Race, Class, Gender, and Utah Drivers 101

Audrey Thompson

It is a well-known fact that schools in the U.S. suppress any discussion of social conflict. As a result, many of us do not have good tools for talking about race, class, gender, sexuality, or Utah drivers. Nevertheless, it is common for Americans to believe that they have all the tools they need to talk about controversial issues.

But whereas most of us talk about race or sexuality only in closed circles where we assume that we know what other people think, many people will talk about Utah drivers to anyone at all.

Not everyone is consumed with the topic of Utah drivers. I myself am not all that interested in the topic and I can imagine that, outside of Utah, it is probably not on the daily menu of outrage. But around here it is a hot topic. Ivan talks about it every day, and he is far from the only one. On the buses, people hardly talk about anything else.

When the Olympics were here, I showed Frank how to use the bus system. If you wanted to go to campus during the Olympics, you pretty much had to take the bus or Trax.

Trax Trax

We were not really supposed to go on campus at all, if we could help it, and on certain selected, not-to-be-announced-in-advance days, we were not allowed to drive there. Campus was closed and all the building doors were locked, but the staff had to be there anyway, in case anyone came to see them.

Fortress Salt Lake Fortress Salt Lake

The Secret Service people checked name tags to make sure you were who you said you were. They did not check very closely. They didn’t look at the actual photo or identification; they just looked at the geek strap to see if the string had the correct Olympic colors. This seemed to me somewhat shortsighted. If terrorists planned to sneak into the Education building to bomb it (not that this seemed likely; if someone is going to bomb Milton Bennion Hall, it is almost certain to be one of the occupants. Possibly even the dean, who has declared it too ugly to live), it would not have been an insurmountable obstacle for a criminal to steal a geek strap from someone. Most professors just stashed theirs in their desks.

Milton Bennion Hall

I hate to say it, but I do not think our secret intelligence personnel are as intelligent as they could be. Or, for that matter, as secret as you’d expect. During the Cold War, whenever the USSR had state and diplomatic functions, all the people from the KGB and all the people from the CIA would sit at the same table, so they could talk to other people in their same general line of work.

I never saw any Secret Service people on campus myself; maybe they were working behind the scenes. Or maybe they were the ones with M-16A2s, guarding the parking lots.

Since campus was off-limits to cars, professors who had never used public transportation before had to learn to take the bus. Now, you would not think that riding a bus would require intensive training, but that is where you would be wrong. I don’t think Frank will ever try it again, it was so complicated. It was not just that we had to change buses, which Frank considered bad enough. When you’re driving, you hardly ever have to switch vehicles. But if you are going to change buses, you have to know their schedules. During the Olympics, it was impossible to predict any bus schedule, even once you were on the actual bus.

All the regular routes had changed a few months before the Olympics; they changed again the week immediately before the Olympics started. As Frank and I walked around downtown, trying to find a bus, I explained how the regular routes differed from the Olympics routes. It turned out that the Olympic routes had changed again three days earlier. There was no way to know when the bus would show up, or, when it did, where it would go. The bus driver had to invent his route as he went along, because almost every road to campus was blocked.

When we finally got to the office, I said to Frank, “Now you know how to take the bus. Unfortunately, you do not know any of the routes, since they will all change tomorrow.”

“They probably won’t change again before next week, do you think?” said Frank.

“Yes,” I said, “I do think.”

“This is the most interesting thing about the bus ride,’ said Frank, ”discovering your deepest maxim of life — that everything will change by tomorrow.“

”It wasn’t my maxim yesterday,“ I pointed out, ’but it is now.”

When we got to the office, I went to talk to Marty, who is the administrative assistant for the department. “Did you take the bus?” he asked. I said yes, and he told me that when he came to work, he discovered that no one was allowed to park in our parking lot. He called Parking Services to complain that we had not been told that parking was off limits that day and yet there were cement barriers preventing anyone from entering the parking lot.

“Just remove the barriers,” said the person at the other end of the phone.

“Standing next to the cement barriers are people with semi-automatic rifles,” said Marty. “I am not moving those barriers.”

“Just drive around the barriers then,” advised the clueless Parking person.

Marty went on to tell me about all the street closures around the university. “Did you know that such-and-such a road was closed this morning but will be open this evening but then may or may not be open tomorrow?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “How are we supposed to know things like that?”

“You’re not supposed to know them,” Marty said. “You are just supposed to expect constant change. No day will be remotely like the next.”

“Could you put that in writing?” I asked. “Because that is my new maxim.”

It turned out that this was an uncannily accurate prediction of life with house painters. Every day brought a new standard for the job being “finished.”

When Ivan and I had our house painted last summer, the supposed end result included large unpainted areas, lots of dribbles of green paint on white, smudges of paint on the windows, splatters of paint on the screen doors, and paint chips all over the yard. The painters had already told us several times that the house was “done” when clearly it was not what your ordinary person would call “finished.” It was like when your seventh grader shows you her history homework and it is covered with crossed-out words, misspellings, false information, drifting margins, and oversize print to make the essay look longer, but she says confidently, “I’m done.” Confused that anyone would say that the painting job was done when it was obviously far from done, we pointed out the various flaws in the finished product. The painters were not persuaded. According to them, the problem was not with their job, which they found excellent in the extreme; the problem was that we were using the wrong standard. “Driving by,” they explained, “the house looks great.”

The view driving by
The view driving by
Harley checks the paint job from inside
Harley checks the paint job from inside
The stationary view
The stationary view
The stationary view

“But we don’t drive by; we live here,” we pointed out. “And we are the ones who paid for the job, not the people driving by.”

“Yes, but from the street, driving by, don’t you think it looks great?” they demanded. Personally, I have not yet met any house owners who accept a drive-by standard for house-painting, but it may be that this is considered state-of-the-art among house painters. Something very like this is in fact the standard among quilting teachers, from what I understand. When Mom made a quilted wall hanging several years ago, she was upset to discover that it was ½ inch longer on one side than on the other. Her quilting teacher told her not to worry about it. “If you galloped by on a wild horse you wouldn’t even notice that,” she said.

Confronted with the drive-by standard, Ivan and I reacted as home owners rather than as, say, cultural observers. Only later did it occur to me that I had passed up the opportunity to inquire more fully into a standard of judgment that, from my perspective, is rather surreal, but that, from another perspective, might seem almost normal. One of our friends — coincidentally, he is an academic — reads comic strips not because they are funny but because they represent a worldview that he finds different and debatable. He is interested in finding out how those people think. He takes a clinical, scientific attitude towards comics. It may be that I should have adopted a similarly interested but distant stance towards the house painters. Rather than trying to ease the painters into the fumeless world of non-house-painters, I could have tried to figure out what makes them tick.

From their point of view, perhaps, Utah being something of a car culture — people think nothing of driving forty-five minutes somewhere to ride a bike — one must consider things like house painting jobs from the perspective of car drivers. If I had pursued this puzzle with a philosopher’s zeal instead of a home owner’s, I would not have asked them things like, “When you say that you did not get these paint spots all over our brand-new door and screen, who were you thinking might have been responsible?” I would have asked questions like, “When you refer to the perspective of the average car driver driving by, what would you say is most typical of their mindset? What aesthetic judgments do you find that, on average, car drivers are inclined to make? Are there fashions in drive-by viewing, so that a kind of Brad Pittly scruffiness is all the rage among drivers one year but Cary Grantish insouciance and elegance are the clear preference the next?”

I also would have asked about individual variation in drivers and their standards. Not being familiar with a vast array of drivers, I can only speak for the few I know, but even among those few I detect a fair range. Some of them comment minutely on the appearance of pedestrians while ignoring the appearance of buildings altogether. “I don’t like that Mickey Mouse shirt” is the kind of comment one driver will make. Another rarely comments on the exterior of houses but closely observes the goings-on of lit-up living rooms at night. “Look, I think they have one of those wide-screen televisions!” she will say. “I wonder what show they’re watching?” Still another driver I know reserves his comments strictly for other drivers’ parking habits and pirated privileges. “Ha! Handicapped spot. No one driving a Porsche has a handicap.”

Like I say, I don’t know that many drivers personally — to know their private patterns of aesthetic judgment, I mean — but, on the other hand, I have noticed something that may have a bearing on the issue of aesthetic judgment while driving. Utah drivers do not care to use their turn signals on a wasteful everyday basis, and it may be that they do not care to see Picassoesque painting skills wasted on your everyday, none-too-fancy house. It may be that your discerning car driver passing by takes it as a firm principle that “Sunday” house painting should be saved for best and that a house that is only going to get rained and snowed on anyway is not a house that should be worried about a few spare splatters of paint here and there.

I would be curious to know what your average driver would say about the painted cobweb. Although zeal was not our house painters’ outstanding characteristic, they did carefully cover a cobweb with paint. It could have been worse. Jeff, our carpenter, told us about one house that had Cheerios painted onto it. We don’t know whether someone had previously attached the Cheerios to the wall, whether the Cheerios fell in the paint, or whether someone used the paintbrush to sweep Cheerios off the table before getting to work on the painting; possibly the full story was something that only my brother would understand. Whatever the case, the people who lived in the Cheerio-painted house did not object to the effect, so perhaps the drive-by principle really is state-of-the-art. But even if people driving by would not have known the difference, would they really approve, I wonder?

We happen to live on a corner; it might not be all that hard to go stand by the stop sign and take a poll.

Ivan does not think that it is safe for me to talk to Utah drivers. He doesn’t trust them. “It’s amazing that in a country that puts this many people in prison, they can’t keep more people off the streets,” Ivan says. “In Utah, every other vehicle is driven by a criminal mastermind.” He usually refers to all other drivers as “Utah drivers,” although a close observer might note that he himself has Utah plates and a Utah driver’s license.

In class, I sometimes enlist the metaphors of drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists to talk about how society is organized to work more smoothly and invisibly for some groups than others. This is a limited metaphor, since it doesn’t address oppression or exploitation, but it has the advantage of offering recognizable points of view. When I asked the students in a recent undergraduate class to imagine themselves either as drivers, pedestrians, or cyclists frustrated with at least one of the other two groups, they had no trouble getting into their roles; frankly, they had a hard time getting out of them again.

You would think that talking about race, class, gender, and sexuality would offer plenty of scope for the expression of strong points of view, but the only time that this class really got to shouting was whenever Utah drivers came up. Ivan recommends renaming the class “Race, Class, Gender, and Utah Drivers,” if I want to draw crowds.

It is true that the race part of the undergraduate class is not a big draw. Race is like education; it is a topic most people assume that they are already experts on. When I have been so rash as to tell people that I teach teachers, their usual response is, “Ah, so you’re interested in education. Let me tell you the problem with education today.” If they hear that I study race issues, they feel a little sorry for me, having bothered to do research in something that, had they but realized, they could have cleared up for me in a couple of minutes.

The solution to race problems today, many people tell me, is for white people to be colorblind, just as they themselves are, and for people of color not to be so sensitive about race. People of color should be more like white people, who really never worry about race from one minute to the next and may never think about it at all.

White Americans often claim to be colorblind, but that doesn’t mean that they do not have strong ideas about what people of color should look like.

Paula Smith, for example, has been urged to recall that one of her parents must be white. Although she assures the people who tell her this that both her parents are black, and that she is really quite sure, her personal testimony does not carry much weight with them; it seems to them that one of her parents had to be white, and that even if she does not know it, they do.

Paula Smith
Paula Smith

Dolores Delgado Bernal has been allowed to keep her own parents but has been pressed to acknowledge a different birthplace. While Octavio and Dolores were at an event with some other couples, one of their dinner companions said to Dolores, “You look very exotic, Dolores. Where are you from?”

“Kansas,” said Dolores.

“Really? Where were your parents from?”

“Kansas,” said Dolores.

“Wow. What about your grandparents?”

“They’re from Kansas,” said Dolores. The inquisition encompassed seven generations. Finally, Dolores said, “My people are all from Kansas. They lived in Kansas before it was Kansas.” To accept this, of course, you’d have to believe that there was a time when Kansas was not Kansas. I understand it was very exotic back then.

Dolores Delgado Bernal
Dolores Delgado Bernal

Sometimes white people get asked who their grandparents were by other white people.  Strangers ask, “Were you adopted?” or “Where were your ancestors from?” as a way to find out if a white person might have brown or black ancestry.  One of my white students said, “I get asked where I’m from or who my grandparents were practically every day!  By total strangers!  What’s that about?”  “That,” said another white student, “is the ‘Welcome to our country’ speech we give to people who we know must not be from here and we want them to feel welcome while we find out where they are from.”

For some whites, race is exotic; for others, it is controversial. A lot of whites prefer not to mention race. They worry that reminding people of color about their race will make them edgy; it is better not to say anything.

This is not the only reason that whites prefer not to discuss race issues, of course. In the classroom, white students tend not to want to think about race less because it is a controversial topic than because they have already read an article or paragraph about it in another class. It is a lot like how they feel about using English; they don’t want to get all worked up about English when they already covered that topic two years ago. Usually they are in favor of English; some even believe in the English Only Act; but they do not care to use English themselves. Foreigners obviously need to study it, but there is no need for other people to knock themselves out, is the widely accepted view.

When I worked at ParkIand College Bookstore in Champaign, I had a student employee who wrote me notes that I could barely decipher. “What’s with this spelling? You are in college now, you know,” I reminded her.

“I am not going to use my good spelling for a note,” she told me. “That is my relaxed spelling. I am saving my good spelling for class.” In her view, spelling was like ball gowns. You are not going to wear a ball gown to write a note in; you are going to wear your sweats. Others would say that it is more like turn signals. Utah drivers save their turn signals for Sunday best.

Now that I am a professor, I find that many students do not want to use their spelling even for class. “This is not an English class,” they complain. “We should not have to use spelling and grammar and punctuation.”

“Actually, it is an English class,” I explain. “We are going to be using English practically the whole time. If it were a French class, I would grade you on your French, but since it is an English class, you will have to use your English.”

What they mean, they tell me, is that they want to reserve their ability to write clearly and carefully for English classes that are specifically about writing clearly and carefully. “This is college,” I remind them. “This is why you learned not to put apostrophes in every seventh word and to use paragraphs and to spell its/it’s and affect/effect and site/sight/cite correctly and to write sentences with verbs — so that you could write papers for your college classes. It’s not just this class. You should be using your writing skills in all of your courses.” But a lot of students feel that, having covered spelling and grammar and the structure of an argument in tenth grade, they are done with composition and should never have to worry about it again.

Race is like writing. It is not a special topic to get out of the way once and for all in tenth grade. Race is wrapped up in almost all of how we think, although most of us do not have the skills for thinking carefully about it. We may not even realize that we are thinking about it.

This is an important way that the topic of race is different from the topic of Utah drivers — a lot of people think about Utah drivers pretty much all the time and they would acknowledge it in a heartbeat. But if you ask them about race they will say that it is not important and often upsetting and that the best thing you can do, really, is to stop thinking about it altogether. There are only so many hours in the day, and at least twelve of them are needed for arguing about Utah drivers.

Not long ago, I was at a race conference in Lewisburg, and I have to admit that the topic of Utah drivers did not come up once.

If you have never heard of Lewisburg, I personally do not find it at all surprising. By contrast, you probably have heard of Utah. Utah is on your map. It is right near a lot of other Western states that you may have heard of, although if you are from New York you probably have not heard of them.

Utah Map by Abby Blacker, age 9
Utah Map by Abby Blacker, age 9

Not even people from the West have heard of all the states out here. Western states are on the large side, and it is hard to remember what is a state and what is a country. When I tried to mail something to New Mexico through the University of Utah’s campus mail, the letter came back marked, “Foreign country — requires additional postage.”

I put additional postage on my letter to Canada, but it came back anyway. “Not in the U.S.,” I was advised.

Lewisburg is a small town in Pennsylvania that does not appear on most maps. When I rented a car in Wilkes-Barre and asked Hertz for directions to Lewisburg, they had never heard of it. This did not stop them from offering confident guesses about what might be a good way to get there. Luckily, Doris happened to be at the Hertz desk at the same time as me and told me to go in the opposite direction.

Lewisburg turned out to be a nice little town. The main street is lined with strip malls and fast food joints; the cross street has nice old buildings, some boutiques, and a bunch of national chain stores with old-timey wooden signs hanging out front.

As a town, it has its points — the campus is pleasant, and there’s a great Italian pizza place in a strip mall at the edge of town — but it is not the kind of place you would visit twice. Then again, a lot of people might say that you wouldn’t visit Peoria twice, but where I went to high school — a little rural town called Chillicothe — when people talked about going to the City, they did not mean Chicago; they meant Peoria, and going there was An Event. Many Chillicotheans had been to Peoria three times or more.

I stayed on Lewisburg’s strip mall street, in a chain hotel with a discarded Coke machine in the backyard, sky blue bathroom fixtures, and a receptionist who denied everything anyone asked him. I may be the first person in history to have stayed three nights running in that hotel. Even the receptionist, who at first pretended not to know anything about my staying there, began to treat me like a permanent resident.

Matt was at the same race conference. Matt is white, but he grew up in a black neighborhood with black friends and he sounds like a black guy. Last spring, he called one of the airlines for a ticket from Salt Lake City to Chicago, and the person taking his reservation asked, “How many people of your color are out there, anyway?” “Quite a few,” Matt said blandly. “You’d be surprised.”

In Lewisburg, there was also some confusion about Matt’s accent. A couple of women asked Matt where he was from. “Michigan,” he said. “Is that a Michigan accent?” they asked earnestly. “You sound so . . . Southern,” they added delicately. What with it being a race conference and all, Matt didn’t want to embarrass them, so he didn’t say what he usually says when people ask, “Is that a Michigan accent?” What he usually says is, “No. It’s black.”

In Salt Lake City, this is the kind of thing we know without asking.

Matt at a peace rally in Salt Lake City
Matt at a peace rally in Salt Lake City
Matt at the NCUR conference
Matt at the NCUR conference
at the University of Utah

Living in a small town in the middle of nowhere does not stop people from thinking that you would be nuts to live anywhere else. Someone at the Lewisburg conference asked Matt where he was going to school. “University of Utah,” he said. Presumably meaning her reply as a compliment to his intelligence, she urged, “You have to get out of there.”

“Where are you from?” I asked the woman with false friendliness. I am accustomed to condescension from people from outside of Utah, but I am not crazy about it. Once, someone from Boston recommended that the University of Utah’s Women’s Studies program bring out a speaker she thought we would be interested in. “I know for a fact that this scholar has visited Albuquerque,” the woman assured me. “Your point being,” I said mildly, “that she is not afraid to visit the Western states?”

“That’s right,” she agreed.

It is one thing to be from Boston and be condescending. It is another thing to be from Lewisburg and be condescending. This woman was from Lewisburg, where you can’t rent a car and the single taxi on call is iffy.

In Salt Lake City, you can rent as many cars as you want.

Now, I’m not saying that Utah doesn’t have its downside; it does. For example, a lot of people in Utah are homophobic. But then again, a lot of people in the rest of the U.S. are homophobic. Millions of people in the other forty-nine states act unbecomingly if they find out that Heather has two mommies. What is interesting about Utah, and somewhat distinctive, is that our state legislators are typically more worried if Heather has two mommies than if she has seven.

Racial profiling, by contrast, is something many Utah legislators refuse to worry about. When Representative Duane Bordeaux repeatedly tried to get a bill passed to determine why in Utah — which is overwhelmingly white — a disproportionate number of traffic arrests involve black and brown drivers, the legislators blocking the bill explained that probably there just were a lot more really bad black and brown drivers. When I mentioned this in class, my students, who were all white, laughed. They found it hard to believe that anyone could be a worse driver than the average Utah driver, who is white. At any given stop light, at least one driver will sail through the red light. Many straddle the dividing line between two lanes or zig zag all over the road, perhaps as a result of all those progressive coloring books in the seventies and eighties that told kids to color outside of the lines. Of drivers who stay in their lanes, ninety percent prefer to drive in the passing lane at 20 m.p.h. under the minimum speed limit, while the remaining ten percent drive in the right lane at 30 m.p.h. over the legal speed limit. The only people who use turn signals are the ones who leave them on for fifteen blocks. Cadillacs speed up for school crossings, Porsches slow down for green lights.

Actually, it turns out that you are supposed to slow down for green lights. Kris found this out when she got a ticket for going through a yellow light, when she was in back of a bus and couldn’t see the traffic signal change. She asked the officer why she would get a ticket for going through a yellow light anyway — wasn’t a yellow light just a warning that the light was going to turn red? No, said the officer, “a yellow light means stop.” A red light also means stop. Just out of interest, Kris asked what a green light meant. A green light, the officer told her, means “get ready to stop.”

It might be helpful if more people knew this, since a lot of people here take the red light to mean “speed up.” We have more pedestrian slaughter than almost anywhere in the country. People here are very nice until they get behind the wheel. It changes you. Even the mildest of my friends gun the engine when they see someone step into a crosswalk.

Then again, some Utah drivers who pride themselves on being reckless are actually quite cautious. The other day, I was driving behind one of those Tintin-style cars, a white P.T. Cruiser; it had racing flames painted along the side like a souped-up 1957 Chevy and a sticker in the rear window proclaiming the driver a speed demon. The Cruiser wasn’t in the passing lane, because there was no passing lane, but it was obeying the distinctive Utah passing-lane custom of going 15 m.p.h. The passenger was clinging to the grab strap for dear life.

I probably should put all this in perspective. A journalist at the Peoria Journal Star once did an informal study to see how many people in the Peoria area drove over or under the speed limit. I forget how long he spent checking this out, but I do remember that he drove exactly the speed limit and was passed by practically every car on the road. There was only one driver he was able to pass, and that guy was reading the newspaper as he drove. For all I know, the same is true of Lewisburg.

The average driver in the U.S. commits three traffic violations within two blocks of leaving home. While my students and I hadn’t heard this statistic before, when we did hear it we had no trouble recognizing the sliding stops, failure to signal, illegal lane changes, speed limit violations, failure to stop for pedestrians, and zipping through school zones that are the norm for most drivers, including us. Hardly anyone in Utah ever gets stopped for those offenses, even if there is a cop right there. This is why it is so suspicious that black and brown people are being stopped right and left. Within a month of moving to Utah, William got a ticket for going 5 m.p.h. over the speed limit, and a few months after that, when he dropped me off at my house, a patrol car came up behind us, lights flashing. I jumped out of the car to ask what was the matter; when they saw me, the cops backed off, saying, “Is everything all right? We just wondered. You were parked kind of far from the curb.” I looked at the curb; they looked at the curb. There were four inches between the curb and the wheels. The cops waited till I got out of the car and then they followed William for ten blocks. William is black.

When I told Ivan this story, he was not surprised that William was followed; disturbed, but not surprised. What alarmed him was that I was so ignorant. “You jumped out of the car?” he said. “Are you insane? You could have been shot!” I had never heard of being shot for parking four inches from the curb, but I suppose rules are rules.

For me, there are a lot of things about living in Utah’s car culture that are not intuitive. One thing I don’t understand is why the city built a big fancy covered arena to store road salt in. The salt is dredged up from the Salt Lake by the vat; it’s not like it has been poured by hand from little imported salt cellars. At night, the salt arena is lit up with security lights and there is a locked gate to prevent people from coming in and stealing the road salt. Of course, you can walk around the gate if you are going to steal just a little bit, but if you were going to drive up your truck or SUV and steal a whole bunch, the city is way ahead of you. You are not going to be able to get your truck around the locked gate. Besides, the salt is all lit up and you will be caught.

Carefully protected pile of salt
Carefully protected pile of salt Carefully protected pile of salt
Carefully protected pile of salt

The system has worked very well so far. Not one single person has been caught trying to steal the city’s salt. Or if they have, the story has been kept very quiet.


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