Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Complexities of Anti-Consumerism

I picked up some groceries at (New York's only) Trader Joe's last night and took them home on the subway. I was sitting next to a pretty young woman, probably no older than I am, with a beautiful little daughter who was probably three or so. You know how you can tell that some kids are going to grow up to be stunning? You could tell with this girl.

The mother was well-dressed, in boots, a nice pair of jeans, and a blazer. Her bag was a so-so Vuitton knockoff--the material was shiny in that Canal-Street kind of way. Her hair was chemically processed--it looked to me like Japanese straightening, not corner-beauty-shop lye straightening. Her little girl was dressed well, too, and tastefully--not in that miniature-adult way that children, especially girls, sometimes are--in pink sneakers, jeans, and a quilted coat. The daughter was clearly very bright: she was engaged and articulate throughout the subway ride in a way that made me associate her with the kids who win the leadership scholarships from the foundation at which I tutor.

The mother was holding a little pink bag on her lap. The plastic that had held the tag was still attached to the zipper. She asked her daughter, "Do you like the new bookbag I got you?" The girl was looking at something and didn't respond. The mother asked again, nudging her, and the girl looked up, flashed a huge smile, and kissed her mother on the cheek. "Yes, Mommy!"

Consumerism issues, an observer might say. The mother is clearly trying to maintain an image of having more money than she does (i.e. the knockoff bag) and trying to win her daughter's affection with material objects.


Consider that this is a young black single mother (she was telling her daughter, quietly, that they were going "to Daddy's house," and when she counted the stops for her daughter, it was clear that the destination was pretty deep in the Bronx). Consider the stereotypes with which she has to contend. Consider what she feels when people look at her and her beautiful, precocious child and glaze over in that "God, not another young black single mother" way that she has learned to recognize. It differentiates her, this image that costs money to project. The money that she spends on clothing and on her daughter's sneakers, on aspirational handbags, buys her some peace on the subway, buys her, maybe, freedom from the weight of each judgment levied by the glances of strangers, conscious or otherwise.

It seemed clear to me, sitting next to her, that this woman understood in an instinctive way the class-coding of consumer goods, that by sheer force of will and strategic spending she planned to change her social identity and her daughter's, that she was determined that no one would ever look at her or at her daughter and sneer. Her meticulousness in other ways--the carefully-packed snacks, the stop-counting--seemed to bear this out.

People do sneer. People really do look at other people and think, "Oh no, not another one," and imagine squalid apartments and corner drug deals and absent fathers. We all do it. I am doing it here, in some way. I'm not sure it matters whether the tone of our imaginings is compassionate or revolted. It is terrifying to know that other people can claim your life in this way, that they feel entitled to have opinions about you. The weight of these collective imaginings really does affect the people on whose shoulders it presses down. There are consequences, real ones.

I can imagine this woman's efforts paying off. I can imagine her spending everything she has to keep her daughter in nice clothes and green vegetables. I can imagine her daughter getting a scholarship to a good college, getting a lucrative job, paying for her mother's retirement. There is some way in which we fulfill the prophecies of our sneakers and mittens and freezers. Is it a coincidence that this determined, meticulous, anxious woman has a smart, beautiful daughter whose shining future visibly unfurls before her?

I don't think it can be. I think the bill of goods this woman has purchased includes not only the pink sneakers and bookbag but a set of behaviors that is rewarded. This is how class functions. You can give a child a different class identity than yours--I've seen it done, for many of the first-generation American kids with whom I went to high school. They went off to Yale and Amherst and Dartmouth and then into the Peace Corps and finance firms and law school, and they do take for granted what they've been given, in the way that we all do, the way in which it's what they've always known and had, and it is hard to understand on a visceral level what giving it meant to their parents. It is hard for me to understand what giving me Keds and riding lessons and an American Girl doll and dance classes and a private education and trips to Europe means to my father. There is a gulf there, much as, perhaps, there will be between the mother and daughter on the train when the daughter grows up and does not understand, really, what it is to be afraid of the way people look at her.

So I don't think we can really tell this woman, with authority, that she shouldn't be spending so much money on clothes, or toys, or her hair. I think we have to remember that things have meaning--real meaning, a meaning that changes people and lives and, ultimately, the world. At the very least, I think we need to recognize on a visceral level that it takes a strength of character that I cannot even comprehend to stare back at the staring strangers and know that you are still a person, your own, unclaimable, regardless of what they have thought about your hair and your clothes and your parenting--about you--that it is not weakness to want them to stop so much as it is unfathomable strength to bear everything they unknowingly communicate.

I think this deserves more consideration than the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" can provide, much as the woman on the train deserves more consideration than the dismissiveness of a statistical, appraising glance.


GradGirl said...

Wow, what a post. You are a brilliant writer.

Him said...

Beautiful post. I guess that English degree paid off.

It's funny that you write about this. I tutor underprivileged kids and I see somewhat of the same - kids who have expensive stuff to keep up with the Joneses, to keep up with the images that have been thrown at them. Many have uber expensive cell phones, designer clothes, and pimped out rides that don't say "look I'm ahead of the game" but actually says "please accept me".

Money and finances don't exist in a vacuum - thanks for humanizing that.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the great post. I can really relate to that. Good food for thought.

mOOm said...

Seems you are reading a lot into some superficial characterstics of someone you don't know. Maybe the woman earns a lot of money relatively and this stuff is less than what she can afford? You seem to assume because she is black and heading on the train towards the Bronx she has to actually be poor.

I'm sure though people make lots of assumptions about me though. Whether its that I am a white male, or I am riding on the bus (not in NYC) or when they hear my British accent, or find out what my job is or where I work. They will make radically different assumptions on each of these. Immigrant is also an interesting construct. I'm an immigrant but I'm a native English speaker. Well, there are lots more things I could write...

English Major said...

moom, that's sort of my point, that the way we read people has to do with social scripts and external cues, and that to some extent, we can manipulate the way others read us.

I have no way of knowing if my reading is factually accurate. Nevertheless, I was reminded really strongly of Gerty MacDowell--she's my favorite character in Ulysses, the young woman who narrates the first half or so of the Nausikaa chapter. Gerty is a talented mimic--she spends her narration reproducing whole chunks of language she's absorbed from the early-twentieth-century Irish equivalent of Cosmo and Jane--and with these tools she presents a diction that represents her as a member of a social group to which she would not otherwise be classified. The only problem is that she's never able to erase the evidence of effort--you can always feel her trying. Ultimately, that's what I felt--and, of course, "felt" is a subjective category, one susceptible to prejudice and social tropes--with the woman on the subway, that I could feel her trying. It was in the knockoff bag and the way she cleaned her daughter's shoes with her jacket sleeve and the way she spoke softly when she said "Daddy's house" but clearly when she was telling her daughter that if she dropped the bottle of milk she was drinking on the floor, she couldn't have it back, because it would be dirty.

I know that people use these factors to make judgments about me, too: race and gender and clothing and makeup and handbag and shoes and the way I sit and the way I talk to the people I talk to--we are all readable, and it's hard to know whether we are accurately read. I think those of us with "marked" factors, things that are "other," are more conscious of the way others read us, more anxious to control their conclusions. (Gerty MacDowell is a good example here, too: she's lame--she has a leg injury that was never properly treated.) That's where I think the instinctive understanding of the class-coding of objects comes in.

3 Things About Money said...

I love this post, I love the nuance, and maybe you were projecting all over her, but then, to talk about social class in such a meaningful way. You are a divine writer...I wanted to know how the story turns out, want you to follow up in 15 years, want to know what happens next. You invoked it with your words. It's a gift. Thank you.

Tessa said...

I think this was a beautiful, well-written post. I think it is a very true post as well. You may have inspired me to write on a similar topic on my blog. ;)

M said...

I appreciate your acknowledging that you don't really know if your guesses about this woman are true and that you are judging her yourself based on a few superficial signals. For the sake of discussion, I'll go along with your assumptions in order to discuss a main point of your post.

You say "that by sheer force of will and strategic spending she planned to change her social identity and her daughter's" and state that this might actually work and you think it's a perfectly acceptable way of achieving that goal.

I have to respectfully disagree. I don't think you can buy your financial status. It has to be earned and worked toward. You can't purchase success on a credit card or even cold hard cash.

I can dress as if I am wealthy but in the end, my wallet, bank account balance, and most likely my debt will reflect otherwise. Who cares if others might think I'm better off than I am if I know that not only am I not better off, but that I've driven myself even further in debt or lowered my savings by spending my money trying to appear wealthier?

That money could be much better spent putting me on the path toward become wealthier--loan for a business, money spent on a class, money saved, money spent on financial education, money spent on a down payment, etc.--rather than simply making me appear wealthier (besides clearly in the case you describe at least, the efforts did not work, as you spotted her knock off bag and noticed signals that to you reflected that she was not in fact what she was trying to portray anyway).

Of course, one must look the part one wishes to play, meaning it is important to look neat, clean, to be dressed tastefully, and in a way that maybe reflects who you wish to be even more than who you currently are, but I don't think that is the same as what you're describing, which you essentially describe as "spending everything she has to keep her daughter in nice clothes" and this eventually leading to "her daughter getting a scholarship to a good college, getting a lucrative job, paying for her mother's retirement."

I find fault with this assumption for various reasons. Spending money to look like you're better off than you are and to make yourself feel like you're better off than you are is very different from simply having outfits that will reflect well on you and project a professional image when you wear them to interviews or to work and so on. This simply means owning a few basic items of decent quality and tasteful style and keeping yourself looking neat, and appropriate for the occasion. It has nothing to do with logos, and designer brands, and all of that.

Spending money on clothes and luxuries doesn't make one rich or successful. I think the mother would be better served by using her resources for the child's education, saving for her college if possible, by hiring a tutor if necessary, or sending the child to various classes outside of school, and so on.

Rather than buying items she associates with another class, she could if anything, buy her daughter experiences she associates with her desired status. Such as extracurricular lessons, travel, academic camps, and so on. Unlike material goods, these experiences will be with her for a lifetime and will help shape her character and life path. These experiences will serve her daughter well in the future, increase her confidence and abilities, and prepare her for that successful future you talk about.

Additionally the child will probably do better by learning how to save and how to spend money on important intangibles such as education rather than on designer or pseudo-designer material goods that reflect a desired image (and I'm not sure it's a desirable image anyway, I wouldn't consider a knock off designer purse an indication of class and many blatant logo items look more gauche than classy, in my opinion).

Learning sound financial habits early on, such as saving and budgeting and prioritizing will surely have a positive impact on the child's future, just as, conversely, learning to spend money to appear like the person you want to be rather than using it to help you actually become who you want to be is sure to lead to a future filled with disappointment, and financial troubles. Children benefit from seeing their parents practice fiscal responsibility and they do learn when their parents teach them that education or saving are important and that designer goods or fake designer goods are not what make us successful to ourselves or others.

I think the mother and daughter looking neat and well dressed is just one of many methods of working toward their goals, but, despite your great writing, I simply cannot see any connection between the material goods (that you think they spend the little money they have on) and the scholarships, good jobs, and wealth you see in store for the child. Suggesting that one can shop oneself rich or shop oneself successful seems completely illogical to me.

I've no doubt the child is capable of the goals you attribute to the family, but not because of her mother's spending on material goods. If the child is smart and inclined toward learning, it is either in the child's own genes and character and/or the family's emphasis on those traits. It's quite likely the mother encourages her daughter's academic achievement, and I think spending what money is available toward experiences that will affect her daughter's intellectual development and set a good example for her daughter's future spending is what will pave the best path for her daughter to reach financial success.

(Throughout this comment, when I discuss the mother and child, I don't really refer to the two you saw, since we really don't know their situation; I am simply discussing a a parent and child who are in the situation you described.)

Your post was very thought provoking. Thanks for the opportunity for me to share this long comment(I hope I haven't taken up too much of your comment space).