Most of us have an opinion about cars. By and large, we don’t have a problem with them or we think they are, in a nutshell, one of the main reasons why the world is heading for a premature death. If not cars, then it’s the drivers whose competence and behaviour that may offend us. Quite a long time ago, I was drawn to the fact that cars seemed to be an important, albeit schizophrenia inducing aspect of social life in contemporary, and ethnically diverse urban settings, especially those that might also be termed ‘inner-city’. If you happen to live in one of those places, you’ll see a lot of traffic and a lot of unusual driving. And by unusual, I mean driving that falls outside of the law, or outside our usual expectations of appropriate motoring etiquette: road rage, hostile driving and, at a much more banal level, road manners which are far from civil, courteous and sensitive to the needs of other road users.
Sometimes, you might even encounter stories in the local press which are far from positive or keen to celebrate cars and their drivers. Of course, you might also come across content about a new model, a local car show, or a business that is thriving in the current, challenging economic climate. The thing about the economic climate is that it’s always challenging.
Even outside of newspaper column inches, you’ll find certain storylines circulating as if they are truth. Whether or not we buy into these narratives is one thing, but they do exist. In the wrong hands, cars are death machines. And the wrong hands are usually male, young, from working class backgrounds and, depending on local demography, of one ethnic minority group or another. Usually, these types are referenced as anti-social, or even criminal. Unsurprisingly, some of these cars are allegedly driven without a driving licence, insurance, MOT, Road Tax. If it’s not that, then there is a view that expensive cars in inner cities tend to belong to drug dealers, gangsters or other criminal sorts.
Whatever the reality, cars figure heavily in how some identities are depicted. Of course, for some of us, cars are extensions of identity, or at least personality. Cars also can confer and signify status, but when you talk about these things, even without motive, you’re likely to encounter some patterns of belief and where there is belief, there may sit prejudice. Again, one explanation for the presence of expensive cars in inner cities is that of crime; these cars are paid for through the spoils of, invariably, drug dealing. Such narratives become so heavily embedded and grounded through use, that they appear rational. The problem is, however, that it’s not our independent minds that lead us to believe, or even entertain these explanations. We see them as coherent because they have their own internal logic. As such, these explanations and narratives are built on broader social, cultural and historical contexts wherein expectations of ‘race’, ‘ethnicity’ gender and class are given license to operate. Yes, when people talk about certain parts of some cities in the UK, and elsewhere in the world, certain types of cars, and certain types of prejudice are given the space to become legitimised as common sense.
Against all that, there are other, usually overlooked and under-valued aspect of the car in diverse urban settings. For some owners, how their cars look, sound and they feel seems vital; through their cars, they communicate something of themselves to the world. If you watch closely enough, you might even notice that these pimped out, modified, customised and other enhanced cars are being used as objects through which creativity flourishes. We don’t hear so much about that, but instead continue being exposed to rehearsals of lived car culture that are deemed problematic; that these cars, with their aftermarket alloy wheels, loud audio systems, grand spoilers and bespoke paint work, are driven by those without taste and without the capacity to produce culture. When looked at through this lens, there is no art, creativity, beauty or evidence of worthy cultural practice. This car culture is at best empty or vacuous – but often rehearsed as negative and something to be cured, reduced or simply eradicated. Many of those who enhance their cars have an acute sense of working class heritage. And that is also something of a challenge given that class has become an aspect of identity with only historical, rather than lived, resonance.
In subtle, complex and challenging ways, cars transmit and modify our identities. As a symbol of independence and freedom, the car projects status, class, taste but, significantly, also embeds discrimination. The next time you see a car that looks out of place, or is unusual, chances are there’s more going on not only in terms of what the driver is trying to project, but what you, the observer, is reading into the scene.
Listen to the Transforming Society podcast as Jess Miles speaks to Yunis Alam. They talk about Bradford, taste, culture and how we create and modify our identity through cars.
Yunis Alam is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bradford and author of Race, Taste, Class and Cars.