What Our Bumper Stickers Say About Us

Since the Spring of 2016, I have driven my Subaru Legacy around with a royal blue and yellow Human Rights Campaign (HRC) sticker on the right-hand side of the trunk, just above the bumper.

Screen Shot 2017-08-24 at 4.19.05 PM

The HRC logo, depicting equality for all, was released in 1995 by the HRC, designed by Stone Yamashita.

I got the decal during Denver Pridefest and knew, immediately, that I wanted to put it on the back of my car. For some reason, it felt easier to put the sticker on the rear of my car first, and then, subsequently, tell my family and friends that not only did I support marriage equality, but that I too was gay. When I decided that this was the marker I wanted to put on my car – for all to see – I thought it would be best to do so with a handful of other stickers, too: the Rwandan flag, a Peace Corps logo, and a simple cross.

 

Aha, I thought.

Now people would be really confused, wondering, who is this person driving around with progressive Christian flag-focused stickers? Exactly. Like a declaration of identity, I wanted to spread the word that we could be all kinds of different things, all at once.

But, again, what was so compelling about presenting my identity through the medium of a vehicle? Couldn’t I have been happy enough with having conversations about these sorts of things? Why did I feel it necessary to stick adhesive on my trunk in order to say, “Hey! Look at me! This is what I stand for!”

I suppose a great deal of this drive is to identify or stand with something. Perhaps, subconsciously we can feel “in” when someone else sees the stickers and acknowledges that we are a certain kind of person. We feel validated, like our stickers subscribe us to a larger set of values or pillars. Unspoken, of course, as most of the time cars that are around us, speed down roads and highways, interchanging lanes, paying no attention to us anyway.

Bumper stickers aren’t all that old in the broader view of things; bumper stickers weren’t really a “thing” until after World War II. In an upgrade from “bumper signs” that were made from paper and string, Forest Gill was able to invent a new kind of adhesive combination that made for an actual bumper sticker. In the years following, these became incredibly popular for campaigning. By 1968, 20 million stickers were printed from the presidential campaign for Alabama Governor George Wallace, the famous segregationist. They were a big deal. Now, many historians and manufacturers alike believe they are on the decline, with political campaigns focusing more on the televised process, rather than the rally-like “hurrah” days.

More screen time equals less bumper stickers.

In some ways, however, they’re still booming around the city, especially Denver, with political affiliations (be it Obama or Trump), and also, things that are declarative like, “University of Colorado Mom”, “Proud Parent of an Honor Roll Student” or wishful thinking like “Coexist” or “Peace Not War.” There’s some a bit more on the defensive side, like, “9/11 was in Inside Job” or “Fear the Government that Fears your Guns” or “Put the Cellphone Down and Concentrate on Being a Shitty Driver.”

Really. I’ve seen it all.

Then, I know many people who claim that they would never and I mean, never, put a bumper sticker on their car. Maybe their water bottle. Maybe. Millennials certainly enjoy putting them on the back of their computer, so that’s always an option as well.

But for the resistant, what’s the hold up? Perhaps, in ways, it feels crass to declare our ideas or belonging simply with a paper stuck on our car. Isn’t that the function of social media these days? Isn’t Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest enough?

Also, it takes a long time to get bumper stickers off cars. I should know. Just this last week I removed two of my bumper stickers out of the feeling of wanting a clean slate. I was tired of having a trunk-full of stickers, and so, I decided to leave only two. But that is the thing: it took at least 45 minutes to remove them both. Is it really worth it? It’s kind of a funny store, too: driving through rural Kansas, Chelsea and I stopped for gas at a Shell station. As the gas poured into my tank, I took a ice pick and furiously began scraping the stickers off my car. Of course, in this moment, I was removing the cross, which I am sure, looked just fabulous in the middle of nowhere. I’m sure bystanders were wondering about what kind of heathen I was. Oops.

Moreover, bumper stickers, at least from my travels, are curiously a phenomenon in the United States. We love being a place of free speech, so hey, why not use one of the many canvasses we have. Additionally, we likely spend more time in our cars than anyone else, so why not decorate as we wish. There’s one problem that I’m noticing, though, and it’s one of the reasons I don’t want the back of my car loaded with stickers, especially of the political kind.

Bumper stickers – more commonly the political ones – create visceral reactions in the people around us. Okay, so maybe it’s just me, but if I see a sticker that rubs me the wrong way, immediately, I build up improper, incorrect, uninformed, and rude ideologies about the person behind the wheel. Let’s be clear: I don’t even know this person. So, perhaps, less of a problem than the bumper sticker itself is our reaction to it. As an already dangerously divided nation, we keep marking territories of “us” vs “them” faster than we can do anything else. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone, and yet, if I have to be honest, I would say that I’m really tired of everything being so divisive. I’m tired of hate. I’m tired of disunity. I’m tired of rancor. I’m ready for something a little deeper, and a lot more sustainable.

I’m not asking that everyone puts “love” stickers on the back of their cars. I’m also not suggesting that no one should have bumper stickers at all. I’m just noticing that they are there, and so are we, and that we can’t help ourselves to reacting. We think these stickers are saying something about us, but it’s possible, even likely, that the stickers are saying more about the drivers around, and how we’re reacting to all of them. I’m keeping my HRC sticker on my car. I’ll hold on to my Peace Corps one, too. These come from points of pride, honestly, and I like the way they look against the sky-blue color of my car. Sure, I could put the logo of the party that I voted for, or some smart-ass comment about our President, but right now, the most important thing to do is to find the right forum. Create discussion. Encourage conversation.

We don’t have to be defined by the labels – or stickers – we put around us.

We can always be more, always learning, always striving for what’s beyond the boundaries we create. This doesn’t mean agreeing in a kumbaya circle. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got a lot of hate to overcome, and a lot of healing to pursue. So, let’s find meaningful action, not assuming that a bumper sticker or a Facebook post or an Instagram picture is going to move the needle.

We need to read, to listen, to move. We need to become informed citizens, ready to articulate what is happening around us. We need to understand our history and what’s come before us. We need a lot of things, but divisiveness is not one.

I love a funny, good bumper sticker. Just next time you put one up, think about what you are putting out into the road, and therefore, the world.

You really just don’t know, until you think about it.

Drive Safe – and enjoy the view.

One comment

  1. Shannon · August 26

    Yes to every single bit of this piece.

    Like

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