Monday, September 25, 2006

Bumper Sticker

This post has taken me months to write. I'm still not satisfied with it, but this post by LizardBreath over at Unfogged prompted me to get off my rhetorical ass and just post the damn thing.

Some time earlier this year as I was driving home from work I noticed a bumper sticker on the SUV in front of me. When I read it, it disturbed me, perplexed me, pissed me off, made me sad, and all sorts of other things at the same time.

On the left it had a depiction of the Confederate flag, and on the right were the words "Never apologize for being white."

Thought 1: Does that really say what I think it says?
Thought 2: Racist.
Thought 3: Apologize? For being white??
Thought 4: I'm sure people have told you that you have plenty of things to apologize for, but if you think the pigmentation of your skin is one of those things, then you are missing the point.

One of the things I think is so insidious about this bumper sticker is that the explicit meaning of its text is easily defended. Of course nobody should ever have to apologize for their skin color or ethnicity. But the implicit meaning of those words is another thing altogether, especially when written next to that flag, that flag that has been waved so many times by people whose hearts were filled with hatred . . .

What does "being white" mean to the person who thinks putting this bumper sticker on their car is a good idea? I cannot help but think that it means something entirely different to that person than what it means to me.

The abovementioned post at Unfogged helped crystallize some of my thinking about this. As a white person in America whose grandparents were all born in the United States, I do not have any real claim to any ethnicity other than "white American." I'm not even "Irish-American" or "German-American" or anything else with a hyphen in it, just plain old undifferentiated "American." Which, right or wrong, I've always sort of thought of as no ethnicity at all. As part of the dominant culture, my culture becomes invisible to me except when I am looking for it, or comparing my culture to those of others.

(I just noticed that in the above paragraph, I shifted to using the word "culture" rather than the word "ethnicity" without thinking about it. Interesting. I won't explore what that means at this time, or I'll never finish this post.)

Anyway, since my culture/ethnicity is something I don't spend much time thinking about, it is not something I feel I would ever have to apologize for.

Wait, that's not quite it. I criticize the dominant culture in the U.S. all the time. I criticize it for being sexist, racist, classist, narrow-minded, xenophobic, and a host of other things. But whenever I do so, I am distancing myself from it. I am saying, "This is what's wrong with the U.S." or "This is what is wrong with our country," rather than "This is what is wrong with my culture." I am criticizing rather than apologizing. Whenever I hear someone else making similar criticisms of the dominant culture in the U.S., I never take it as a personal attack on me. In short, I don’t have any emotional investment in my ethnicity. “Being white” is not something I am either proud of or ashamed of. I just happened to be born with this skin color.

But what does "being white" mean to the person who bought that bumper sticker and put it on their car? I really have no idea. I could make all sorts of guesses based on my understanding of what white supremacists believe. I could describe such beliefs, but only in the same way that I could describe the beliefs of people who think the earth is flat. Those beliefs seem self-evidently absurd. And yet people believe those things, and those beliefs fill people’s hearts with fear and hate.

I just don't understand. And in a sense, I don't want to. But it bothers me.

As I said at the outset, I’m not satisfied with this post. I’ve rambled on and on but I still don’t think I’ve gotten at the heart of what bothered me so much about that bumper sticker. But sometimes when I am driving home from work I will look down the long dirt driveway that I saw the SUV pull into, that driveway that disappears off into the woods, and I feel ashamed that the worldview encapsulated in that bumper sticker is any part of a culture I could call my own.


Vance Maverick said...

That bumper sticker is really insidious. One of the things it implies, I think, is that there's lots of "apologizing for being white" going on, or being demanded, somewhere. The plausible deniability is immaculate -- but one can easily imagine that driver saying, in response to a whole broad range of activisms, "Don't expect me to apologize for being white!"

The bumper sticker, in other words, offers a slick little rhetorical tool, without saying much about what to do with it. We can imagine, though of course as you say we don't know.

LeisureGuy said...

The problem with attacking things like this, IMHO, is that there is so MUCH wrong with them, in such a short space, that you find yourself chasing multiple errors. It's sort of a black hole comment: it has so great an error density that it achieves an almost impermeable singularity.