Reflections of a Black Middle-Class Consumer: Caught Between Two Worlds Or Getting the Best of Both?


Jerome D. Williams (1992) ,"Reflections of a Black Middle-Class Consumer: Caught Between Two Worlds Or Getting the Best of Both?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 850-856.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 850-856


Jerome D. Williams, Pennsylvania State University

Consumer behavior studies traditionally have treated Blacks as a homogeneous, monolithic group. However, the Black community, like the white community, has always shown evidence of diversity and stratification. Even during the period of slavery, there were social distinctions among slaves based on where they worked, e.g. in the fields or in the plantation house (Pinkney 1969). However, as noted by several researchers (Robinson and Rao 1986; Reid, Stagmaier, and Reagan 1986; Williams 1989), most consumer behavior studies have concentrated primarily on low-income Blacks, generally women, in urban areas, and often have generalized the results to all Black consumers. Within the next few years, though, it is projected that over half of all Black workers will be middle-class, casting them into critical roles as consumers of goods and services, in addition to becoming the focus of greater research attention.

Both empirical and ethnographic studies have fallen victim to this fallacy of focusing on the low-income Black consumer. For example, one empirical study on perception of television commercials compared children from white middle-class schools and neighborhoods with children from Black inner city schools and neighborhoods to reach conclusions about the differences between Blacks and whites (Donohue, Meyer, and Henke 1978). This obviously was more of a class difference than ethnic group difference. In an ethnographic study the ghetto community was advocated as the setting to pursue research on the effects of ancestry and kinship on consumption practices among Blacks since the researcher argued the ghetto community represents the most typical setting for the Black community (Hirschman 1985).

Another research approach, one that has received little attention but which offers an opportunity to explore the diversity among Black consumers by gaining a more in-depth understanding of how an individual really feels about many of the consumer behavior concepts based on traditional approaches, is introspection. Surprisingly, in spite of a number of studies of Black consumer behavior, we have little idea of how the many consumer behavior concepts become personalized and function within the individual. This paper aims to provide some clues as to this functioning by taking my own experiences in life as a Black middle-class consumer as text and focusing on the consumer behavior process as an internalized cultural product, following McCracken's (1986) model and Gould's (1990) adaptation of it. Although such a technique has been used previously in consumer behavior by Holbrook (1988) and Gould (1991), it is still relatively new. This paper provides a further exploration of the technique.

I will first provide a personal backdrop so the reader will have a better appreciation and understanding of the influence of my background on my assessment. Then using this personal backdrop, I will provide an introspective analysis of four issues related to Black consumer behavior.


As a child growing up in the world of inner city Philadelphia, I didn't think much about being "Black," let alone about being a Black consumer. Everyone around me was Black -- my classmates, my teachers, my neighbors, the customers in the stores where my parents shopped, and even the employees in the store. Now as an adult I think a lot about being Black. Only in my current world just about everyone is white -- my university colleagues, my students, my neighbors, the customers I encounter in the stores where I shop, and even the employees in the store.

On the one hand this sensitivity as an ethnic minority in a majority culture should be expected. As noted by Royce (1982), minorities in general are more self-consciously aware of themselves as minorities while whites do not tend to think of themselves as distinctly part of a particular ethnic group. On the other hand, based on my experience of attending a predominantly white, prestigious Ivy League school (University of Pennsylvania), being the captain of the track and cross country team composed primarily of white teammates, working ten years for a predominantly white Fortune 500 corporation (General Electric Company), living in predominantly white communities (10 years in Colorado and four years in State College, PA -- both with approximately a 3% Black population), and teaching at a predominantly white university (Penn State University), you would think by now I certainly would have become acculturated and assimilated into mainstream Anglo-European society, and totally comfortable with my role as a middle-class Black in a predominantly white environment.

However, I often wonder if I am caught between two worlds, never being fully accepted in one and having come too far from the other to ever again be fully a part of it. As a middle-class Black consumer, I often reflect on the degree to which I have fallen victim to being caught in a dual identity crisis. As articulated by Woodson (1933) and Cruse (1967), this means trying to be a mainstream American and a Black American, resulting in not being wholly either. This dilemma was expounded on by Park (1931) in his concept of the "marginal man" and DuBois (1907) in his concept of "double consciousness." Both stressed the "twoness" of being an American and being Black and the perpetual conflict between these two social roles.

Although I have not fully resolved that identity crisis, I have rejected the common assumption that there is a decrease in ethnic identity as Blacks move up the socioeconomic ladder to middle-class status, at least as I perceive my ethnic identity. I consider myself a "multicultural," an ethnic minority living in two worlds, and getting the best of both. According to Frazier (1957), the more middle-class or bourgeois Blacks are, the more they attempt to emulate whites and their value system, and the weaker their ethnic or race commitment becomes. I partially accept the first part of Frazier's hypothesis in my case, i.e. accepting middle-class values. I find nothing wrong in espousing the values of mainstream society, certainly if those values mean wanting to live in an upscale neighborhood, drive a late model automobile, send your children to the best schools, etc. In my view, accepting one set of values does not necessarily mean rejecting another set. A multicultural individual is able to feel comfortable with both mainstream and his/her ethnic values.

In fact, in one study middle-class Black respondents displayed middle-class American values typically associated with whites to a greater degree than the whites in the sample (Ness and Stith 1984). In another study, Williams and Qualls (1989) found evidence that middle-class Blacks who have moved up the socioeconomic ladder are very similar to their Anglo counterparts at the same socioeconomic level, at least in terms of their responses to celebrity advertising.

This reminds me of the consumer response to a recently released movie, "To Sleep with Anger," which tells the story of a middle-class Black family. Yet to the dismay of all those who made the movie, it has typically been performing five times as well in white neighborhoods as in Black neighborhoods (Rohter 1990). Audiences attracted to the film were separated not by ethnicity but by class. The film is appealing mostly to the middle and upper class, both Black and white, not blue collar Blacks or whites. This indicates that at the upper socioeconomic levels there seems to be more similarity than differences in the values espoused by Blacks and whites.

Although I agree that middle-class Blacks and whites may have similar values, I disagree with Frazier's contention that middle-class Blacks have a weaker ethnic identity. In fact, I would say being middle-class and yet still experiencing prejudice and discrimination, despite the socioeconomic status one has achieved, makes one even more sensitive to his/her ethnic identity. For example, two recent news stories drive home this point. A study at Northwestern University on car dealerships found that salespeople who bargain with customers over the price of a new car make significantly lower final offers to white men than to Blacks (Schmidt 1990). Another story dealt with a department store which required its cashiers to note the race of the individual on the back of checks. When I read of such stories dealing with consumer interactions, it makes me more aware that being a member of the Black middle class still does not make me immune to inequalities faced by Black consumers in general. In my case this has lead to an even stronger sense of pride and strength of ethnic affiliation. The end result is that I feel I am enjoying the best of two worlds -- 1.) espousing the values and enjoying the benefits of mainstream society as a middle-class consumer, and 2.) espousing the values of my ethnic group as a Black consumer with strong ethnic affiliation.

This multicultural value system, a combination of mainstream and ethnic values, is exhibited in a number of ways by me and has a direct bearing on my behavior as a middle-class Black consumer. I will now elaborate on four issues related to Black consumer behavior and offer an introspective view which reflects this multicultural value system.


There is a substantial difference in the form, content, and use of language by Blacks and whites (Haskins and Butts 1973). I have noted that one function of this difference is a mechanism for Blacks to signal solidarity with their group by selective use of in-group language, dialect, accent, and vocabulary, e.g. slang expressions, rapping, etc. This need for solidarity stems from the complex historic and sociocultural experience of growing up as members of a unique cultural group and experiencing elements of prejudice and discrimination (Wilcox 1971).

Emphasizing language as a means of solidarity should not be surprising, given the fact that many researchers consider language as the single most important component of ethnic identity (Giles et al. 1976, 1977; Leclezio et al. 1986; Taylor et al. 1973). In fact, research indicates that ethnic group members identify more closely with those who share their language than with those who share their cultural background (Giles, Taylor, and Bourhis 1973).

I have observed that many advertisers employ a strategy of trying to reach Black consumers through advertising language often referred to as the "right-on" school of advertising copy, i.e. injecting Black slang, "hip" expressions, and other elements of the Black English dialect into their ads. While some segments of Black consumers may respond favorably to this "slanguage" approach, I think advertisers should be cautious as they run the risk of turning off other segments (Sobers 1979; Marketing News 1984).

In particular, this may be true with middle-class Blacks who represent the most significant segment in terms of purchasing power in the Black community. Although it has been estimated that elements of the Black English dialect are used by 80% of Blacks in America (Dillard 1972), I would expect that there is significant variation in the extent of usage based on social class, gender, age, region, etc. (Payne 1986; Jenkins 1982). As noted by Kochman (1981), I would expect greater usage among Blacks at a lower socioeconomic level than among middle-class Blacks.

However, Smitherman (1984) points out that upscale, middle-class Blacks are also familiar with the language. I would agree since middle-class Blacks, even though they exhibit greater usage of the mainstream English dialect, have had to retain their ability to speak and understand Black English as it continues to be the lingua franca of the Black community and, as mentioned earlier, it is a means of maintaining community solidarity.

My being familiar with Black English and even using it as a common bond of expression with other Blacks does not necessarily mean that I favor its use in advertising copy. Although there are a number of arguments for legitimizing greater usage of Black English in all institutional contexts, including the school system and in advertising (Smitherman 1981; Smitherman and McGinnis 1977), I believe there also are some legitimate reasons to be cautious. For one, there is the danger of perpetuating stereotypes of Blacks and possibly the hindering of socioeconomic mobility by those who are not familiar with the richness and legitimacy of the dialect as a language. For example, Terrell and Terrell (1982) found that Black job hunters who spoke Black English got shorter interviews, fewer job offers, and offers at lower pay than Blacks who spoke standard English.

I am sure that Black English will continue to be used in advertising copy; I also am sure that certain segments of the Black community will find it very acceptable and appealing while others will not. This is further evidence of the diversity within the Black community with which advertisers will have to deal and which consumer researchers will need to study.


Another strategy used by advertisers to appeal to Black consumers is the use of Black models. This approach takes advantage of the Black cultural script characteristics of collectivism, group affinity, and identification with the collective in-group (Nobles 1980; Boykin 1983). In addition, it reflects in-group bias theory (Brewer 1979; Wilder 1981), which suggests that a member of any group should have a more favorable response to another member of the same group in an advertisement, i.e. whites should respond more favorably to ads with other whites, Asians should respond more favorably to ads with other Asians, etc.

To better understand how I respond to the source effects of other Black human models, I find the conceptual framework outlined by Kelman (1956) useful. Based on his work, credibility, attractiveness, and power are recognized as the three main source characteristics which affect consumers. These three characteristics lead to attitude change via three different psychological modes, namely, internalization, identification, and compliance.

I would consider ethnicity as a source effect falling mainly under the attractiveness domain. Although there are several dimensions of attractiveness (e.g. familiarity, similarity, liking, prestige, and physical attractiveness), I would view ethnicity primarily as falling within the similarity dimension. However, there are two ways in which I can respond to the source effect of a Black model in advertising based on similarity -- either demographic or ideological similarity. As a Black consumer I obviously will respond more favorably to ads with other Blacks (demographic similarity) compared to ads without Blacks. However, as a Black middle-class professional consumer, I also would respond more favorably to ads with other Black middle-class professional consumers (ideological similarity) compared to ads with Blacks from other socioeconomic segments.

As McGuire (1969) points out, demographic versus ideological similarity poses some interesting issues. For example: Does a white segregationist like better a white integrationist (demographic similarity but ideological dissimilarity) or a Black segregationist (ideological similarity but demographic dissimilarity)? In my case: Do I respond more favorably to a white model in advertising representing ideological similarity (e.g. similar middle-class values) but demographic dissimilarity, or to a Black model representing demographic similarity but ideological dissimilarity (e.g. a young Black inner-city teen "rapping" in a commercial about a product)?

I would contend that in my case the cognitive processing of information contained in advertisements is not as simple as just favoring the ad with someone in it similar to my own ethnic group. Based on cognitive response theory, I should be processing other elements besides the model's ethnicity, e.g. the content of the message. Therefore, even though a particular advertisement may not contain Black human models, I may still view the advertisement positively due to the evaluation of the message or other factors, e.g. product attributes. Sometimes I may spend extensive amounts of time evaluating the message content via the central route to persuasion; at other times, I may give only superficial attention to the message and rely more on other cues via the peripheral route to persuasion (Petty, Cacioppo, and Schumann 1983). In either case, the ethnicity of the model is only one of the factors I use in processing information contained in an advertisement, and in many cases it may not be the most important.

This is not to deny that I respond favorably to advertisements containing Black models compared to advertisements without Black models, all other things being equal. However, there are many other mediating factors affecting my response. I believe this is also true with most other Black consumers; therefore advertisers and researchers should be interested in determining to what extent these other factors account for variation in the response of Black consumers to source effects. Based on my experience, source ethnicity should not be viewed as the all-powerful motivation behind reaching Black consumers, although the use of Black models can be effective in many situations.


I have been asked on a number of occasions whether the term "Black" or "African American" is the preferred term of usage for this ethnic minority segment. Actually I can remember when I was asked a similar question about the terms "Black" and "Negro" in the 1960's. I suspect in earlier time periods, the question centered on the appropriateness of "Negro" and "Colored."

The easy answer is to call consumers what they feel most comfortable with. However, this approach presents a problem as once again we see evidence of diversity of opinion. For example, Jewell (1985) found that Black students provided eight different responses when asked to identify their race in an open-ended questionnaire. Concerning the most popular contemporary designation, many members of the Black community feel the term "Black" is inappropriate. They cite the common usage of land-based designations for other groups (e.g. Italians, Germans, Mexicans, etc.). Therefore, terms such as "Pan-African" or "African American" are perceived as preferred, more appropriate, and more acceptable to use when referring to members of this ethnic minority group. However, despite increasing use of these terms, most Black Americans still prefer to be called "Black," according to a recent survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies -- 72 percent preferred "Black" compared to 15 percent who preferred "African American" (Nelson 1991).

I believe that the reason for the continuing acceptance of the term "Black" is that a lot of people feel the same as I do -- the label is not as important as what the label stands for. For example, the most prestigious civil rights organization is called the National Association for the Advancement of "Colored" People (NAACP). Similarly, every year contributions pour in to support Historically Black Colleges as a result of the United "Negro" College Fund (UNCF) telethon. However, I also recognize that while certain terms may be acceptable for organizational labels, consumers may feel uncomfortable when those terms are applied to them individually. I greatly respect the NAACP and UNCF because I know what their organizational labels stand for, but I prefer to be referred to as a "Black" as opposed to a "Negro" consumer.

As noted by Cohen (1978), subjective self-labeling is the only valid measure of ethnicity, since it represents the internal beliefs of the individual and hence reflects the salience and reality of ethnic affiliation. For example, calling a consumer "Canadian" might be the marketer's or researcher's designation while the consumer may prefer the self-identified label of "French Canadian" or "English Canadian." Even subjective self-designation presents problems though. Some members of an ethnic group might define the label differently than the definition assumed by others. For example, the label "Hispanic" is not widely accepted by all persons classified under that umbrella category. Certain individuals may prefer other designations such as Chicano, Latino, Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Spanish American and Mexican-American, etc. From my experience of living in Colorado with a large Mexican American population and spending a great deal of time in New York with a large Puerto Rican population, I can attest that individuals within these two groups of Hispanics have varying understandings of the various labels. For example, "Chicano" has a more militant and activist connotation for certain "Hispanic" individuals compared to others.

Among Blacks, subjective self-designation of a particular label reflects different attitudes and actually may affect behavior. For example, Jackson and Kirschner (1973), in exploring the relationship between racial self-designation and preference for counselors, found that students who referred to themselves as "Black," or "Afro-American," preferred a Black counselor to a significantly greater degree than those who referred to themselves as "Negro."

I feel quite comfortable with the term "Black." I also realize that there is a sizeable segment which feels offended by the use of the term. What seems to be happening in the Black press is the use of both "Black" and "African American," recognizing the appeal of both terms to different segments of the Black community. (Sometimes both terms are used in the same sentence to refer to this ethnic minority segment; other times the terms are used alternately in sentences or paragraphs). I often attempt to get the best of both worlds by using the term "Black/African American." I would suggest that the most prudent choice for marketers and researchers is the adoption of both terms.


A recent New York Department of Consumer Affairs study (Rothenberg 1991) charged that although Blacks constitute 11 percent of national magazine readership, only 3 percent of models used in national ads are Black. As a consequence, the study concluded that minorities suffer "psychic harm," i.e. minorities are hurt through damaged self-esteem, reinforcing a sense of segregation in the marketplace.

As a result of the study, New York's Human Rights Commission is investigating if it could sue recalcitrant advertisers under the Civil Rights Act for not including more minorities in advertising. Also, several law suits have been brought under the U.S. Fair Housing Act on the absence of Black models in real estate ads, and recently a federal appeals court ruled that newspapers can be held responsible for running ads which violate the Act (Lambert and Harlan 1991).

I agree there are a lot of societal reasons to see more Blacks in advertising, but I believe the low self-esteem theory is not one of them, or at least it has been overplayed. As noted by Cross (1991), many of the problems concerned with building Black self-esteem are misdirected. He takes on the somewhat sacred cow notion that Black self-hatred is the explanation for Black failure and finds the studies from the 1930's and 1940's severely flawed. (These studies dealt with photographs and line drawings of Black and white children, clowns, and chickens, or choices between Black and white dolls; most of the traditional work on Black self-esteem today can be traced back to these studies).

It seems to me that many today are making the same mistake of linking Black self-esteem to images in the media and assuming that the development of positive self-esteem is somehow dependent on seeing positive images in the media. If this theory were true, I would think that people in my generation who grew up in an era when Amos 'N' Andy represented Black television, would have very low self-esteem. I don't find that to be the case.

I believe developing positive self-esteem is not as simple as just viewing an advertisement of another Black person or watching a television program which includes Blacks. While those types of exposures no doubt play a role in the development of self-esteem, I don't believe they play a major role. Viewing media images (such as advertisements and television programs) and decoding them to arrive at some meaning is a very complex process. There are multiple meanings I get when interpreting advertisements with other Blacks versus advertisements without Blacks. The ethnicity of the human model is only one media cue which affects my self-esteem, and as noted earlier regarding source effects, for me it is not necessarily a predominant one in many cases.

For example, I may be exposed to certain portrayals in the media which may highlight ethnic behavior which may be perceived as negative and stereotypical. However, I am also exposed to many other actual real-life situations in society, e.g. with my family, friends, co-workers, church members, neighbors, community members, etc. These real-life settings generally are quite different from unrealistic portrayals reflected in the media and hence act to discount those portrayals. A positive role model I encounter in real life, such as my father or other family members, has a much more powerful influence on my self-esteem than something I am exposed to or fail to get exposed to in the media. Therefore, while I am supportive of and applaud efforts to increase the number of minorities in the media, and more importantly to ensure that the portrayals are positive, I do not believe my self-esteem as a Black person hinges on that outcome.


I want to emphasize again that these thoughts represent my personal introspective analysis of issues related to Black consumer behavior. They are not meant to reflect the opinions of Blacks in general -- just the opinion of one Black middle-class consumer. But that is precisely the purpose of the introspection technique, to capture a more in-depth understanding by getting inside the mind of the researcher, and listening in, so to speak, as he reflects on his reaction to issues and concepts that affect consumers. As shown by Gould (1991), by using introspection, it becomes possible to make points about one's own consumer behavior experience that have not been otherwise dealt with in previous published studies, as well as to elaborate on other established concepts more deeply and richly.


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Jerome D. Williams, Pennsylvania State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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