Policy Documents

Addressing the Image Issue

Anthony Rhodes –
April 1, 2006

I own a 1997 Lincoln Town Car. It’s well maintained, drives about as well as many of the newer models, and looks pretty good to boot (if I do say so myself). I’ve had it for about four years. I purchased it from an older gentleman, who hated to see it go, and it has about 150,000 miles on it. The final 75,000 or so were of my own doing.

I love my car! It’s paid for, and it continues to serve its purpose well.

But it is also the butt of many a joke by some of my black golfing buddies. Their suggestion that I “step into the new millennium” with a newer car underscores what I feel is a major prevailing financial problem within the African-American community: the issue of image.

Now, for the sake of balance, I must admit that obsolescence is creeping up on my trusty steed. She’s reaching that threshold of service that mandates she will have to be replaced very soon.

But the comments from my friends have little to do with concerns about the car stopping somewhere and leaving me stranded. Their criticism is more targeted to the fact that I can afford a new car ... and, therefore, according to them, I should have one.

This image-conscience thinking is not limited to the more affluent among us. It is, in fact, quite widespread, and it has been for some time. African-Americans, for many generations, have placed a high premium on appearances. Maintaining such a view places a tremendous financial burden on rich and poor alike. In this essay, I’d like to offer an alternative to this financially ruinous mindset, and to answer the question, “Is the high cost of appearances really worth the price we pay?”

What Lies Beneath

I recently saw an episode of the Dr. Phil show, which featured a young black couple struggling with financial hardships brought on by their desire to “look” as if they were successful. Husband and wife both made a pretty decent income, but as a result of poor financial decisions, they were consistently arriving at end-of-the-month deficits. They remained at a loss as to how to rectify the problem.

The core issue for them was the emphasis they placed on name-brand items for themselves, their children, and their home. Their reluctance to even entertain the notion of wearing an item without a name-brand logo reminded me of my years as an adolescent, when the peer pressures of appropriate attire made such a viewpoint commonplace.

Of course, I am now an adult, and the insecurities that accompanied me during my childhood have been replaced by the wisdom of maturity. I no longer give credence to the opinions of the masses. As a result, my purchases as a consumer are more reflective of what I can afford, and not necessarily what is popular.

This highlights exactly what I feel lies beneath our persistent and insatiable attraction to the impressions of success. While some of us transition to adulthood through the sustaining pursuits of individualism and self-discovery, others mark its arrival simply by the passage of time. These latter individuals find little distinction between the terms “adulthood” and “maturity,” and in fact surmise the arrival of the former automatically includes the attaining of the latter. This is why they confusingly associate image with success.

You see, the characteristics that separate adulthood from maturity are identical to those that differentiate image from success. Anyone can become an adult, but maturity arrives through the execution of wisdom. Similarly, an image can be perceived as success, but in reality is no more than a mere reflection of it. The fundamental difference is the very important matter of substance.

It takes substance to accumulate wisdom, and substance to sustain success. But to produce an image or become an adult requires very little effort at all.

In order for us to rid ourselves of this financially crippling image complex, we must make substance, not impression, our identifying cultural pursuit. For it is then, and only then, that we will replace our long-standing image as fiscally irresponsible children with the more appropriate title of financially mature adults.

Anthony Rhodes (arhodes@theplanningperspective.com) is a registered investment advisor and owner of The Planning Perspective, a Chicago-based wealth management and investment advisory firm.