Race, Social Class and Personal Brands

Out for a walk just now, I had an unremarkable experience.

I crossed paths with an African-American of perhaps 30, well dressed and groomed, wearing horn-rimmed glasses not unlike my own. Had we spoken, I would guess that his diction and intonation, and quite possibly his accent, would also have been similar to mine; his appearance and manner strongly suggested that we were of the same social class.

We smiled silent greetings and kept on our merry ways.

Let’s think about brands for a minute or two, before coming back to race and social class.

McDonalds and Coca-Cola have built enormous businesses on the comfort that consumers take from knowing exactly what they’ll get when they purchase burgers or sodas. Their brands stand for perfect consistency in inexpensive, everyday products – so they free their customers’ minds from having to deal with the unexpected. The market for predictable convenience is enormous.

The market for brands that convey a sense of excellence is enormous, too: an identical education to one at Harvard without the prestigious sheepskin would have little to no market value; and even if you invested in a Chevy to the point where it drove better than a Porsche, it wouldn’t have anything like the same resale value.

In some cases, the signals sent by brand names outweigh the object’s nominal function: a battery-driven Timex almost certainly keeps better time than a hand-made Patek Philippe that costs a thousand times as much, but keeping perfect time isn’t really the point of a luxury watch, is it? Sending signals to others is.

We send and receive such signals all the time – sometimes consciously, sometimes not. Even our postures and gaits send signals; my physical trainer used to do imitations of the differing walks of “a girl in high heels”, “a dancer”, “a lawyer” etc.; such imitations were funny because the caricatures were instantly recognizable.

We think in terms of familiar categories; doing so is vastly easier than treating each possibility as infinite, whether we’re talking about food, education, consumer durables or even people.

Ah, you might say, but people are unique in ways that consumer products can never be. True, but we define ourselves and each other largely in terms of overlapping groups: age, gender, family, educational credentials, profession, economic status, personal style, religion, political orientation, ethnicity, nationality; the list is long. In a sense, it’s the combination and weighting of these group affiliations that defines each of us, at least in the eyes of others – these are our personal brands.

Unlike standardized consumer products, each of us is decidedly more (or less!) than is implied by our personal brands, though. Our looks, clothing, language, manners, etc. might signal our particular subcultures but our values are not visible to the naked eye – we may choose to behave differently than others expect based on how they have sized up our social class, particular sub-culture and presumed behavioral norms. The nice-looking young man I passed on my walk might have been an axe-murderer, and the kid who dresses and carries himself like a street thug might be habitually kind to strangers, but without better data, that’s not how you bet.

Our President and Attorney General focus their attentions incessantly on race. Thin-skinned in the extreme, they seem to sense racism behind every personal slight and most policy disagreements, and disparage their opponents’ motivations accordingly. They will leave behind a nation – and races – more badly divided, and less hopeful, than they found them.

Their thinking is deeply flawed: whether we’re passing each other on the street, socializing, doing business or starting families, what matters most to us about others? How they behave, not how they look; how they look is at best a bundle of uncertain signals about how they may interact with us. We send signals to others about ourselves, and we try to read the clues that others give us about themselves. Skin color is one of the aspects of our appearance over which we have no control and which, therefore, signals nothing (consciously or otherwise) about our cultural norms or personal values – about behavior.

I’m guessing that the Ferguson police would have been habitually polite to the young man whose path I crossed this afternoon. And that even the President’s fiercest critics would be pleased if their children were friends with the Obama’s children.

For all but a few, the political and social conflicts we see are not about race: they’re about money, social class and patterns of behavior.

– M.H. Johnston 4/4/15

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