Scholars’ Conversations: Patricia Banks, Understanding Race, Class and the Politics of Consumption 

This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues. 

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (tim-rosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster (jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca). 

Scholars’ Conversations: Patricia Banks, Understanding Race, Class and the Politics of Consumption 

By Jordan Foster

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Patricia Banks, Professor of Sociology at Mount Holyoke College and Co Editor-in-Chief of Poetics. Banks has authored three books including Represent: Art and Identity Among the Black Upper-Middle ClassDiversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums, and Race, Ethnicity, and Consumption: A Sociological View. In this conversation, we talked about her work on race and consumption, the inspiration behind it, and about Banks’ research and writing process. 

Jordan: How did you come to the work on this topic? What sparked your interest in this? What book or article about “consumption” has been particularly influential in your work?

Patricia: My research focuses on culture, consumption, and inequality. I am especially interested in the ways that ethnoracial boundaries influence, and are influenced by, consumption and related practices. I first became curious about these processes when I was a graduate student in sociology at Harvard University working with Lawrence D. Bobo and William Julius Wilson. In my first few years of graduate study, I was focused on race, ethnicity, and class. However, I later encountered Pierre’s Bourdieu’s work on culture when Michèle Lamont moved to Harvard from Princeton. I was particularly intrigued by Distinction and its analysis of cultural consumption as a practice that reproduces class. In that same period, Prudence Carter, who was also at Harvard at the time, began developing the concept of black cultural capital. Her work, which focused on low-income black youth, brought attention to how cultural consumption can also signal racial identity. Given that we still knew very little about cultural consumption among middle- and upper-class blacks, I embarked on a dissertation that examined art collecting among this group. When I became an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mount Holyoke College, I further developed this line of research when my first book, Represent: Art and Identity among the Black Upper-Middle-Classwas published. Represent draws on over 100 in-depth interviews, observations at arts events, and photographs of art displayed in homes, to develop a racial identity theory of consumption. The analysis elaborates how upper-middle class blacks consume black visual culture to nurture their own and their children’s racial identity. This project set the stage for my future research on race and cultural patronage, as well as my scholarship on race and consumption, more broadly. 

Jordan: How was the process of transforming your curiosity for this topic into a research question and a project? How long did you take in publishing since you first conceived the project?

Patricia: After Represent, I embarked on what would become my second book, Diversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums. One reason that I became interested in patronage at African American museums is that some of the collectors who I interviewed for Represent were also supporters of black museums. At the time fundraising was also underway for what would become the largest black museum in the United States—the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. For this study, I traveled across the nation and interviewed over 80 supporters of African American museums in different states. In contrast to the conventional portrait of cultural philanthropists which paints their concerns as grounded in class, I found that supporters’ values were also shaped by their race and ethnicity, profession, lifestyle, and generation. This project led to my interest in corporate support of black culture. In my ongoing book project Black Culture, Inc.: How Cultural Patronage Pays for Business (Stanford University Press, Culture and Economic Life Series, Under Contract), I examine how race-related philanthropy and sponsorships benefit businesses. Drawing on ethnographic, archival, and other data, I show how black community support is a form of diversity capital whereby companies cultivate an image as diverse and inclusive. 

Working on Represent not only shaped the direction of my research on race and cultural patronage, but it also planted the seed for my book Race, Ethnicity, and Consumption: A Sociological View. At the time that I was conceiving of the project that would ultimately become Represent, I searched for a resource that provided an overview of sociological approaches to race and consumption. I couldn’t find one then or in the ensuing years. While there is a rich tradition of sociologists exploring topics related to race and consumption it exists in different subfields. For example, the literatures on discrimination in housing and credit markets, assimilation and identity, cultural capital and inequality, and gentrification squarely address race, ethnicity, and consumption. 

Race, Ethnicity, and Consumption: A Sociological View is the first book to bring together these literatures. The book covers six themes including identity, crossing cultures, marketing & advertising, neighborhoods, discrimination, and social activism. The introduction also presents “The Race, Ethnicity, and Consumption Framework” which highlights how ethnoracial boundaries and consumption reinforce one another. 

Jordan: What does “consumption” mean to you in your work?

Patricia: One thread that runs through my research is a focus on the meanings associated with consumption. This is particularly the case for my research on cultural patronage. For example, Represent highlights how collectors make sense of visual art in relationship to their identity; Diversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums casts light on how museum patrons think about the value of cultural institutions; and, Black Culture Inc. puts a spotlight on the ways that philanthropy and sponsorships are used in the racial image management of corporations. Race, Ethnicity, and Consumption looks at consumption from a range of vantage points. For example, the section on identity engages research on direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing which looks at how these tests influence the ways that people think about their identity. This section also looks at consumption and meaning in other ways such as how homeland tourism is informed by ethnoracial identity. A meaning-centered lens of consumption is also taken in subsections of other chapters such as the discussion of ethnoracial stereotypes in advertisements as well as the commodification of racial activism in marketing. A focus on consumption as purchasing is highlighted in the chapter on discrimination—for instance, this chapter explores how racial discrimination limits opportunities to buy goods and services such as homes and meals. Similarly, the chapter on neighborhoods looks at how access to goods and services differs in communities with varying ethnoracial demographics. In other chapters, consumption as use is highlighted. For example, the chapter on social activism highlights how consumer boycotts and buycotts have been used in racial activism. 

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