Black Friday and American-style Materialism

I’m appalled at how Black Friday has evolved in recent years. Truly appalled.

From an economic perspective, I understand why stores market the way they do. Corporate number-crunchers in fancy suits worry about how stores will perform between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, when retailers attempt to make up for lackluster sales throughout the rest of the year.

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I listen to Marketplace on NPR enough to know that retail numbers are considered to be very important for our economy. Whether or not that’s how our economy should be measured, the reality is that this is the way we do things here in the US.

Our grandparents rationed. We shop.

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So it’s only natural that Black Friday has become what it is. A chaotic day in which hoards of people rush to the stores and literally fight over who can get out alive with the cheapest “Made in some country on the other side of the world where factory workers get paid less than a dollar a day and might even get trapped inside during a fire and die” merchandise.

‘Tis the season for fist punches and gun shots. Deck the hall…or deck your fellow shopper.

Walmart is ground zero for the War on (for?) Christmas. Or, at least, it looks like a battleground. Yes, other stores are complicit, but none seem to exploit violent shoppers as some sort of bargain-branding strategy.

People of Walmart indeed.

Wait…Friday isn’t soon enough. Now Thanksgiving evening is the new trend, because the pre-Christmas shopping season can’t get here soon enough. Yes, we’ve become accustomed to seeing Christmas decorations on display in July, but it’s not truly the season of buying until pre-post-Thanksgiving sales are upon us.

So this is Christmas. I hope you have fun.

As for the brave employees who leave their families on a national holiday to work these sales? Most of them are getting paid next to nothing for enduring the mayhem. How else can Walmart make a profit while selling electronic tablets for $29? Certainly not by cutting executive pay, even when the company’s performance is less than stellar.

“You shop at Walmart.”

That’s what kids said to each other when I was young. It was the worst insult you could possibly say. The only comeback I could think of at the time was, “How would you know? Did you see me there?” This was before the 24-hour super-duper-centers and Black Friday madness. Aah…to be young and picked on again…

We’re living in a material world

As I’ve been reflecting on what Black Friday has become, a particular childhood memory has come to mind. We didn’t have much money when I was growing up. Out of sheer budgetary desperation, mom considered putting my sister and me on the school free lunch program at one point, but I told her that I would rather starve than be subjected to such a horror. The reason was simple: everyone knew who was on free lunch, and given that I was already a bit “different” from my classmates, I just knew that I would be ridiculed for it…because we all know (or thought we knew) that kids are directly responsible for whether or not their parents can earn enough money (yet kids pick up on what they hear their parents say, which contributes to bullying and mockery).

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Because of my stubborn willfulness, my mother struggled to buy food for us. Sometimes this meant going without electricity for a couple of days, or walking around in bathing suits in the summer when the air conditioner was out for an extended period of time. But kids are cruel, and I didn’t know how much more cruelty I could handle.

If your doll’s butt doesn’t have a factory-stamped autograph on it, it’s not good enough for the playground.

As if the lunch situation wasn’t bad enough, I also had to deal with the fact that we couldn’t afford an “authentic” Cabbage Patch Kid. 5th grade. Back when 5th grade wasn’t the start of puberty for half the kids. My classmates brought their expensive dolls to school, and I was so happy when Mom bought me a lovely handmade Cabbage Patch knockoff. Mom couldn’t afford the real deal, but this one was actually nicer with its hand-stitching and one-of-a-kind clothes.

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I excitedly took my faux-CPK to school, feeling that I would “fit in” that day, only to discover that my doll was yet another source for me to feel inferior. You see, it didn’t have the official Xavier Roberts stamp on its tush, which meant that I definitely should not bring it back to school. I went home in tears, angry at my mother for not being able to afford the more expensive foreign-factory-made version, and I couldn’t even look at the doll for a month. I still have it, as it’s been something of a symbol of my childhood, keeping me in check whenever I start to feel pulled toward a more materialistic bent. Mom didn’t place a high value on expensive things, and now that I’m old enough to have a better perspective, I’m so thankful for that.

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“I live to shop.”

That phrase was plastered all over t-shirts, coffee mugs, and whatever other cheap merchandise was popular during the materialistic ’80s. And it’s still with us to a certain extent. There have been times when I’ve felt really judgmental toward those who become absorbed with the stuff of the world, but I have been trying not to be so judgmental about it. I could easily slip into an anti-consumer elitist mentality, looking down on those who rush to the big box stores and malls on Black Friday.

Change begins with me.

The thing is, though, that smugness, superiority, and disdain are not compassionate. I’m saddened by what this time of the year has become. I grieve when I read about the fights and the gunshots in retail stores. But I might also “get it,” just a little bit. I’m thankful that my mother taught me not to place so much value on objects, but I also remember what it was like to want to be included. “Stuff” is one of the ways we bond as humans. For better or worse, it’s a big part of our world. Only through intention can we change course. We can decide to live life differently, modeling to children that the stuff we accumulate is not what defines us. Perhaps then the media won’t be consumed by reporting on the latest toy, gadget, or fashion trend…and the people who are willing to physically assault each other in order to consume it.

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3 thoughts on “Black Friday and American-style Materialism

  1. Carissa says:

    I’m struggling with all these issues now, from a mother’s perspective, so it is so helpful to read how it has affected you as a child and now as an adult. I don’t want my kids to be teased and thankfully the programs have changed so that it isn’t as obvious who is getting free lunches, but as my daughter gets older, I do worry about whether if the whole ‘name-brand’ peer pressure will be directed at her and how she’ll handle it. She’s pretty level-headed and isn’t very materialistic, but she’s still young and middle school is fast approaching. It’s such a fine line to walk to instill both pride in who you are and the comfort of fitting in enough to pass under the gaze of bullies. Having spent all of middle school and part of high school bullied, I try hard to help my kids with strategies on how to handle it and, equally, how not to be one.

    Thank you for your thoughts on this! And I completely agree with the whole Thanksgiving shopping craze. It’s madness.

    • cynthiabeard says:

      It’s so difficult! I look back and wish that I hadn’t been so difficult and stubborn about our situation, but then I remind myself that I was experiencing the world through the limited perspective of a child. Mom would explain to me that the main reason my classmates had “nicer” things was because their parents were using credit cards, whereas she couldn’t qualify for one (which was actually a blessing). I didn’t understand the concept of credit/debt.

      The good news is that there’s less emphasis today on name brands, at least with clothing. That was the biggest challenge I faced in middle school (well, plus I was “chubby” by the standards back then). Maybe at some point I’ll write a blog specifically about late 1980s fashion. Ironically, I now shop a lot at thrift stores, and I love finding cute “recycled” clothes for under $5. I have worked with a lot of so-called “at-risk” kids over the years, and I find that they are less obsessed with brand-names than our generation was. Thrift stores are also trendy now, which also helps.

      I think that what helped me the most during that awkward phase was that I could go home to a safe space with a mother who loved and accepted me unconditionally. Not all children have a stable home environment, which is why I have committed so much time to engaging with them. And I’m not saying that to blame or shame their parents–when life is rough, sometimes there are severe limits to what they can give of themselves.

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