For the second year in a row, my blog, “The Martyr of Black Friday,” is getting lots of attention. In fact, as of today, it officially becomes the third most-read blog I’ve ever written. I’m grateful that so many are resonating with the message that something must “give” regarding our consumerist society and the bastardization of Christmas.
However, this year, I’ve also gotten some “critique of my critique.” So, I’d like to address some of that here, by answering this question:
Is It Classist or Pharisaical to Oppose Black Friday?
My bottom line: No.
First off, before all this, some clarification: I am not anti-capitalist, anti-free market, anti-retail, etc, etc etc. Perhaps some who wish us to boycott Black Friday are. Not me. I’m all for making money, and all for the way our system works, in theory. Now, on the question…
The gist of the “classist” critique is that Black Friday basically allows working people the chance to buy consumer goods they might not often be able to. Studies apparently show that people from the upper-classes are far more critical of Black Friday than people from working class. (I have not seen these studies, but this was suggested to me today…)
The gist of the “pharisaical” critique is that “Buy Nothing Day” (BND), the alternative to “Black Friday,” is only promoted by those who have the resources to avoid shopping today. Only the sufficiently wealthy can afford to support “BND,” and they do so to make themselves feel self-righteously better than those who shop today. (Something like: “Lord, I thank thee that I am not like all those other blind consumers…”)
The place I have seen this critique most eloquently explained is in a blog by Eugene Cho, written a couple of years ago, but reposted yesterday.
The punchline of his thoughtful blog is this:
“Black Friday shopping means different things for different folks. For many of us, it’s a game, a sport and an event we mark but for others, it’s a matter of necessity.”
He says his view of Black Friday changed when he listened to African-American friends who told him this:
“Buy Nothing Day is basically a thing of and for White folks and comfy Middle Class folks like you, Eugene, who have had the privilege of consumption their whole life. And now, they can afford to start things like Buy Nothing Day…Stuff like this sickens me because it has such little idea about the plight of minorities and low income folks that are trying to survive.”
Cho said he realized that, for his friend, and his friend’s extended family, Black Friday has become economic necessity:
“The thing that got to me was the story he shared about some of his family and friends who simply NEED to make many of their major purchases on that day. Specifically, he shared about his uncle and aunt from the Midwest. They get in line every year in the frigid cold here hours before the retail store opens at 5 or 6 am because it’s the only way they’re able to get their kids the necessary tech gear to keep up.”
This is powerful critique, and important to hear. (btw, Cho’s blog and church sound amazing, and I feel a bit guilty for critiquing somebody with such obvious commitment to his faith and social justice…)
My own view, however, is that this kind of critique is still incomplete.
Yes, if critiquing Black Friday and supporting “BND,” are JUST about our own personal consumption and gluttony, then I could see how this critique is on the mark. But it’s not. At least, it’s not for me. Opposing Black Friday goes far deeper. I personally believe there are very good reasons to still oppose Black Friday.
And deeper questions still to ask…
Another progressive friend asked it this way, much the same as Cho’s friend: “Don’t the working classes deserve a break too?”
So, here’s my answer to it all…
Yes! Absolutely, they do! The working class and poor, both shoppers and retail workers, deserve more than a break! They deserve more than just one day where they can buy a $2,000 television for $400.
Here is what working people really deserve:
∞ They deserve fair pay so they can make ends meet, not just one day of Black Friday sales.
∞ They deserve fair working hours, not just Black Friday’s crazy retail hours.
∞ They deserve time off, to enjoy the holidays, instead of believing they must shop today or be economically left out.
∞ They deserve time off, to enjoy the holidays, instead of believing they must work today, or else fail to make ends meet or lose their job.
You see, Black Friday re-enforces a currently sick system. It says to everyone: The only “break” the working poor deserve is a few bucks off a toaster, not a few hours off with family; one-day of crazy specials, rather than a year’s worth of decent wages.
And, those who work today, let us remind ourselves, also deserve to not get crushed while working at Walmart.
Yes, I get that the economy is bad, that times are tough, and that everybody is struggling to make ends meet. Which is precisely why Opposing Black Friday is not only not classist, but supports the working classes; both retail workers and consumers.
Black Friday is not some day to rejoice at how “the last get to be first.”
Black Friday, in fact, insures that the last are still last! Shoppers get their deals, then go home, believing that’s all they deserve or could ever dare ask for. They’re still among the “last.” Nothing else has changed. Now, they just have a shiny new television set.
Is that real change? Is that the kind change Mary was talking about when she sang: “God has filled he hungry with good things. And the rich, God has sent empty away?”
No. I don’t think so. Mary was talking about social change far deeper and far more lasting than a one-day deal on a television set.
Finally, let us remember that the economically poor, like the wealthy, don’t shop on Black Friday either. They can’t afford the $400 television set, even if it is marked down. Let’s not forget this. Statistics show that, right now in America, a staggering 30 percent of persons are either IN poverty, or hover right around the poverty line.
Some will not only not shop today, they won’t shop any time during this holiday season. If they are lucky, they’ll do a little shopping at a thrift store sometime this month. Or perhaps just do without presents altogether this year.
My wife reminded me of this today, with a story from her own life(1)…
It was the week after her first Christmas at SMU, and she was back in class. She was still living at home at the time, commuting to school each day. She was paying for her own tuition, and she was working four jobs to pay for her undergraduate degree. As it happens, this particular Christmas her father had suffered a heart attack, and couldn’t work. They had $60 in their checking account.
As such, there were no presents that year. The family’s only “Christmas presents” came in the form of a box of food, given to them by some local charity (Knights of Columbus? Shriners? She no longer remembers…)
After Christmas the first week back at SMU, one of her teachers invited everyone to go around the room and share what their favorite Christmas present was. And so, people ticked them off…a new computer…new clothes…a trip to Mexico…a new car…etc, etc…
When they came to Dennise, she was too embarrassed to say “all we got for Christmas was a box of food.” So, she made something up. She told everybody that their family had gotten a new kitten.
She’s obviously come a long way since then. But it’s a painful memory even now.
Let us remember that the true economic poor will not even be shopping today, and can’t take advantage of “Black Friday” if they wanted to.
Let us remember that many people are struggling, heroically, to make ends meet in this economy, and that they deserve better than one-day sales that they have to stand in line for hours, just to access.
Finally, let us remember that all this –the frenzied sales and store hours– is being done in Jesus’ name, or at least in support of a holiday named for him. Yet another reason why people of faith must insure the world understands that this is not the “Christmas” we celebrate; lest the world believes God condones this messed up system too.
Here’s my bottom line: If you think condemning Black Friday is JUST a pharisaical way to “feel good” and “superior” in your personal blow against consumerism, then by all means, don’t do it. But if you see it as a way to inact God’s justice for those who get far too little then, dear God in heaven, join the cause.
Because we are a long, long way from the kind of world Mary sang about in the “Magnificat,” where the poor and the outcast really do get a fair shake, and where the last are first for more than just one shopping day.
(1) And I thank her, and love her, for the courage she shows in allowing me to share this story with you…
Update: a brand new song I’ve written about all of this, find it here.
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