Society and Culture
Thursdays at Barneys
“Can’t a young [ ] get money anymore?”
Prophetic words indeed from the twenty-first century’s most evocative and provocative lyricist – Kanye West – in case there is anyone out there who doesn’t recognize the quote. A very serious question indeed in a modern world where many of us, Black and non-Black, define our successes based on our material possessions. But the deeper meaning resonates with every Black person who has heard the news coming from New York relating to one of the preeminent department stores in the country: Barneys New York. Turns out this lovely little mom-and-pop luxury store, which prides itself on drawing fashionistas the world over, had a little problem with some of their darker shoppers.
The story goes, a male shopper by the name of Trayon Christian, 19 of Queens, felt the inexorable urge to splurge on a designer belt, because, ya know, a guy’s gotta treat himself every now and then. So, with his hard-earned money, about $349 of it, Mr. Christian bought a Ferragamo belt. He bought the belt with his debit card, for which he showed identification, and then happily left the store. Upon exiting, it seems two plain-clothes cops handcuffed him and detained him for two hours. The officers apparently could not possibly comprehend how someone his age could buy a belt so expensive. The card had to be stolen. Mr. Christian had to be a thief, because, ya know, young Black people having money just doesn’t add up.
I wonder if the exchange went like this:
Officers: “Excuse me sir, can I ask you a few questions?”
Christian: “Umm, what do you want?”
Officers: “Did you just buy a belt from Barneys?”
Christian: “Yes, I can’t imagine how you’d know that, but why does it. . .”
Officers: “We’ll ask the questions here! I think we’re gonna have to take you in.”
Christian: “Why, I have a receipt?”
Officers: “Silly kid, receipts don’t mean anything when you’re Black and buy things we can’t imagine someone your age and race should buy.”
:: AND SCENE ::
Now, I’ll begin by saying I totally made that up and have no proof whatsoever that that happened. In that way, I am just like the officers who detained Trayon. Obviously they suspected he had stolen the debit card or something of the sort, and they had naturally no proof whatsoever that that was the case. But who needs facts, anyway?
But it didn’t stop there. Turns out another incident happened at Barneys, where apparently Black is the new guilty. Kayla Phillips of Brooklyn, 21, was confronted by officers at a subway station. Her charge: buying a $2,500 Celine purse. Again, I get all my advice on high fashion from Kanye, and he’s the one who told me when you have on the Zara pant and a girl walks in with the Celine version you feel like shit. Well, Kayla didn’t want to feel like shit. So Kayla, with her hard-earned tax refund, bought herself a designer purse, because that frantic purse dig for her keys that pisses off her boyfriend when it’s cold outside and they’re just trying to get to the car because they are already late . . . – I digress – just isn’t the same unless the purse is Celine.
These two intrepid fashionistas were simply trying to buy nice things. All too often the allure of keeping up with the Joneses plagues minority communities. Is it some underlying desire for conformity? Is it some thirst to bedazzle oneself in the trappings of the majority culture? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Hell yes. But I am more concerned about what this says about our culture.
It goes like this: Black people were brought here as slaves. [Stop me if this sounds unfamiliar at all.] We were emancipated. We essentially languished for 100 years despite like five Constitutional Amendments and men like Dubois, Washington, Garvey, and King. We got some rights: voting, etc. Then we began to enter the middle class. We begin to live how the other half lived for nearly the entire tenure of our race on the North American continent. We began to believe in our hearts that the color of our skin didn’t matter. Then we sorta lost some voting rights. [Still wondering how the Supreme Court did that.] When it came to material things, the only thing we thought mattered was the color of our money. We were wrong. Turns out all that matters is someone in a position of power and his perception of you. Doesn’t matter if your debit card has your name on it and you showed identification. Merely buying something someone else thinks you ought not, or have no reason to buy, is apparently all it takes to stir up enough suspicion to be arrested.
Therein lies the hard truth of modern America. I have often in my time in Washington, D.C. literally stood in the middle of the street with money in my hand hoping to hail a cab. And time and again I have been passed over for the White couple on date night. Or the drunk frat boys. Greater than the inconvenience of just having to take the Metro is the shame associated with someone whom you don’t even know perceiving something negative about you based on no actions of your own.
I have never been followed in a store. In many ways, what happened to these two people is even worse. No one followed them expecting them to shoplift. They waited until after they had purchased their items to imbue them with the suspicion of illegality. So legally entering a store, legally shopping, and legally purchasing something isn’t enough to dispel suspicion? That begs the question, what the hell will?
At this very moment I am looking at my designer, leather jogging pants and wondering when the Feds will come knocking. I guess I could run, but you folks have no idea how impractical it is to actually do physical activity in leather jogging pants.
Featured image courtesy of [Alicia Griffin via Flickr]