J’s On My Sociological Feet: A Social Observation of a Harlem Jordan Sneaker Release

Devon Wade

Photo May 23, 17 41 40I’m not a big Jordan wearer, but every now and again, I’ll cop me a pair of classics. Growing up, I was surrounded by a community of “Sneakerheads” with my brothers and cousin being the foremost embracers of the title. As a result, I’ve always been curious about the process of consumption around sneakers – especially around the infamous Jordan’s and it’s interaction with race. So last night, as I stood in line for the new Jordan 11 Low Bred’s that I really wanted, I naturally went into sociologist mode and became a participant observer LOL. Hey, what can I say! Y’all know me… So here are a few things I observed:

  1. Many of the people, particularly adults, are highly aware of the social judgment and stigmatization that occurs as onlookers gaze while passing as they wait in the long line out front of the stores. This stigmatization is rooted in constructed narratives about Black consumptive practices and class status for poor and working class families – often that this is a bad investment for people who they assume are already struggling financially.
  1. They’re often prepared defensively to rebut these judgmental shots. Many used the rationale “I don’t normally do this.” Some made snarky remarks about onlookers to suggest “they don’t know me.” Or they created cognitive dissonance by passing judgment on others behaving poorly in the line or at other stores – they do this to suggest they are not like the other buyers in line.
  1. They are aware of the danger and violence that could be lurking with such a purchase, so they either (1) travel in groups, (2) parents accompany their children, or (3) devise strategies to discreetly get package to safe destination once purchased. Stores generally have a couple of security guards present and NYPD occasionally make their surveillance rounds.
  1. Parents I spoke with talked about the purchase as an incentive for good behavior/actions of their child. They also emphasize responsibility and self-efficacy with arrangements such as the child raising a portion of the money on their own.
  1. Many people in line had an entrepreneurial spirit or orientation to their purchase. Whether it was reselling bands/tickets to get shoe, or placing shoes back on market for higher value, they had an eye on making a return on their investment. For example, a group of young teens, who had waited in line since around or before midnight, asked each other whether they were going to wear the shoe or resell right away.
  1. There seems to be a highly connected network of independent sellers and collectors, in Harlem at least, and they seem to have a system of workers/line waiters or relationships with store owners/staff that better optimize the number of shoes they are able to get – given that there is a limit of 1 pair per ticket.

From my impromptu social observation, I took away a few things:

Photo May 23, 01 26 01First, is that we don’t allow enough room for Black consumers to articulate their own understandings consumptive practices. The white supremacist gaze seems to always ascribe narratives on the Black consumer and their practices. Although not representative, what I see here is that these consumers, in line at least for the case of the shoes, are actually savvy investors that run counter to the dominant construction of Black consumption in sneakers as illogical investments. They have created an elaborate market and network structure to make investments profitable. One guy even makes more selling shoes than his main profession of teaching in New York City Public Schools.

Second, was the way many both understood and combated the stigmatization and negative stereotypes placed on their decisions to wait in line for a pair of $170 tennis shoes. Often Black consumers are not given credit for understanding the complex social dynamics going on in their daily lives. However, they are very aware and it is refreshing when we can account for that and give them credit. As a researcher, I don’t need to make sense of their lives, they already can, I just place in a larger theoretical narrative and facilitate that to a wider audience.

Third, there’s often not a narrative of responsibility, self-efficacy and good parenting practices attached this phenomenon of shoe consumption when talking about people of color who wait in lines for these purchases. Highlighting the fact that parents use these purchases to incentivize good behavior and work, as well as push kids to take on some form of responsibility in financing shoe pushes back on the overwhelmingly negative image attached to Black parents who buy these shoes for their children.

I did not intend on this casual shopping endeavor turning into a social experiment, nor did I intend on writing about this. But my experience allowed me to meet many people and see things that contradict narratives I have always heard about Jordan consumption. I’ll admit, there were moments when I had to confront my own feelings of cognitive dissonance as I waited in line and felt the stigmatizing gaze of onlookers. These were things I wanted to make note of. However, most importantly, I wanted to use this opportunity to disrupt common assumptions and stereotypes about these Black consumers, who somehow always seem to get a bad rap for their consumptive choices compared to other groups. My main purpose here is to add nuance to the conversation surrounding Black sneaker consumption practices rather than make an argument about the good or bad spending choices of poor people of color. Thus, I found this a very fun exercise to do so. I hope you enjoy and I encourage dialogue and feedback!

4 thoughts on “J’s On My Sociological Feet: A Social Observation of a Harlem Jordan Sneaker Release

  1. How could anyone who reads your post ever look at the process of sneaker consumption the same?! I greatly appreciate your analysis here because it challenges all of us to examine the many deeply rooted narratives about consumptive practices across color and class.

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