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What The Jay-Z/Barneys Scandal Says About Race in America

Jay ZI often contemplate the life lessons that I will pass along to my future children. Things like how precious naps are and that eating gummy bears for breakfast, lunch and dinner will make you feel terrible. Lately I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to explain race and terrible human behavior to my future progeny. Especially in the wake of people using skin color as an accessory and others thinking that judging people based on the color of their skin is still in vogue. How will I teach my children to react? Or, better yet, not to react. How will I teach them to walk away? It seems that every time I start to think that we might be moving forward as a country there comes a line of horrible people to bring me back to reality. Which brings me to this latest event between rapper/mogul/Beyonce’s better half Jay-Z and luxury department store Barneys.

The quick version is that Barneys is accused of racially profiling two African Americans (in two separate incidents) after each customer made a purchase. This was based on suspicions that each customer was unable to afford such pricey purchases (in one case a belt and in the other a handbag). Both customers were held by police until they could produce proof that the form of payment used wasn’t fraudulent. Now each customer is suing Barneys and the NYPD for discrimination. What does this have to do with Jay-Z? Jay is working on a holiday collaboration with Barneys and naturally many think that he should end his partnership because Barneys racially profiles Jay’s key demographic. Since the incidents made news at the end of October, Jay-Z has put out two statements. One on October 25th:

“I move and speak based on facts and not emotion. I haven’t made any comments because I am waiting on facts and the outcome of a meeting between community leaders and Barneys. Why am I being demonized, denounced and thrown on the cover of a newspaper for not speaking immediately? The negligent, erroneous reports and attacks on my character, intentions, and the spirit of this collaboration have forced me into a statement I didn’t want to make without the full facts.”

And a second on November 15th:

“While I await the findings of the Attorney General’s Office, I have agreed to move forward with the launch of BNY SCC collection under the condition that I have a leadership role and seat on a council specifically convened to deal with the issue of racial profiling. I am in a unique position to use my voice to affect change to this disturbing issue. The easy position would have been to walk away and leave policy making to others hoping that someone addresses the problem. I will not leave the outcome to others. I will take this into my own hands with full power to recommend, review and revise policies and guidelines moving forward. I am choosing to take this head on.”

Jay-Z has made it clear that despite calls for him to get away from Barneys as quickly as possible he’s going to continue with his commitment and work with the store to change their policies. And while people continue to be angry and berate him for doing so, I am saying that I agree with him. He shouldn’t drop out.

Why?

Because there comes a point in every black child’s life when your parents sit you down and let you know that racism is a fact of life. My father, a man from Birmingham, Alabama, was quick to let my brothers and I know that there are horrible people in this world and that it’s something that I would have to spend the rest of my life dealing with. Dealing with other people’s prejudices becomes second nature. It’s like breathing. I’ve dealt with overt and tacit racism and then I go about my day. Now with social media I can point out what is and isn’t OK when discussing people of other races and cultures. While you might think that pointing it out is wrong it would probably behoove you to just sit back and listen because some semblance of understanding and empathy would go a long way in certain situations. There have been a number of times when I could only respond with silence due to shock or deep breaths instead of throwing up my middle finger.  As an adult I make every attempt to shrug off anything directed at me because I have to. I have bills to pay and I don’t want to be in jail or unemployed.

The options that I have — that we all have when faced with adversity — are to know when to react and when to just walk away. Jay-Z is facing this option right now: he can continue with his collaboration knowing full well what he’s dealing with but remaining committed to assisting Barneys in how they deal with racial profiling or he can stage a boycott and end things now. While he has said that he isn’t doing this for money (which I believe because brother doesn’t really need the money and he has now committed 100% of the proceeds to the Shawn Carter Foundation) he wants to continue because he’s made the commitment. Here’s another lesson for my future children: sometimes life is about making concessions and summoning our deepest strength to roll through the crappiest of situations because of jobs/money/contracts/and those evil responsibilities.

Jay-Z is doing what he believes is right in this situation and he is doing so as a black man and as a brand. If only that with each time someone has made an egregious wrong it were possible to pack up and go home. None of us would get anywhere with that attitude. Trust me. I’ve tried. Sometimes the only way to change things is to slog through and hope that you make a difference in just one person’s mind. It sucks. I know but here’s another lesson for my future children: life isn’t fair.

photo credit: Mikamote

Keep the conversation going with Heather Barmore at Poliogue: The Art of Political Dialogue, Twitter and Facebook.

Article Posted 3 years Ago

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