Bye, Bye Bling

What money cannot buy in a storm

Powers says the seeing lives damaged in the wake of the hurricane devastation has challenged her notion of what is important.Though no one would ever accuse me of flaunting a ghetto-fabulous style of dress, I have been guilty of some ghetto-fabulous tendencies. I’ve spent a lot of time and money acquiring things I don't need in order to look and feel successful. This impulse is likely connected to my life as a Black woman in corporate America.

At times when I was feeling defeated after interactions with my White colleagues, it felt great to go into Saks Fifth Avenue and buy something. Despite Oprah's Hermes shopping incident, I've found it rare for anyone to refuse a dollar because it was handed over by a black hand.

For my sisters who give true bling in head-to-toe labels while strolling along Fifth Avenue carrying Bendel bags, and for me, shopping was the great equalizer. Who knows, maybe that's what Condoleezza Rice was experiencing as she shopped for Ferragamo shoes in the middle of the hurricane crisis. But as I watched the horrors of Hurricane Katrina unfold, it hit me that these things would not protect me. Possessions could not erase racism and its effects. It also showed me that you could literally lose everything and it’s foolish to place great stock in clothing, jewelry and other accoutrements.

And as much as I considered myself an advocate for less fortunate members of our communities, I was behaving otherwise. In his infamous comments made during a live NBC benefit for Katrina survivors, Kanye West confessed, "I've even been shopping before even giving a donation." He wasn't the only one. A week later, when help was trickling in to New Orleans and elsewhere, I responded to an e-mail plea for clothing and other items for hurricane victims who were recovering in a community health center in Mississippi. I loaded three contractor bags of clothing and two tall kitchen garbage bags filled with soap, lotion and other toiletries into a car.

I don't write this to be self-congratulatory or boastful, but to illustrate how obscene my consumerism had been. Don't get me wrong, I still like nice things, but how can I continue to spend my money on an overabundance of stuff when people who share my ancestry can't be guaranteed equal education, running water, or the government’s equal regard for their lives?

Retha Powers is a freelance writer and co-editor of "This is My Best: Great Writers Share Their Favorite Work." She lives in New York City.

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