Blacks and Blues, Barneys and The New Slaves

BarneysThis week, reports of discrimination by Barneys New York have showered the internet backed by calls for a boycott. A pending lawsuit against the store alleges that 19-year old Trayon Christian was racially profiled after buying a Salvatore Ferragamo belt. Upon exiting the store Trayon described being arrested by police, jailed, and interrogated about how he made the purchase. A second allegation later surfaced when Kayla Phillips came forward describing a similar incident after she purchased a orange suede Céline bag. Now, the Black community is reacting. The scene feels all too familiar. Something racist happens, the outrage builds, and then someone calls for an organized response. But in the case of Trayon I found myself wondering more about Black consumption rather than questioning the racist behavior I would expect from a upscale Manhattan store.

I cannot count the number of times I spent with my father throughout my childhood in high end retail stores. As the son of a man who adores nice clothing, he often visited tailors to have his clothing custom made. We did not have much money, but to this day my father likes to treat himself when he can. Despite frequenting these stores, he always made it very clear to me that the fashion world was a racist world just the same. That was confirmed to me over time by things like Champs Elysées’s John Guerlain describing howhe works “like a nigger,” the constant battle Black models face, and the slurred words of John Galliano. Now, I keep asking myself if Black America should try to reform fashion or separate ourselves from this trend of expensive consumption?

When rapper Kanye West released his latest album “Yeezus”, it resonated with many for having the strong political overtones many felt the Chicago emcee was straying away from. His debut single for the album “New Slaves” took shots at racism in the fashion industry. His performance on Saturday Night live had a backdrop of clothing tags as he lamented in his lyrics “You see it’s broke nigga racism/ That’s that “Don’t touch anything in the store”/ And it’s rich nigga racism/ That’s that “Come in, please buy more.” But one of the wealthiest women in the world being turned away multiple times now has confirmed something for me, regardless of wealth bigots don’t want Blacks in their high end stores. So it escaped me when I watched West complain about the difficulty of being able to break into the fashion world as a Black man. I only wondered  why he is trying to enter that world at all. An industry rampant with racism, exploitation, and sexism seems like something reasonable to steer clear of.

Talking to friends about the matter, I began to think critically about Black consumption. One of my friends expressed his views to me on the situation telling me that racists were probably profiting from the majority of our clothing purchases unless we were buying from Black designers. And while factories continually collapse on the workers overseas working for retailers, I think saying they don’t care about people of color is an understatement. In my eyes an effective boycott looks like Black people boycotting the idea we should continually support or forgive these companies.

We should be having a conversation about what aspects of the fashion industry are reformable and where our priorities lie. In an age where scarce resources and overconsumption are threatening the existence of earth itself, that’s the least we can do. We should certainly hope that the outrage does not burn out misdirected. One of my favorite quotes that Harry Belafonte was told by Martin Luther King Jr before he died was “I wonder if we are not in fact integrating into a burning house?” If Dr. King’s question was emblematic, it might be time to quit looking for a place at table and start wondering about building a house of our own.

Follow William on Twitter @Williamcander.

This piece originally appeared on Youngist

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