Black Culture and Consumer Behavior: Artifacts of the North American Black Experience

ABSTRACT - With the contention that an understanding of cultures and behaviors of cultural groups has to start from within, this paper develops a theoretical proposition towards such an understanding of the black consumption experiences in the U.S. The research for testing this proposition is reported and the results are discussed regarding the implications for the role of blacks in future consumption in the U.S.


A. Fuat Firat and Michael J. Dotson (1985) ,"Black Culture and Consumer Behavior: Artifacts of the North American Black Experience", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 56-59.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 56-59


A. Fuat Firat, Appalachian State University

Michael J. Dotson, Appalachian State University

[The authors wish to thank Fred Blair, Steve Boles, Todd Craig and Ralph Sorrell for their help in developing and completing the reported research.]


With the contention that an understanding of cultures and behaviors of cultural groups has to start from within, this paper develops a theoretical proposition towards such an understanding of the black consumption experiences in the U.S. The research for testing this proposition is reported and the results are discussed regarding the implications for the role of blacks in future consumption in the U.S.


In the attempts at measuring the attitudes and behavior of different ethnic, cultural and/or gender groups in consumer research studies, two general tendencies in traditional marketing and consumer behavior disciplines appear to be greatly dominant: (i) emphasis on predicting behavior --a consequence of the "behavioral science" syndrome, rather than being a social science--and (ii) emphasis on development of information needed to market more effectively to consumers in these sub-groups--a consequence of the managerial, buying behavior orientation (Bauer and Cunningham 1970; Gensch and Staelin 1972; Sexton 1972). A result of these tendencies is that the studies concerning sub-groups in consumer research concentrate on measurement of attitudes or past/present behavior, rather than on understanding and explaining the foundations upon which seemingly similar or different attitudes and behaviors develop. As such, it seems appropriate to use the same measurement instruments and same operational measures or indicators to get measures on different sub-groups in society.

The purpose of this paper is to argue that while overt manifestations, in terms of manifest behavior and physical purchases, of underlying motives may seem greatly similar among different subgroups--probably due to the fact that alternatives available for such manifestation are greatly limited in society--the motives themselves as well as the meanings of manifest behaviors are different for different social groups. Therefore, measurements sensitive to such a possibility must consider the cultural differences just as in the recently recognized case of IQ tests. Discussion for this paper will concentrate on blacks as a sub-culture in the U.S.


Social scientists often attempt to explain the behavior of sub-cultures in terms of the dominant culture of which they are a part. The perspective taken in observing and measuring behavior, as well as their interpretations, are often colored by the experiences of the investigator in the dominant culture. Thus, each behavior observed by an investigator many times a "stranger" to the subculture under examination is assigned a meaning congruent with the behavioral patterns of the overall culture.

One need only examine studies of black purchasing behavior to discern this pattern. Many investigators of this subculture have concluded that the superordinate goal of a majority of blacks was to be integrated into mainstream America. This goal was said to be manifested by purchase behavior on the part of blacks which attempted to emulate that of the white majority.

Bullock (1961), in an early study, suggested that blacks desired "group identification:" "to be identified with the general American society and all its peoples." Bauer, Cunningham and Wortzel (1965) spoke of the "basic dilemma of Negroes:" whether to strive against odds to attain middle class values or forfeit them and give priority to finding immediate gratification within the boundaries of their own present situation. On the basis of this hypothesis arose the categories of "strivers" and "nonstrivers." While the latter recognized an apparent dichotomy within the black subculture, it was still explained using white values as a reference point. This position held, for example, that blacks used the dominant white culture as a frame of reference for status purposes .

While this approach certainly appears to explain a portion of black purchasing behavior, it may be an incomplete explanation. Some social scientists have attempted another approach: to examine the black culture from its own perspective. The most important aspect in removing the potential cultural bias alluded to above would seem to be the adoption of an historical approach: one that evaluates and interprets behavior based upon the history of the culture and the affective and cognitive experiences of members of that culture within its history. In the North American black experience, it is possible to identify many experiences which are unique and forceful. These experiences are likely to have impacted black consumer units resulting in unique cultural patterns and equally unique buying and consumption behaviors.

One facet of the black experience appears relevant to this position: behavioral patterns not acceptable for whites in the U.S. were tolerated for blacks. Since blacks were considered a separate and oftentimes an inferior group, they were subjected to restrictions on personal liberty and considerable discrimination in some areas, but were nonetheless afforded considerable latitude in others. They were, therefore, able to exhibit behavior that would be considered deviant (unsuitable, improper) and not tolerated for whites. This "freedom of action" allowed blacks as a group to develop behavior patterns markedly different from their white counterparts.

There are similar examples in other cultures, though not blacks, in the treatment of underprivileged minorities. In feudal Europe, for example, it was the fact that Jews were considered an outsider minority which enabled them to go into trades which would be closed to the privileged for such trades were considered improper and degrading. In the Ottoman Empire, the unsuitability of being stage actors for women of the ruling classes opened the trade for women from minority groups. Since, in many cases the minorities were considered inferior, what was perceived to be improper for the high-society was acceptable for the underprivileged. Later on, in some cases, such latitude enabled better fortunes for those who were once considered low.

In many cases, the oppressed and/or underprivileged group members, such as the blacks in the U.S. society, did not have the same loyalty to the dominating set of standards for respectability held by the oppressors or the privileged. Neither did they feel obliged to conform to the morals and ethics dominant in a society which did victimize them, by considering them different and inferior. At times, non-conformity was the only way of asserting one's existence and being. Therefore, it is necessary to recognize that one is dealing with two distinct cultures in the U.S. when studying the black consumption behavior. The white and black consumption cultures are founded on different mass/group psychologies, different realities and history.

It is possible, therefore, that due to the latitude the blacks had in the U.S. in terms of certain social behaviors, while being oppressed in their economic and political activities, blacks will be able to perceive greater freedoms in considering consumption alternatives and behavior. The authors' position is that blacks will find consumption alternatives presently unavailable or generally considered "outlandish" or "unsuitable" much more acceptable than whites who will be more willing to conform to given consumption behaviors and alternatives. Sexton (1972) lends support for this position in his conclusion that blacks more than whites tend to be innovators for socially conspicuous classes of products. Robertson, Dalrymple, and Yoshiro (1969) found blacks to be more innovative in clothing purchases than whites. Akers (1968) drew a similar conclusion with respect to automobile purchases. For a given level of income, he found that blacks generally owned higher priced autos than whites. A possible explanation for this behavior may lie in the fact that, whites having assimilated the values and norms of the overall culture, may have been prevented from exhibiting such purchase behavior. Blacks, being governed by no such restrictions, were free to be as ostentatious as they desired. Indeed, such behavior apparently afforded them a degree of status within the black subculture. Many of these "deviant" behavioral patterns have "trickled up" into the dominant white culture over the passage of time.

This cultural artifact, the ability to deviate from overall societal norms without fear of sanction, may be repressed with the assimilation of blacks into the overall culture. It is still a potential source of influence, although surfacing through perhaps different motivations and expectations, over the purchase behavior of blacks and ultimately whites in the U.S. This paper presents the results of a study made to test the following hypothesis:

H: Blacks in the U.S. have greater limits of tolerance and acceptability than whites for novel, outlandish and unorthodox products and consumption ideas.


A questionnaire [For a copy of the questionnaire, please contact the authors.] was developed which included scales to measure the acceptability levels of unorthodox products and consumption behaviors. These products and consumption behaviors were developed as a result of several brainstorming sessions with a group of researchers. Also included were some lifestyle statements developed by Wells and Tigert (1973). After pretesting, the questionnaire, which at points involved showing photographs of unorthodox makeups and dressing styles to respondents, was administered to randomly selected blacks and whites at major shopping malls in two large cities in North Carolina. The random selection of respondents was assured by contacting every "n"th black or white person that walked by the interviewers in the malls. The sample included 143 participants of whom 45 were black and 98 were white. Of these, 79 were male and 64 were female. The success of random sampling was checked by testing the age, income, sex and education level distributions of both groups sampled. These distributions were found to be statistically the same.


To test the hypothesis, t-tests were run comparing black and white attitudes toward each indicator of product or consumption behavior included in the questionnaire. A total of 38 comparisons were made. Of these, 26 comparisons proved to be statistically significant (p < .05). A summary of the statistically significant results is provided in Table 1.

Inspection of Table I reveals that in all but one of the comparisons, blacks manifested lower overall scores than did whites. As indicated in Table 1, a lower score indicates greater agreement with the statement. Therefore, the hypothesis is held in all of the cases where a statistically significant difference was found between mean scores for blacks and whites. In the only one case where blacks had a statistically significant higher mean score than whites, the difference is also in support of the hypothesis since greater agreement with the statement indicates greater conformity with significant others' advice while less agreement shows greater freedom in consumption. The overall result, therefore, is in consistent support of the hypothesis posited in this paper.

Results also suggest that the blacks sampled are more fashion conscious and more willing to try new brands than are their white counterparts. They also appear to have some greater degree of influence over their friends' purchasing behavior. This suggests the presence of group identity and perhaps firmly entrenched group norms. These results lend support to the research hypothesis posited earlier in this paper.




The results from the research show that blacks are more accepting of unorthodox alternatives to contemporary products and consumption behaviors. The expectation that this would be the case was developed from the unique cultural history of the blacks in the U.S. as discussed earlier in the paper. While the results reported lend support to the theoretical framework presented, they are by no means conclusive. Other possible explanations of such perceived freedom in consumption behavior by blacks must be tested against the one proposed here.

There are several implications of the study results and the proposed theoretical framework, however. Since the blacks generally do not have the income levels in the U.S. to acquire items that require major discretionary incomes they cannot be considered as innovators or early adopters for such high-price novel products. However, blacks may be the perfect innovators for products that can initially be considered as "unsuitable" or "improper" by the dominant culture, and therefore, may find resistance in being accepted, especially if these products do not require major money outlays. While there still is some perception on the part of whites that blacks are different, the effects of such perceptions are diminishing. The examples of dressing, hair, etc., styles which were originated by blacks later to be adopted by whites, especially through the influence of black musicians and artists, are important indicators of such change.

The discussion in this paper also indicates that, if studied, some interesting differences could be found in the consumption behaviors of some common products by whites and blacks. These differences would further enable a closer understanding of the cultures, the underlying motives and reasons for consumption, and of the alternatives which may enhance the consumption experiences and cultures of all consumers. Some of the items in the questionnaire used for the research reported here may be used as hints for further study. The use of television for market transaction purposes and the availability of automobiles for public use as found necessary, both of which were more acceptable to the blacks, indicate that such products may presently be perceived and used differently by blacks.

Finally, the integration of the blacks into the U.S. mass market, which is already greatly achieved, may have to be understood differently. Meanings and symbols developed for the white majority may be greatly decreasing the levels of satisfaction from consumption of products for blacks because they are not reflective of the black cultural meanings. While the social, economic and political, as well as dominant cultural, pressures may pull blacks into purchasing products also consumed by whites, especially since alternatives are extremely limited in many cases, dissatisfaction with consumption experiences in general may always leave blacks as discontent conformists rather than willing participants, which may further affect their social and political existence in society.


The purpose of this paper was to argue for the position that explanation and understanding of behavior, and consequently, prediction of action must begin from within the specific culture and its history (Hollis and Lukes 1984). To put this argument to an admittedly weak test, a brief interpretation of the black culture in the U.S. was given and a hypothesis was developed based on this interpretive theoretical framework. The hypothesis is strongly supported by the empirical data, and thus lends support to the theoretical approach.

Literature that exhibits the black experience and the differences from white experience in the U.S., especially in the case of women, is growing (Davis 1983; Joseph and Lewis 1981; Lerner 1973). One must heed these expressions and try grasping the underlying cultural themes if the true purpose is one of understanding rather than a crude attempt at manipulation and prediction.


Akers, Fred C. (1968), "Negro and White Automobile-Buyer Behavior: New Evidence," Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 5 (August), 283-90.

Bauer, Raymond A. and Scott M. Cunningham (1970), "The Negro Market," Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 10, No. 2 (April, 3-13).

Bauer, Raymond A., Scott M. Cunningham, and Lawrence Wortzel (1968), "The Marketing Dilemma of Negroes," Journal of Marketing, Vol. 29 (July), 1-6.

Bullock, Henry Allen (1961), "Consumer Motivations in Black and White " I and 11, Harvard Business Review, Vol. 39 (ilay-June), 89-104, and (July-Aug), 110-124.

Davis, Angela (1983), Women, Race and Class, New York: Vintage Books.

Gensch, Dennis H. and Richard Staelin (1972), "The Appeal of Buying Black," Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 9 (May), 141-8.

Hollis, Martin and Steven Lukes, eds. (1984), Rationality and Relativism, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Joseph, Gloria I. and Jill Lewis (1981), Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives, Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books.

Lerner, Gerda, ed. (1973), Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, New York: Vintage Books.

Robertson, Thomas S., Douglas J. Dalrymple, and Michael Y. Yoshino (1969), "Cultural Compatibility in New Product Adoption," Marketing Involvement in Society and the Economy (Fall), p. 72.

Sexton, Donald E., Jr. (1972), "Black Buyer Behavior," Journal of Marketing, Vol. 26 (Oct.), 36-39.

Wells, William D. and Douglas J. Tigert (1973), "Activities, Interests, and Opinions," Consumer Behavior, H.H. Kassarjian and T.S. Robertson, eds., Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresmand and Company (revised edition).



A. Fuat Firat, Appalachian State University
Michael J. Dotson, Appalachian State University


SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives | 1985

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