A little while ago, I was mindlessly swiping through Instagram stories, searching for funny quarantine memes and Tik Tok videos. A Black woman that I follow is the co-owner of a successful small business and enjoys luxury purchases. She documented her day of treating her mom to a much-needed quarantine “Girls Day.” Socially distanced brunch and shopping. Seeing her mother squeal with delight at spending time with her daughter was so comforting to watch since I had been mentally and emotionally exhausted with the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic and police brutality, both of which disproportionately affect Black folks. In between videos of her mom, she posted the following example of the DMs she regularly receives, even from other Black folks, that are full of faux concern and attempts to “humble” her and “educate” her on how to manage her Black wealth.
I started to wonder why we struggle with normalizing the association of Blackness with luxury. We see negative messages everywhere in the media. There is the sentiment that Black women enjoying a luxury brand will somehow cheapen the brand. When Cardi B rapped about her love of “bloody shoes,” comments could be found left and right that Christian Louboutin was “letting anybody buy his shoes.” There is also the belief that Black folks mostly obtain wealth and luxury items through boosting and drug dealing (which I ain’t judging by the way, I’m just reporting the trends in research). Or legally through being a rapper or a pro-athlete, occupations with public images that are unfairly and falsely associated with a lack of class. Finally, there is the notion that accumulating luxury reveals a desperate quest to be accepted by Whites, as if Black folks can’t develop a love for something on their own.
These stereotypes are used to ridiculously justify the racial discrimination we experience “Shopping while Black.” Surveys conducted by Gallup since 1997 show that every year Black Americans have been the group most likely to report unfair treatment in retail. The most recent data from 2018 stated that 30% reported discrimination in the past 30 days. Practices such as code names for Black customers, merchandise such as hair care products in locked shelves, and security surveillance are commonly utilized by retail owners. Some question why would Black folks even want to give money to companies that clearly don’t want them? Although this is a valid question, a bigger question I have is: Why can’t Black folks just enjoy what the hell they want without having to deal with bullshit?
This issue also has an even more disturbing negative impact on Black lives as it fuels the practice of racial profiling. I want to bring attention to the case of Kamilah Brock, the New York banker who was racially profiled at a traffic stop in Harlem. On September 14, 2014, Brock was stopped at a red light in her BMW when she decided to dance to her music. Police pulled her over for not having her hands on the wheel and impounded her vehicle. She was not charged with anything and was free to go. However, when she went to the police station to locate her vehicle, she was met with condescension and doubt of ownership of the luxury vehicle. In an attempt to establish her financial status, she stated that she was a banker and joked that President Barack Obama followed her on Twitter (which was true). Instead of confirming her identity, police falsely told Brock that they would take her to her vehicle. An ambulance was called, Brock was strapped to a gurney and injected with sedatives. When she regained complete consciousness, she found herself involuntarily committed to a psych ward. During her forced eight day stay, she was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder and bullied into admitting her comments were a manifestation of “grandiosity,” one of the hallmark symptoms of mania, instead of her present reality. When she left the hospital, she was hit with a whopping $13,000 hospital bill. Police claimed in reports that Brock was acting erratically and running into traffic; therefore, she eventually lost a case against the NYPD. *insert angry eye roll here*.
The association of Blackness with struggle is celebrated and capitalized on. In movies, it is common to see the storyline of a Black person overcoming intense struggle (sometimes with the aid of the “White Savior”) to become something great, as if greatness was not always within. This is not meant to minimize that narrative as those stories are a part of Black history that need to be passed down to future generations. But struggle ain’t all that defines us. Not by a longshot. And we are seeing the cultural landscape slowly begin to change as the entertainment industry is documenting the Black experience through different lenses. As we continue to battle and collectively heal from the oppressive effects of white supremacy, this widening of the acceptance of all aspects of Black culture will expand to include stories where Black folks are not only the consumers of luxury, but the designers and manufacturers of it as well. For example, I love the iconic documentary film, The September Issue, which follows Vogue mogul Anna Wintour. I want to see a film about Edward Lewis, one of the founders of Essence magazine, which tapped into the arena of luxury and Black women. We’d love to see it. We need those stories as well.
Normalize Black folks having the freedom to enjoy luxury. Endorse Black luxury owners. That’s all I’m sayin’.
– K.N. Gipson