Black Friday never fails to go viral: Videos of shoppers charging into stores, shouting expletives at one another, and brawling over doorbusters appear every year on the evening news before becoming memes on the internet. These images give life to the spectacle of Black Friday as a frenzy driven by classless penny-pinchers with irreverence to the struggles of underpaid, overworked retail employees. Giving Tuesday, a marathon day of fundraising for nonprofits on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, is the supposed genteel foil demonstrating self-control and selflessness.
For Giving Tuesday, the media find no obvious villain: Donating to nonprofits — or, as Giving Tuesday calls it, doing good — counters the overindulgence of Black Friday. However, positioning Giving Tuesday as the antidote to Black Friday is erroneous because both days stem from the same monster: widening disparities in income and wealth.
Get Talk Poverty In Your Inbox
The vilification in Black Friday reporting casts shame upon the crowds that wreak havoc on stores in the name of snagging a deal. Take these headlines, for example: “What Turns Black Friday Shoppers Into Raging Hordes?” “The Human Costs of Black Friday, Explained by a Former Amazon Warehouse Manager.” “Why Black Friday Shopping Is Especially Dangerous in Tennessee – And How To Be Safe.”
However, the culprit behind Black Friday hysteria is more systemic than individualistic. Companies intentionally employ misleading tactics, such as creating a sense of faux scarcity and marking up the original price of products so the discount price seems better, to appeal to potential customers. The perception of limited temporality concerning the sales compounds this sense, strengthening the urgency and fear of missing out for many shoppers.
Meanwhile, stagnant wages, expensive health care, student loan debt, the racial wealth gap, and the gender wage gap, in addition to a host of other inequitable institutions, have left the average person in the United States in a state of financial precarity. Blaming these people for taking advantage of one of the few moments they may have to afford a new phone, kitchen appliance, or toy for their child not only ignores their victimization by the system, but fails to acknowledge that wealthier individuals actually spend more on Black Friday than do the people vilified in the day’s popular portrayals.
Giving Tuesday, which the 92nd Street Y and United Nations Foundation launched in 2012 as a Twitter hashtag, is the apparent salve to rampant consumerism. People can absolve their conscience of the post-splurge guilt and regret by donating money or volunteering time to a charitable cause. “When you give, you feel happier, more fulfilled, and empathetic,” wrote Asha Curran, Chief Innovation Officer and Director of the Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact at the 92nd Street Y, in 2017.
Centered at the core of Giving Tuesday is “the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world.” People give back, ushering “in the holidays’ charitable spirit” and powering a movement that has grown over the years and has the potential to raise half a billion dollars this year.
However, as “a day that encourages people to do good,” Giving Tuesday is not as inclusive as it states. The mean gift size during Giving Tuesday in 2018 was $105, an amount that is not insignificant for a cash-strapped individual. Those who are able to participate in Giving Tuesday, whether that be by donating money or volunteering time, are not representative of the marginalized communities in need of investment. In fact, charitable giving has increased for upper-income households while decreasing for middle- and lower-income households — a trend that tracks the expanding wealth gap.
While donations from individuals and organizations offer relief for nonprofits working in under-resourced communities, a funding system in which groups must vie for the limited goodwill of some benevolent donor does not address the roots of inequity, inequality, and injustice. Similar to how stores promote deals to bring in potential customers for Black Friday, nonprofits market their cause to potential donors for Giving Tuesday.
A quick look at Giving Tuesday pages shows how the campaign plays into this competitive dynamic as nonprofits are listed as products to be filtered and added to an online gift bag and on leaderboards showcasing the most successful fundraising hauls. Donations are transactional: $50 provides shelter for a night, $100 “provides one month of meals” to a sheltered family, $250 “provides a day of therapeutic child care services” for a sheltered child. Giving Tuesday puts a price tag on critical services for marginalized communities, and wealthy donors determine if the price is right.
Expanding inequality in income and wealth has resulted in a society in which the top 1 percent commands more money and political power than the bottom 50 percent. Bemoaning the greed of Black Friday while praising the altruism of Giving Tuesday ignores the structures that give life to both.
For the average person in the United States, uncertainty and instability dictate their experience; faulting them for perpetuating a splurge-heavy holiday season fails to recognize their existence at the mercy of low wages, staggering debt, privileged corporate interests, and more. Nonprofits and community organizations are in a similar position: When the government fails to support them, they become hostage to privatized benevolence.
Instead of congratulatory applause for donors on Giving Tuesday, let’s reevaluate the cruel cycle in which society denies marginalized communities access to comfort and opportunity, denigrates them for attempting to carve out access, expects nonprofits to compete for money that will assist the marginalized communities, and then thanks wealthy donors for their performative generosity.