HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Designer Vibes only: Inside the policing of black spending
If I told you how much I have spent on sneakers this year, I’m pretty sure you would choke on your coffee, or lunch or granola or pap – because you’re such a humble wealthy person - or whatever it is you’re eating whilst reading this.
If I told you how much I love nice things and even when completely unnecessary, I save and save to purchase them because they’re beautiful and cool and well, frankly, do the job better, you would probably call me an obsessive capitalist with materialism as the fibre of my moral being.
Like the Smeg blender I bought to replace my old one that broke. Let me tell you about the old one first. It cost about R150. I bought it when I was living off canned soup and two-minute noodles. I needed one to make smoothies. And this year, when it was as broke and broken as I once was, I thought: “You know what, if I put away a certain amount of money for a certain amount of time, I can get the black Smeg blender to make smoothies with in my matt black kitchen that has matt black counter tops imported from Europe”.
And honestly, I have zero guilt and zero regrets. It doesn’t make the smoothie taste better, but my god, does it look fantastic and I am so proud that I work hard, earn money and can afford to buy beautiful things all by myself.
Because you know what? I didn’t have nice things for a long time. My family didn’t have them for a long time. My dad, in his childhood, during the fashionista phase of James Dean and his white T-shirt and Levi’s jeans, spent two years saving R5.00 to buy a pair of those same denims, and then, that money was stolen. Do you know what jeans I wear now, Levi’s. Only Levi’s. And do you know why? Because we couldn’t, and now we can, and I am damn proud of that.
It is hard to deny myself things of beauty. Just the other day I visited my go-to tennis store in Woodstock to have my racket restrung. I play with a Wilson Blade 98 V 7. This is not a cheap racket. I could have bought an off-rack Dunlop for less than a third of the price from Game or something, but I didn’t. I wanted the racket Serena plays with and I have had surgery on both wrist and shoulder so really, physiologically speaking, my choice is the right choice.
But while waiting for said racket to be re-gripped after it was being restrung, I had a look at the new releases that hung on the wall. And there it stood like piece of art. The Wilson Blade 98 V8 in a stunning hue-shifting colour-way of bronze, black and green. It took everything in me not to pull my wallet out and shift some money around. But I bowed my head in discipline and walked away.
The owner of the store, recognising my drool and stare said, “It’s a beautiful racket, isn’t it? But, really, other than the detailing, it’s not that much different than yours.”
“I am using everything in me to deny myself this wonder,” I said. “I know,” he replied.
It’s hard. I have two rackets hanging on my wall, I don’t need both, but you know what, why not surround yourself with beautiful things and when I wake up in the morning, that’s the first thing I see.
The owner of the store is white. I have to mention this because do you know what the difference is between his brand obsession and expensive spending habits are and mine? His isn’t being constantly policed and questioned.
Just recently Tahera Mather, an associate of Zweli Mkhize and the whole Digital Vibes debacle, was called out for splurging over R90,000 on Gucci merchandise, among other things, like house renovations, traveling and other things that the non-black majority have been enjoying for centuries. Lest I remind you that while empires were built on looting and stealing and hopping from country to country to claim their wealth and spend it however those colonisers saw fit, the only travel people of the world’s majority (people of colour) did was on boats in chains, being dragged away from their families and catching all kinds of dreadful European diseases.
Let me set the record straight here and blatantly make this point: I am not condoning stealing from the poor to feed the rich. I am not in support of funds being funnelled elsewhere under false pretences and using said funds for personal gain. What I am against is that the narrative seems to be that this is some sort of new trend. What I am against is that in South Africa, black leadership and politicians and whoever else fund their “obsessions” for nice things by taking advantage of their power, and that this is constantly pointed out as though it is a racial transgression that has to be poked, prodded and investigated, because how dare they? And I agree, how dare they?
But my god, if someone put R30 million into my account, I cannot guarantee that I would not follow the trend of white trendsetters and use it to buy the bloody Kohinoor Diamond. At least I would have paid for it instead of just stolen it.
There seems to be an ongoing obsession among people of the world’s minority with trying to figure out why people of the world’s majority are so snobby when it comes to brands, or so fascinated by it… so committed and driven by it and about how they have their priorities all wrong. “Why are you wearing nice sneakers when you’re living off jam and bread, if that?”.
White people are more responsible with their money; they would never fork out a kidney for a Versace bag just to be flashy. They’re just not materialistic like that. They’re more socially conscious and only spend their money on things they need. Excuse me? Where, sir and madam and them and they, do you think this brand ambition comes from? Black-owned super-brands? Black-owned media with advertising that bleed items of luxury? Black-owned time-piece companies in Switzerland?
You created the capitalism monster, we just have to live in it. And do you know what? You’ve had the best of it for a very, very long time, at the expense of many, many people. So yeah, it’s easy to sit back and judge and be more “principled” and less influenced, but if you think the people of the world’s majority are ‘performing wealth’ and that needs to be policed, well, this is what I think, you are ‘performing humility’. You live in a nice house of your choosing, right? You subjectively spend your money on what you want to, right? I can guarantee you that Lulu-Lemon tights that cost three times the amount of a pair of Nike gym shoes is not being purchased by a black woman, but a white one who on more formal days walks around like Louis Vuitton literally vomited all over her.
Here’s an educated and enlightening take: If you encounter a person of the world’s majority on the street, you know nothing about them other than the racial stereotypes you have absorbed over the years. The bias. The judgement etc. etc. You will ascribe to me what you think you know of me and my race on average, without knowing anything about me at all.
Years and years of facing this judgement and trying to avoid it, has taught me that in order for you to not see me as a low-income person, a beggar, or a thief, I have to dislodge your belief. One of the easiest ways to do that is to be attentive to the things I buy because these are things you can actually see. This is called conspicuous consumption. This reasoning, this argument, has not been sucked out of my thumb, it is an argument that has been around and studied and researched for more than one hundred years. This is about economics, but it is also about psychology.
(If you need to know more about, then I seriously urge you to read the research by Professor Kerwin Charles, who co-authored a study about conspicuous consumption in the black and Hispanic communities. Charles teaches at the University of Chicago and is also a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.)
The assumption that we are less than means that we have more of an incentive to prove that we aren’t, and that we are deserving and that we too have nice things and if I have to buy three perfumes instead of one because I am being hounded in a store by a white service provider who needs a blood sample and my bank statement to prove that I belong there, then I goddam will do it.
But really, above all else, I adore beautiful things and I deserve them, as do we all. And were my bank account more well-endowed I cannot promise that I will choose to eat caviar everyday over purchasing a Rolex.
You don’t have to take a deep dive into where the wine farm comes from, or how the madam in Constantia spends millions at Biggie Best, or whatever, even if she looks like hobo on the street because you’re not making a century’s worth of judgement calls on her based on what you have been taught to ascribe to white ladies, for example. She’s white, right? She deserves it. She’s wealthy. She’s earned her money the “hard way”. She’s completely trustworthy. She doesn’t need a massive investigation. And more than that, she has nothing to prove to you conspicuously.
Should you have investigated her spending and policed her wealth? Should you do it with the 1% all around you, seen every day who wear luxury brands and drive luxury cars and live on luxury pieces of land and spend their summers in Porto Fino, but are not black? Yes. For ages and ages, yes.
But shoulda, coulda, Prada, I guess.
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.