In chapter 6, Chin discusses “ethnically correct” dolls and the various effects (positive and negative) that they’ve had on the consumer market. While Mattel Shani Dolls, the African American alternative to the traditional Barbie Doll, were created in the late 1980s as a means of trying to equalize the social market, Chin states that by the early 1990s, toy companies seemed to prefer “profit [over] social change,” and, given the prices of the many dolls, many poor young minority children couldn’t afford to buy the “ethnically correct” dolls. Chin also talks about the “commodification of races” in these dolls, and most importantly, the connection that young girls make to hair on dolls– equating straight, blonde hair with whiteness and success (Chin also says that, at the same time, many young African American girls who own “white” dolls, ironically, tend to braid their hair instead of leaving it straight). In chapter 7, Chin recaps her experience studying the effects that marketing had on the young girls living in Newhallville, as well as, overall, how consumerism and social inequality/race in America are related.

On Tuesday April 13, our class discussed the book Purchasing Power and its various themes. As a presentation leader, I started the class off with a YouTube trailer of “Precious Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire” in order to spur a conversation about race, poverty, and social relations in inner city settings. Our class initially discussed economics serving as an equalizer for classes and the social gratification of buying goods, and then began talking about the dangers of consumption in inner-city settings (violence, gangs, drug use, etc.), citing the example in the book of Tenisha, a girl who used products to compensate for a poor self image. We then, however, realized that our conversation was heading in the wrong direction—talking about all of the stereotypes that Chin was trying to disprove, and our conversation made a 180-degree turn.

We then began to discuss the theme in the book of poor African Americans in the U.S. being unfairly associated with stereotypes/images of poverty, tendencies to rob, commit crimes, etc., and then talked about Chin’s argument that the latter social group of people only wish to be viewed as equals in the consumer market (as well as every other area of life as well). We talked about the “Joneses” that young black women (citing Gabore Sidibe’s character in “Precious”) try to keep up with— upper middle class white people on television and in the media. This particular conversation segued into us talking about the issue of “good [straight]” hair (especially on “white,” blue-eyed Barbie dolls), whiteness being associated with success and beauty, cosmetics that black women use to lighten their skin color and/or straighten their hair, and how the United States’ history of slavery, reparations, and “white guilt/beneficiaries” plays a role in the socially-driven racial tensions/inequalities of modern-day America. One person cited that despite legislature nowadays to assuage the inequalities that affected many African Americans, Native Americans, etc. in the country, there’s no way to “legislate the mind.” I finished the class by showing everybody a clip of Morgan Freeman describing why he doesn’t like Black History Month (because he doesn’t believe any group of people should have their culture/history relegated to a single month).

On the second day of class, we started by talking about how kids nowadays are introduced more to computers and multimedia before learning about creative play and fine motor skills (the latter of which is associated with physically writing on paper—something that computers in schools today now help diminish). We talked about how many poor young children don’t have access to computers, and, as discussed in Purchasing Power, how these respective groups of kids often can only purchase “basic” goods. We talked about how the magazine Seventeen really isn’t for seventeen year-olds (emphasizing the theme of age compression), dolls’ “ethnicities,” and how the stereotypes that are often associated with minorities psychologically encourage the latter groups of people to act in particular ways. To clarify the above theme, I noted in class that it’s like driving by a cop car on the highway and feeling like you’re committing a crime even when you’re not.

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