'Hello, Jav, Got a New Motor?': Cars, (De)Racialization and Muslim Identity
The car is a symbolic presence at the heart of the everyday experience of multi-ethnic coexistence. Exploring the potential significance of car ownership among members of the Pakistani/Muslim population in Bradford has an inherent interest and virtue, but more acutely, it can shed light on social relations where class, gender, religion and ethnicity intersect.
The ‘young Asian/White/Muslim/Black male driver’ has acquired a certain meaning and reputation which has largely negative associations across Britain. However, once stereotypes are unpicked and engaged with, car culture can offer vital insights: first, into how some aspects of broader ‘British Muslim’ identity are framed; and second, that often negative, exoticized and racialized aspects of identity can be detuned and thus made less potent markers of racialized thinking.
Alongside its passengers, the car carries a range of other connotations tied with class, gender, generation and, powerfully and complexly, with ethnicity. The car has a myriad of layered meaning above and beyond the scope of transport and mobility. Indeed, over the decades, it has become even more acutely tied into the realm of popular culture and consumption and is therefore, certainly today, a powerful symbol which can both flatten and homogenize identity, on the one hand, while allowing identity to become interwoven with very sophisticated levels of nuance and individuation on the other. For example, while ‘Mondeo Man’ became shorthand for Mister Average, the world of car customization, tuning and enhancement can inscribe the same vehicle with distinctive, personal aesthetics and contemporary forms of working-class artisanship and creativity.
Within my previous ethnographically grounded research with young Bradfordian Pakistani Muslim men, a regular feature was the significance of and meanings associated with cars/car ownership. For some of the participants, a ‘nice’ car was important not only as a symbol of personal economic success, but as a means of expressing identity: car manufacturer, model and the presence of after-market modifications resulted in either a high- or low-value commodity as defined by an ‘imagined’ community of drivers with its attendant, but fluid, tastes and preferences.
In more recent research from Husband et al., several of those who prided themselves on modifying their vehicles, and in some cases owning unadulterated prestige or sports vehicles, were aware that the nature/look/ sound of their car attracts particular attention from members of the local community or the police. Often, such car owners are conscious of the risks: of being labeled as or perceived to be corrupt or criminal. As one respondent, S.J. (a 30-something businessman), stated:
In Bradford, it (the Range Rover model) does have that gangster image so a few people have said to me ‘Why you driving a gangster car for? You should have a respectable car.’ I mean, what is a respectable car? The gangsters have them all! Everything what you drive in Bradford, above a certain price tag, it’s a gangster car.
Meanings and connotations weaving both class and ethnicity can be seen within the ‘motoscape’ of a multicultural city such as Bradford. At a very fundamental level, this can be interpreted to be a repetition of the oft-cited claim that cars can both carry and project high or low status. Because there are associations between a place and its wealth, its residents and their income, as well as ethnicities and ‘behaviours’/’cultures’, it is arguably convenient to make mental shortcuts that end up becoming established routes to understanding. Once existing racial codes and thinking are internalized in such ways, the race thinking narrative becomes normative and therefore all the more difficult to overcome.
However, cars offer much richer and vibrant forms of data which connect with issues linked with the realms of economy, employment and identity; as well as aspiration, leisure, conflict and art, and with a range of human emotions which the car facilitates and conveys: data drawn from individual car owners provides texture and depth, allowing our insights to become more nuanced and grounded and less prone to drawing, for example, racist conclusions. The car, and car culture, allows us to explore not only how and where patterns of racialized discourse take place, but also to deconstruct, resist and, ultimately, to allow processes of deracialization to become normative and everyday. To that end, what may seem to be a nerdish interest in car culture yields deeper exploration and understanding of identity and diversity at an historical moment where such facets of human life – for academic, policy and public discourse – appear to have become less important than fixations with extremism, fear and insecurity.