Why are Black people seen as a threat to luxury?
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
Last Tuesday, I decided to check out the dinner and a movie night hosted at Cabana Pool Bar.
It’s by far one of the cities most beautiful and luxurious venues – namely because of its waterfront view. Not only do you get a stunning look at Lake Ontario but you also have the picturesque backdrop of the city.
I visited their Instagram page to ensure health and safety protocols were being enforced. But then something caught my eye. So I scrolled. And scrolled. And I scrolled some more. I scrolled through 150 posts and here’s what I found.
Out of 150 images and videos, only 7 of them had visibly Black people in them. Of the 7, the Black subject in the image or video was a celebrity in 6 of them. These posts were all promotional and featured either Snoop Dogg, Tyga and Fetty Wap. The seventh photo was posted in mid-July and showed three Black guests dining.
That means that in over a year, there was not one photo of a visibly Black person that was not a celebrity posted to the account.
Since Blackout Tuesday, I’ve been interested to see how companies address diversity and representation. Considering Cabana Pool Bar is home to the annually sold out Soca or Die on Caribana Thursday and the extremely popular Carnival Rehab on Caribana Monday – I expected to see more people that looked like me on their social media. But I didn’t.
Last year on Caribana weekend, several DJs and event attendees spoke out, discussing personal experiences they’ve had at restaurants such as Cactus Club, The Warehouse on Queen Street, King Taps and Cabana Pool Bar. Many of the city’s venues cancelled DJs on Caribana weekend, some citing not wanting to attract the “Caribana crowd”.
It was also revealed by industry insiders that managers had specific language for when there were too many Black people in the establishment. They would say things like “It’s getting dark in here,” to their security staffers who would then deny access to Black guests waiting to get in.
When I got to Cabana Tuesday night, the diversity of the staff struck me. It was not at all reflective of their Instagram page.
Sitting there at the dinner table, I realized the pattern of brands showing reluctance to showcase Black people on both sides was disheartening. Whether it was a Black staff member doing their job or a Black customer enjoying or consuming their product – it’s just something you don’t see often enough. I also thought about the fact that Black influencers are paid significantly less than white influencers over concerns they will not be as lucrative or that they’ll attract the “wrong” consumer.
But most of all, I thought about the imagined threat that Black consumption of a brand poses to the the idea of "luxury"..
A few years ago, I had taken some stupid online test to find out which name brand I was. I can’t remember all the brands but Michael Kors, Dolce & Gabbana, Yves St-Laurent and a few others were listed.
It turned out I was Michael Kors. I was thrilled – I had a few of his watches, I knew they cost a pretty penny. And for your friendly neighbourhood frugalista, it was a lot. But my glee turned to dismay when I read the explanation. It essentially likened me to something that was hot and in high demand at first, but lost its lustre as more people gained access to it. The quiz had concluded that I was a basic bitch. Lovely.
That answer illustrates a well-known thing in the world of luxury brands, which is that an item is only luxurious based on it’s exclusivity. In most cases, this means the more distance between the brand and your everyday person, the more luxurious it is. A luxury brand’s worst nightmare would be creating a product and a subsequent lifestyle surrounding that product that in time becomes easily accessible or affordable – resulting in the loss of “luxury” status.
When you think about the fact that luxury brands are also referred to as being high-end, that means away from the bottom of the totem pole. And we may not have a caste system that looks as rigid as India’s, for example, but when it comes to race and socioeconomics, it's easy to figure out who sits where.
Michael Kors may have opened a store in Scarborough Town Centre a few years ago, but you’re a lot less likely to see brands under LVMH ownership setting up camp there. Why? Because the demographics do not justify the establishment of exquisite brands in that suburb. But if you head to Yorkdale or Yorkville, they’ll be there.
A recent study by Nielsen explored the relationship between luxury brands and Black consumers. The study found that Black people are more than 20% likely to pay more for a product that is in line with their self-image.
It found that browsing in-store is an integral part of the Black shopping experience. Black shoppers are also more likely to feel connected to sales associates and 34% more likely to be influenced by store staff while shopping.
The study found that more than half of Black Americans are 34 years old or younger, making social media an essential way to reach clientele. The reaches of Facebook and Instagram are 66 and 45 per cent of the total Black population, respectively.
So if we know that products that reflect, in some way, the Black image are likely to be purchased by Black people, why have makeup companies only recently put an emphasis on making more shades available? Why is nude, still, for the most part, reflective of whiteness?
If we know that the key to earning Black dollars is featuring a more inclusive social media feed and posts – why aren’t companies more thoughtful when maintaining their accounts?
But by far, the most interesting finding from this study was that as Black spending power increased, money spent on advertising to Black communities decreased.
They want our money – they don’t want us. Because of the imagined threat that Blackness poses to luxury.
And this is why Black influencers are paid less. This is why Black people on a company's social media feed is often a rarity. Because the display of Black people engaging with a brand is seen as an endangerment to the brand's luxury.
When we talk about culture vultures, we talk about people who find themselves in costume year after year on this specific weekend with no genetic link to the Caribbean, no understanding, education or appreciation for the symbolism and historical significance of what’s taking place. But these aren’t the only culture vultures that exist.
A culture vulture is any brand, restaurant, company or product that wants us for our money, our expertise, our proximity to and representation of what’s “cool”, what’s “hot” and what’s “urban”. It’s the idea that we’re only good for our dollar, even in instances where it’s not believed we have money in the first place. It’s the idea that we’re good for our culture, but the same people that say they’re “down with the Blacks!” flee the city every year on this specific weekend because Black people congregating is synonymous with violence, guns and shooting.
I had tweeted about this topic a few days ago and it was shared across social media. An Indo-Guyanese girl I went to high school with had said that writing this piece was pointless if I was going to continue to go to these venues.
I made the decision to exercise my newly acquired skill of disengaging. But luckily, another commenter jumped in and said “You can critique a system and still participate in it, that’s how [Black people are] experiencing life. No one enjoys the underrepresentation…but unfortunately we have to continue to live within the same system that hurts us.”
I’ve had this blog for almost ten years now. I’ve written about fluffy subjects, serious subjects and personal subjects. But I’m realizing that the posts that are the most widely-read and the most widely-received are the ones that explore relationships to and with the Black community, both internally and externally.
But the argument that my old high school friend made – that the work that we do, whether through writing, reading, protesting silently or loudly, is all null and void if we do the simple, mundane task of showing up somewhere despite having critiques – that’s problematic.
Because Black people have to choose, every single day, whether to let their race inform what they do, how they spend their time, where they spend their money and what that might take away from their everyday fight against oppression.
According to her argument, if I work at a place where I feel there is not enough representation, I should quit, rather than speak up and help my company establish change.
If I go to a restaurant and notice no Black servers, I should leave, rather than stay and enjoy my meal and slip a note to management suggesting more consideration for racialized applicants.
If I go to a party to enjoy myself and my culture and support my community, I should stop attending because I have an observation about how the venue is marketed.
It’s exhausting, not only to have to make these choices. But to be policed by members outside of the community who expect that we have it in us to fight this fight every single second of every single day. And who tell us that the validity of all of the work that we do lies in whether or not we continue to participate in a system that is so ever-present, it’s nearly impossible to escape.
Whether you decide to show up to these places is entirely up to you. Very often after my disappointing deep dives into Instagram pages, I still end up at the venue and envision the change I'd like to see. Sometimes I write about it either here or in a letter to management. Sometimes I think about it. Other times I am too tired to do anything. And so I just sit in the systems of oppression and underrepresentation all around me.
I'm learning not to feel guilty over every single decision I make, particularly after writer and all around superwoman Kathleen Newman-Bremang offered her support for "the ones who are understandably staying quiet out of self-preservation" - the ones who "need to know that that's okay too."
You do not have to protest every single day. You can take a break. You can decide what works for you, what feels right and what doesn’t.
That is a luxury. And you deserve that. Point blank period.