Logos: Buying Self-Esteem and Hiding Shame
I do not own the copyright/license of the visual media included below. I did not include these visuals solely for personal gain, but as an educational demonstration directly from my classroom.
What do logos have to do with minstrel shows?
I teach Composition II by case studies. Each semester, I choose another case study: American-style capitalism, gender constructions, marriage in the twenty-first century, garbage and pollution, gun control, sleep deprivation, the spreading of rumors, and even the evolution of advertisement in America. I have even done a case study on “Cinderella.” I teach by case study, not just because of the textbook, but I have a second bachelor’s in psychology, and I have never been able to let it go. One of these days, I plan to take more classes or even get a Master’s in positive or industrial-organization psychology.
This semester, I am teaching a unit on advertisements in America. This is the second time that I have taught this unit. Each semester, I ask my students a question: are logos advertisement or fashion choices? Without a doubt, most of my poorest students choose fashion preference. Most of the students from upper-middle class families choose advertisement. While I see most of my students from impoverished neighborhoods decked out in the latest trending logo, most of the upper-middle class and wealthier students wear none at all.
When I reveal the answer, most of the poor students that I teach are shocked. Logos are advertisements. The word, “Kodak” does not mean anything, and neither does “Haagen-dasz.” They just sound fancy. And what do our labels mean? Why are some of them conspicuously placed? Better yet, why are we driven to buy them?
In my mother’s house, she had a saying, “If you got to save your income tax refund to buy a pocketbook, you can’t afford it. What’s the use of having a purse when you ain’t got a dime to put it. You better get that purse out Penney’s and keep you some money.” While my students laugh at this, many of them see the wisdom in this and stop buying labels that they cannot afford.
Look, I do not have a problem with labels. If you like it and CAN AFFORD IT, I say, buy it. But far too often, I see my peers and students buy into and buy logos as instant self-esteem boosters. When I brokered this idea to the class, they still did not believe me. So, I had them read Lacy Johnson’s “White Trash Primer.” We stopped when the essay said that she bought some name brand jeans to hide how poor she was.
Then another question arose: why is poverty shameful in America? What do poor people have to be ashamed of? Next, I visit Neiman-Marcus on the overhead projector. More specifically, I have the students look at the Shoes page. While they more than likely know Christian Louboutin from RAP songs, where the shoes are referred to as “red bottoms,” they do not know any of the other, very expensive, designers. I have them go through all of the shoes that I desire. They “oooh” and “ahhhh” and all of the appropriate moments. Then I ask them, “What is missing from these shoes?” They respond in kind: “Logos.”
Then I ask, do rich people have more self-esteem than average people? If we think the answer is “yes,” we should all ask poor Richard Cory. As “people of the pavement,” we break our necks trying to look like Richard Cory. Then we learn that he ain’t even happy. And while some designer products are truly cute, do we ever notice that jeans and t-shirts that cost $500 look exactly the same on a photo as the jeans and t-shirt outfit that costs $50. And while we willingly become walking billboards for this designer or that one, I wonder when will we learn that neither self-esteem nor happiness can be purchased from the store?
Many things that we think are race issues are class issues, too. In fact, I tell the students that race-based slavery was adopted because class-based indentured servitude didn’t quite work so well in a country as large as America. Bacon’s Rebellion is a revelation to the students! They had no idea that there was no such thing as a “slave for life” during early colonial America. Early colonial America was populated by poor whites, but governed by rich land-owners. And the laws were not constructed in the colonies for equity.
And while people criticize African Americans for being uber-consumers, no one stops to consider what is driving the behavior. Plain and simple: it is poverty shaming. Who is always dead last in completing college degrees? Who is always first in deadly, sometimes avoidable diseases? Who is listed as having the highest incarceration rates? Who generally lives in the poorest, yet increasingly expensive housing? Who has the least amount of access to fresh fruits and vegetables? Who is being constantly belittled for eating the cheapest meat in the store, chicken? Who is always first in teen pregnancy? Who is the first to be shot by the police WITHOUT due process? Who, if they have any money at all, is being accused of dealing drugs? Who is a suspect without reasonable suspicion? Who is the face of Reagan’s welfare queen? Yeah, in all things related to poverty, the face is that of an African American in this country.
In fact, the poverty-shaming of Black folk began a long time ago with minstrel shows.
It seems that Black folk have been trying to overcome the raggedy, unkempt, slow speech, subservient, and incompetent images of themselves since Reconstruction. Ex-slave speech is associated with unintelligence. African lips and eyes are also equated with stupidity and ugliness. And even when African Americans attempted to uplift themselves with college education and “proper manners,” another caricature was made: Zip Coon.
Here is Zip Coon in all his refinery and imitation of white mannerisms — except he’s Black and his ostentatious manner messes up even his parroting.
Sometimes, I look at African Americans and our frenetic spending — as we continue to try to shirk off the plantation and the projects— and I wonder why hadn’t we asked a question: isn’t it rather insane and absurd that some men would make others slaves and then ridicule them for it? Isn’t it rather silly that grown men would blacken their faces, wear ridiculous clothes, and make fun of who they considered children? As a mother, I wish I would catch a grown mickyficky making fun of my son!
And these questions, that I carry around with me mentally, keep me out of the stores and my bank account out of drought. While Kardi B and others before her continue to churn out relatively descent sounding RAP songs that describe labels, I’d rather not be a walking billboard. I’m not responsible for American poverty or American racism, and none of us can buy our way into self-esteem or away from white supremacy and classism.
As always, if you like this article, press the hands and clap back. Or, I’ll see you in class. In the meantime, please visit Daniel Pope’s VERY ACCESSIBLE website that explores the psychology and history behind advertisements.