Bumper Sticker Identity by Gabrielle Kassel
Where: Starbucks, fourth table from the right.
When: 8:50 a.m. Sunday September 14, 2014
Who: Gabrielle (myself. 20, woman, white, queer, middle/upper-class, able-bodied) & Stranger (50-60 years old, man, white, upper-class, sexuality unknown- assumed heterosexual, able-bodied).
It’s early. Five other coffee and warm-beverage drinkers scatter the shop with their: opened newspapers, bed-head, and routine beverage of choice. I sit at the table I inhabit Sunday morning; Queering Disabilities reading out and opened, highlighter ready, and earphones plugged into my computer-Bon Iver. On the back of my computer case, four politicized bumper stickers. Next to my computer, the venti iced-coffee untouched and sweating.
I bite my highlighter cap, read a paragraph about feminism, sigh, and notice as cantankerous presence approaches. A stranger stands adjacent to my work-station, peers at my computer, points at the collection of stickers and growls: “I couldn’t help but notice your stickers. So you work for them?”. I pull out my ear-buds, try to visualize my computer face. Remember the stickers: the first, the expected HRC blue and yellow equality sign, the second quotes, ‘Well behaved women seldom make history’, the third brags, ‘Smith likes me!’, and the fourth demands, ‘keep your laws off my body’ in all caps.
“I’m sorry Sir, say that again?”. He says “Every weekend they come, Planned Parenthood. I didn’t want to fight with them, I just wanted to make them think”. I say nothing as he begins to spew un-researched statistics about teenage pregnancy, sex-education, and cruelties of birth control. I try to make eye contact with the Professor grading papers at the table to my left; denied. A barista shrugs in my direction, then turns and to write on the chalkboard (something about being out of caramel-crunch frappachino’s). He continues talking at me for the next two minutes, interweaving irrelevant statistics with problematic (sexist, racist) claims. I pipe in briefly and sporadically to subtly disagree, but am hyper-aware of the inescapable power dynamic. Irritated, half-afraid, and conscious of my implied and apparent identity/positionality, I say “I’m sorry Sir, but I need to go back to doing my homework”. He shrugs, says “Keep up the good work kid” and walks away.
I tell this story less to invoke the power dynamic or to overtly criticize this man’s beliefs, but instead, as a way to explore what our Bumper Stickers really say about our identities and us. What risks do we put ourselves at by publicizing our identities, beliefs, politics, and sexual preference with trendy stickers?
There is something pretty progressive about so proudly advertising our own system of beliefs/identities/political party/family structure/sexual preference/sense of humor. For example, how many times have we been behind a car with a family sticker (mom, dad, 2.5 children, Skippy the dog), the coexist symbol-written sticker, and something lame about child of the month/ child with perfect attendance? How many times have we rolled our eyes at the unoriginality, or scoffed at expired presidential stickers (think: 2008 Sarah Palin, think: 2012 Mitt Romney). Or, what about the cars we see and think “I would be friends with that driver” after reading ‘too smart to vote republican’? Or, the times we’ve appreciated the guts of the driver that has the sticker ‘I’m driving this fast because I have to poop’ on the bumper?
A friend said, “I could find out more about a person from their collection of bumper stickers, than I could from a ten in-person conversations. I could know who they voted for, where their kids go to school, what sports their kids play, how many dogs they have, etc.”.
Arranged against the face of my computer, the risk of such politicization is relatively low. But how do these risks increase when we blaringly define ourselves on our automobiles? (Read automobile here as: power-machine). If a stranger at Starbucks feels comfortable assuming my stance on birth control/abortion rights, and disputing them publically, then certainty a stranger, another driver, could feel comfortable expressing their hatred or disagreement with our beliefs- this time, more powerfully.
Bumper Stickers have become another form of identity that we control, interpret, and release for the world to read and respond to. In some ways, our Bumper Sticker identities parallel our social-media identities, however, with we lack the power of blocking someone from driving behind us, or de-friending the enraged driver we see on the road. I end this article by urging the reader to think about what their Bumper Stickers say about them, and at what costs/rewards.