Everyone is familiar with the idea that every city has two malls: the one where white people shop and the one where white people used to shop. After a trip to my old home town in Florida over the Christmas holidays, I’m still trying to find that first mall.
For more than 20 years, until 1998, I lived in Brandon, a suburb of Tampa of about 100,000 people. When I was young, nearly all of those people were white, and the rest were black. Despite nearby strawberry fields and the remnants of the citrus industry, there was no noticeable presence of Hispanics. It was essentially the 90/10 white/black split that was the norm in much of the country until the 1970s but that endured in pockets until a bit later. Brandon was one of those pockets.
My high school yearbook from 1988 confirms that my memory is correct: a Hernandez here and a Rodriguez there, but they were very much the exception to an overwhelming white majority. That was just 25 years ago on the calendar, but it might as well be ancient history.
In 1998 I left Florida and moved to Poland, where I still live. At that time, the visible effects of immigration were just beginning to appear. A few more brown kids at the mall, a few more Asians where before there had been basically none; not huge numbers but just enough to notice. I had no way of knowing that these were the first signs of a transformation that would turn Brandon into a town that is now barely recognizable to me.
When I visited my parents over Christmas I spent quite a bit of time at the local mall and at the other malls in Tampa. I went to shop, but I work in marketing and have a keen interest in retailing trends. Poland isn’t exactly at the vanguard on this front, so I thought I could learn a few things. The time I spent observing the retail environment became a profound illustration of the effects of immigration on my home town.
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I could tell the retail world had changed without even stepping into a store. All I needed to do was turn on the television. It didn’t matter what channel or what kind of program I watched, the highest priority in nearly every ad campaign was to appear to friendly to minorities, make a good impression on minorities, and generally convey the message “We love you, black or possibly brown person!”
I spent a lot of time using the remote in the opposite way I normally would, watching only commercials. It was as if during my time out of the country a law had been passed requiring every television advertisement to use a light-skinned black woman with short dreadlocks or a frizzed-out “natural” look to show how hip the product is. Dark-skinned black women with chemically straightened hair—like 95 percent of the black women I saw during my stay—apparently don’t exist in ad agencies. Why is there never a black woman darker than a brown paper bag in a commercial or ad?
Attractive blonde women now seem to be largely confined to shampoo commercials, which apparently is not a violation of the unspoken rule since black women don’t use those shampoos anyway. Advertisements for household products are more likely to feature a woman just dark enough to make you think that English may not be the first language in her home, but European enough to not stand out too much. You can watch commercials forever and never see a Hispanic or black woman that looks like the ones you actually see in daily life.
There are rules about men, too. When a geek, nerd, or slob is called for, we know what race he will be. It is the same for anyone rude, arrogant, or just plain stupid. The smart one who saves the day by recommending Product X is rarely white and never a white man. Black men are the cool, smooth, sexually charged heroes of commercials for deodorant and shaving cream, while white guys are the idiots who chose the wrong car insurance company. Black guys take a break from their tough job on a construction site to apply a muscle ache cream and get right back to work while white guys sit on a couch playing video games until it’s time to make a run for fast food. You will die of old age watching television before you see a commercial in which a black guy is laughed at by whites or is the source of any problem. Meanwhile, it’s the white guys who rob houses in ads for home security systems and who make pathetic passes at the ladies in beer commercials.
The lack of obviously Hispanic men in ads is striking given that there are more Hispanics than blacks in America. I suspect it’s because their comparatively low social status is inconsistent with aspirational marketing strategies, and because most white women don’t find them attractive. This will change in time as so many other things already have.
There is a massive over-representation of non-whites on television. During one stretch of about 45 minutes, I counted 27 consecutive commercials without one white person talking to another. Even beer advertisements now feature the same racial calculus and fake, forced multi-ethnic bonhomie. The use of blacks in advertising almost always comes across as contrived; blacks are shoehorned into plots and scenes that don’t need them. Again, the message is: “We put one of you in the commercial—please like us!”
Am I not supposed to laugh at the idea of a black guy with a pickup truck joining his white buddies to build a cabin the woods? Or at the fact that every party and barbecue in TV land is fully integrated, with a healthy dose of those latte-toned ladies? And when there are Hispanics in ads, they are always with whites, never with blacks. Why wouldn’t a company want to feature only blacks and Hispanics in their ads?
Things get worse
After watching television, I had a good idea of what I could expect at the mall. I also found that as ridiculous as the make-believe world of commercials is, making fun of it from my couch is much more fun and less depressing than being in a modern American shopping center.
My lesson began in the mall parking lot. It was dotted with what I have come to learn are uniquely American curiosities: tricked-out Cadillac Escalades and low riders, and beat up El Caminos and late model Caprices with $5,000 tire rims or with paint jobs that make them look like glittery bowling balls. Far outnumbering all of those, however, were the cars with Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Cuban flags—all driven by people who apparently love those places so much that they left them to move to Brandon.
Inside the mall, blacks and Hispanics made up easily half and maybe two thirds of the people traffic. This in the same mall that opened in the mid ’90s as the “nice” alternative to driving to awful malls in Tampa. Add in various Asians and others too hard to identify, and it was hard to remember that this is an allegedly majority-white country.
About half of all the Hispanics seemed to be three generations out together—almost always a woman in her 60s or 70s, what appeared to be her daughter, and several children. Now I understand why Univision’s ratings are so strong—Spanish-speaking grandmothers imported from San Juan, Santo Domingo, and elsewhere are probably tuned in all day except for when they go to the mall.
Here and there I saw a solitary white man doing his Christmas shopping or a local office worker on lunch break, walking at a brisk pace from store to store on a strictly buy-it-and-go mission. None showed any sign that going to the mall was in any way pleasurable. This was in contrast to the parade of blacks and Hispanics who were simply moving in a slow loop around mall, seeing and being seen as they texted or chatted on the phone. Few of them carried any bags or gave any indication that they came to the mall for any purpose other than walking in wide circles. Now I understand why online shopping is taking off.
At the food court, every restaurant, without exception, had an all-Asian or all-Hispanic staff, visible in their open-kitchen layouts. Since when do Chinese cook “Cajun” cuisine? And when did Mexicans take over Italian food? Later, across the street at Toys R Us, the entire staff running six cash registers and the customer service desk was black. Do white teenagers not get Christmas-vacation jobs anymore? It seems that retail staffs reach a kind of tipping point or critical mass of one ethnicity that discourages people from other groups from even applying for jobs. Why would a white teenager want to work at these places? For the next three weeks I looked everywhere for an all-white workforce in any shop or restaurant and found only one: two people on the late shift at a donut shop.
Back at the mall, I noticed that the goods on offer, the variety of stores, and the general market positioning have been altered to accommodate immigrants. No store better represents this than JC Penney.
Since when do the signs for the most obvious things have to be in English and Spanish? Why do you need a sign that says “Shoes” or “Jewelry” in Spanish right above the shoes or jewelry? I’m confident that anyone could figure out what he was looking at without this bit of help; I think it’s more about JC Penney showing how “friendly” it is to Mr. and Mrs. Jimenez.
There are also changes in inventory. The shoe department no longer carries a reasonably wide selection of dress shoes, which I remember looking through years ago for a job interview. There are now no more than four or five basic styles, none costing more than about $40. The space that used to be available for perhaps 20 kinds of leather dress shoes is now set aside for rows of Nike basketball shoes in their boxes. The most prominent display of non-athletic shoes was for work boots, most of which had a sign saying “Available from Size 7” attached to the display shoe. You can guess the ethnic background of someone who needs a size 7 work boot.
Men’s clothing has changed. Dress shirts now come in colors no white man over 18 has ever worn: neon lime green, popsicle purple, carrot-juice orange. This isn’t just a question of changing fashion; it’s about the preferences and habits of the people who walk through the store. Retailers are governed by a brutal math in deciding what gets floor space. If something sells it stays. JC Penny and every other retailer knows very well why rows of basketball shoes and size-7 work boots are in and penny loafers are out.
I will always consider Brandon my hometown, but I will now think of it in terms of the way it was in my highschool yearbook and try to forget what I saw at the mall at Christmas.
A final insult
During one of my visits to the mall with my wife, I took my laptop along to kill time while she shopped. I settled into a Panera Bread restaurant to have a drink, use the Wi-Fi, and catch up on some reading, including my daily visit to AmRen. This is the message I got after I agreed to their terms of service and typed in the address:
This domain is blocked.
Site blocked. amren.com is not allowed on this network.
This site was categorized in: Hate/Discrimination
I checked the website for the Nation of Islam and it worked fine. Same for National Council of La Raza and World Star Hip Hop—they aren’t “catergorized” as anything. Angry and frustrated, I closed my laptop and watched the crowds pass by.