Not too long ago, I got into a shouting match with a guy over a racist bumper sticker. Where, I won’t say. But it happened, and it happened suddenly, and by the time it was over I felt shaken, frustrated and foam-at-the-mouth angry at the refusal of this or any person, anywhere at any time, who insists on displaying a racially loaded image that causes people pain.
I’ll confess I did most of the shouting. I started out talking, then got interrupted, then talked a little more loudly, then got interrupted again, and then I talked even more loudly, then got accused of yelling, at which point I agreed to pipe down if the guy only listened to what I was trying to say. When he replied by loudly revving the internal combustion engine he was controlling at the time, I, in turn, responded by shouting some more.
It was a futile conversation, if that’s what it was. It felt more like I was slamming my forehead against a steel wall outfitted with spikes. Nothing moved, and it hurt. My initial stab at communication began when, after seeing this bumper sticker that made my eyes bleed, I decided to pen a note of dismay and leave it on the windshield.
The sticker conveyed a message I’d seen before, on other bumpers. It was political. It was also stupid. Normally the sentiment just makes my eyes roll, not bleed. But this time, it was accompanied by a cartoon image that recalled age-old racist stereotypes going back to Stepin’ Fetchit.
I wanted to say all this in my note. What I wrote instead was this: “Your bumper sticker is an offensive racist caricature. Please remove it.”
I slipped the paper under a wiper blade and walked away. Less than a minute later, I turned back and saw the guy reading the note. He yanked his head up. Looked around. By that point, I’d already decided to walk over and talk to him.
ME (waving my hand): Excuse me, sir!
HIM (waving my note): Did you leave this note on my windshield?
ME: I did! You need to remove your bumper sticker, sir! It’s really offensive. And if I think it’s offensive, then imagine how it —
HIM: You have no right to leave a note on my windshield.
ME: — if I think it’s offensive, then what about all the black people who —
HIM: I can’t believe you left a note on my windshield.
ME: Listen to me! You’re hurting people with that! It’s the same old caricature from history that —
HIM: You’re yelling at me! And you left a note on my windshield!
ME: I’ll calm down and say this quietly, then. Please, sir. Listen to me.
HIM: Stop yelling at me!
ME (yelling at him for real): Sir! Sir! Listen! Please! It’s so offensive, and you can’t just —
HIM: A note on my windshield. You have no right. (Revving engine.) VROOOM VROOOM.
ME (still yelling at him): Please listen to me, sir!
HIM: VROOOM VROOOM VROOOM.
And that was that. He VROOOMED away.
I’m not saying anything about the guy’s beliefs. I’m just talking about his bumper sticker. I know nothing else about him, unless you count his disaffection for windshield notes and shouting women. Maybe, if I’d taken a different, friendlier tack at lower volume, he might have listened. He might have questioned the picture on his bumper and realized the hurt it caused. Then he might have said, “Oh my God, that’s awful,” and removed it then and there. Maybe this was my lost opportunity to sway a mind.
And just to be clear, I wasn’t outraged by the politics on the sticker; I don’t care. The marketplace of ideas. Freedom of expression. God bless America, etc., etc. But the drawing that accompanied it offended me deeply and, I was sure, directly injured any and all African-Americans who happened to cross paths with his bumper. If my eyes were bleeding, their hearts would be, too.
I recognize that this guy has a protected Constitutional right to display such a thing. But the right doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t mean it’s okay in basic human terms for him or anyone to display anything, a bumper sticker or a Confederate flag, that wounds a segment of the population. Symbols matter. They have weight and meaning beyond their shapes and colors. If they didn’t, would you be reading and understanding these words of mine right now?
And what about the guy that day? Would he understand me, if he listened? If he even tried?
Maybe he’d listen to someone besides me. I hope so. Whoever it is, I hope that Someone sees the sticker and asks him to remove it.