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Debra Goldman's Consumer Republic

  • August 13, 2001, 12:00 AM EDT
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My first thought when I picked up The BAP Handbook: The Official Guide to the Black American Princess was, what took so long?

Well-to-do African Americans are not exactly a cutting-edge phenomenon. For reasons not clear from the final product, it took the four authors—Kalyn Johnson, Tracey Lewis, Karla Lightfoot and Ginger Wilson—four years to write the book. In the meantime, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air went into syndication and B. Smith Style has come and gone. Even Hollywood, usually the last place social trends surface, gave us the movie B.A.P.S in 1997.

Better late than never. Here is the skinny on the girls who vacation on Martha's Vineyard and shop till they drop at Prada. BAPs, the authors tell us, are often misunderstood. On the one hand, there are whites who don't know that African Americans ski. On the other, there are blacks who think BAPs are pretentious, sell-out snobs.

Au contraire, say the BAPgirls. (They learn French at their elite schools). The National Brotherhood of Skiers was founded in 1974. And BAPs are too well-mannered to look down on anyone. In fact, they're loaded with noblesse oblige. Any black girl who "gets" it, no matter her background, will always get a helping hand from her silver-spoon sisters. The more BAPgirls, the merrier.

Which doesn't mean they aren't snobs anyway. Although BAPs are proud of their rural Southern roots, they can't help but wince at down-home relatives who eat chitterlings and want to sing "I Believe I Can Fly" at their weddings. That, how ever, is nothing next to their contempt for anything that smacks of "G-H-E-T-T-O." The gold teeth that white kids now covet show up as one of the "Nine Nevers" of BAPdom, along with nail decals and embarrassing one's family. And we can thank the authors for exposing the painful misguidedness of African American baby names like LaTrine, Orange jello and Caribou. An aspiring BAP stuck with a name on the no-no list is advised to have it legally changed.

Personally, I'm no more amused by black American girls obsessed with the "best" sorority and marrying rich than by the white version in the classic Official Preppy Handbook. Still, in the land of equal opportunity, don't African Americans have the right to be as snobbish, status-conscious, brand-dizzy and prone to stereotyping as everyone else?

They're clearly enjoying themselves. The BAP Handbook is about claiming privilege as part of the African American experience. There is no hint that black lawyers with high-powered degrees still rarely make partner at the prestigious firms, nor any acknowledgment of adversity at all. BAPs are free, free at last to demand "the best and nothing less."

What is interesting is how much vitality BAPs and their families bring to the hoary trappings of the WASP elite: invitation-only social clubs, a public-service ethic, devotion to the family name and marriage mergers joined at Spelman and Morehouse. African Americans make able social conservatives. Surveys show that middle-class black parents, like their wealthier counterparts, are more socially conservative than white parents. A two-parent African American household is about as close as we get these days to the vanished ideal of the '50s family, where father and mother know best and the children are taught manners and respect. It's not for nothing that African Americans from Bill Cosby to Damon Wayans have supplied the successors of Leave It to Beaver. BAP culture is an example of the perverse historical twist by which an outré minority becomes the stronghold of values the majority has abandoned.

On the other hand, BAPitude has nothing to do with the experience of being black or any other color. The free-floating signs of the elite—Tiffany, Vera Wang, Dean & Deluca—transcend ethnic divisions. The perfect gloss for The BAP Handbook is David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise. Brooks' account of how the contemporary elite got there only addresses whites. But the bobo route to the upper class—elite education, lucrative knowledge-economy jobs and the right set of costly consumables—is by its nature open to everyone.

So I wasn't really surprised by the results when I took the "Are you a BAP?" multiple-choice test. Yes, that's right, I am a BAP. And chances are, dear reader—if you know the meaning of peau de soie, the location of Prada headquarters and who Harriet Tubman is—you are, too. By the time they get around to The LAP Handbook (Latina American Princess, of course), we can be sure a lot of us will qualify as LAPs as well. Privilege has a color all its own.