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“The Logic of Stupid Poor People,” Or, the Only Thing Worth Reading About the Barneys “Shopping While Black” Arrests

Recently, police at Barneys New York have been catching well-deserved heat for detaining and arresting black shoppers buying luxury items; also catching heat are the shoppers, particularly the nursing student Kayla Phillips, who bought her Celine purse with her tax refund and took the subway back to Canarsie and, according to some people, has no business buying a $2,500 purse anyway.

Tressie McMillan Cottom takes this issue on hard and perfectly: why “we hates us some poor people,” because “first, they insist on being poor when it is so easy to not be poor. They do things like buy expensive designer belts and $2500 luxury handbags.” Why might “they” do this? Tressie gets into it.

I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging. It meant dressing well and speaking well. It might not work. It likely wouldn‘t work but on the off chance that it would, you had to try. […] How do you put a price on the double-take of a clerk at the welfare office who decides you might not be like those other trifling women in the waiting room and provides an extra bit of information about completing a form that you would not have known to ask about? What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to your child because your mother’s presentation of self signals that she might unleash the bureaucratic savvy of middle class parents to advocate for her child?

[…] You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand the relative value of a ridiculous status symbol to someone who intuits that they cannot afford to not have it.



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