The high marginal costs of “fitting in” are by intention of those who design and most benefit from our consumer society. Prejudice plays an important role for the monetary elite, and it works its ugly way down the economic ladder.
Human beings face extreme pressure to fit into the dominant culture that often reflects pressure to overcome not only class barriers but also race and sex barriers. Impediments and complexities to being among “the winners” in the bread wars can take many forms. The necessity to reject “invisibility” to fit into a workplace can require adoption of alienating measures that are themselves demeaning or even dangerous in one way or another.
I thought of this recently as I watched a young adult Stanford-educated biracial football player on the professional team I have loved since childhood driven to emotional illness and leaving his team through harassment in the workplace that often was racial in nature. In essence, he was forced to choose between (a) continuing to subject himself to the use of the “N” word and other outrageous bullying conduct, which can lead to dangerous depression as we learn from the many suicides that result; and (b) getting the hell out of there. He chose the latter. Fortunately, under his circumstances, with two Harvard law school-educated parents, he has the tools to finally begin to protect himself and either regain his promising career on the football field or receive significant financial compensation for what he has lost.
But what about those who have to fit into more mundane, but sometimes equally emotionally harsh, workplaces? Fitting in, often by purchasing luxury goods to provide ready-made “status,” can come at the price of losing needed savings–but it also can come at the societal price of losing needed agents of transformation. The “best and the brightest” can sometimes pick themselves up by their bootstraps and find their piece of the rock–but nothing changes to the system designed by the elite.
Peaceful democratic evolution of society to meet everyone’s basic needs is difficult enough already, but if the potential participants are constantly forced to pay high diverting prices to play roles in capitalism to obtain their own means of survival, the needed evolution is less likely to take place. This is yet another subtle “divide-and-conquer” ploy of capitalism.
It is all quite complicated for the individuals involved. To “judge,” rather than empathize with, “All the Lonely and Invisible People” (see Pamphlet No. 1, beginning a p. 47) is unfair and counter-productive to helping anyone. Ralph Ellison was keen to observe the tension between being an agent of societal change and remaining true to oneself. (For a Marxist analysis of “Invisible Man,” I would suggest reading this piece, which I cite in Pamphlet No. 1 at p. 48.)
“Dressing up” in an expensive and desperate attempt to “leave the hood” prevents full mobilization in the work for freedom, but it also allows the “successful” participants to survive and in some cases amass enough capital to “give something back” to their families left behind. On the other hand, if we are forced to break our own hearts and abandon those we love in the process of “succeeding,” this is too big a price to pay–escape through abandonment is a soul- destroying façade.
Hopefully love can find a way through this morass of oppression.
Tressie Mcmillan Cottom recently did a moving personal account at Talking Points Memo answering the question “Why Do Poor People ‘Waste’ Money on Luxury Goods?” It helped me to understand the answer to its question: poor people often spend money on nice clothes and other luxury goods because they are trying to signal to the dominant society that they fit in and therefore should be hired for desperately needed jobs and otherwise allowed to benefit from entry into the dominant society. These same slightly less poor people who are able to obtain some measure of entry into the dominant society in turn can extend a helping hand of mutual aid back to others. (I think of my uncle who, after serving in the U.S. Air Force, was able to loan my father a suit of nice clothes to wear on school trips during his senior year in mid-1950s Miami. How precious are these memories of love.)
Meanwhile, over at Daily Kos, chaunceydevega did a robust cautionary analysis of the flip side of the same issue, “Shopping While Black”: Is Conspicuous Consumption Related to the Black/White Wealth Gap?. This helpful piece suggests that the aggregate impact of being forced to spend money on luxury goods in signaling behavior has a significant negative effect on the African-American community in the U.S., which already starts the race in the U.S. miles behind the starting blocks. In essence, it has forced the people at the bottom to put on feathers and powdered wigs of prosperity they do not have, and the money for the feathers and powdered wigs mostly goes directly out of the African-American community.
I do not have any answers for this perilous situation of the poor. I will just keep working for system change, while providing as much mutual aid as I can.