How enthusiasm for cars can break down racial boundaries

Cars can be a great leveller with ‘meet-ups’ helping to bring fans of all race together

We are, all of us, hoist by the petard of our own prejudices, of our own narrow world view. No matter how you view yourself – as worldly, as liberal, as understanding – you, I, we all still pigeon-hole others according to our own peccadillos.

When it comes to cars, those prejudices can become reinforced, entrenched by a feedback loop of our perceptions of the car and what it says about the owner. The thing is, an enthusiasm for cars can actually be a great leveller, a potential way of breaking down racial and class barriers.

That is the thesis of Dr Yunis Alam, a lecturer and researcher in the school of social sciences, sociology and criminology at the University of Bradford.

Dr Alam is a Bradford boy, born and bred, and also something of a car enthusiast himself (if you’re looking for his car-nut, rather than academic credentials, he currently drives an Audi A6, but previously owned – and loved – an Mk1 Toyota MR2). He is himself of Pakistani heritage and so fascinated by the possible links between race, class and taste in cars in 2011 he began researching, by interviewing members of the Pakistani-heritage community in Bradford about what cars they liked and why. The results of his research will be published in a book; Race, Taste, Class and Cars: Culture, Meaning and Identity.


Thatcherism “Cars, like a lot of other objects, they’re not just purely utilitarian,” Dr Alam told The Irish Times. “They’re not just about moving around, even if that might have been the original intention. But if you go back before the car, then people were either riding around on horses, or they were on foot, and that was all about status.

"We see the same thing now in almost all areas, whether it's Samsung versus Apple, or whether it's what type of clothing you wear, even what your postcode is. They all play into who we think we are and who we think someone else is."

For cars, that goes almost double. Bradford, is a city that went through the worst pains of 1980s Thatcherism – “de-industrialisation”, unemployment, and racial tensions.

Nevertheless, today it is not the bleak, industrial wasteland that people often assume. While there are certainly areas of deprivation and poverty, there are also leafy streets, parks, and aspirational areas. Those areas are racially and socially mixed (if still tilted heavily in the direction of white and middle class) and it’s in those areas that, oddly, some of the worst prejudice still occurs.

"I interviewed a young guy, a Pakistani guy, who works for Morrisons, the supermarket chain as a delivery driver. He told me that the best places for him to deliver are local, the roads he knows, and the people he knows. He said that it's much worse when he does to places like Hebden Bridge, or Harrogate – liberal, middle-class areas – where you have purportedly white, intellectual, middle-class people, and they're giving him grief for driving a Morrisons van. Purely because he's clearly not white, and he has a beard that they associate with a certain Muslim stereotype."

Driving a delivery van is, it would seem, bad enough for the people making such value judgments on the basis of someone's skin tone and beard length. Worse can be inferred from someone's personal car. Those sections of the Bradford Pakistani community that are into their cars are – with the broadest possible brush – largely working class. As such, their vehicular enthusiasm is not directed towards what some might consider "legitimate" vehicles, such as classic cars or high-end modern cars, but older models.

These are predominantly Japanese cars, modified with tweaked engines, lowered suspension, bright paint work, and noisy exhausts.

The knee-jerk response from other communities is to assume that these car-nuts are “boy racers” in the most pejorative possible sense. Subsequent assumptions may well be even worse . . .

"You get intelligent people demonising this part of car culture, and actually talking about it as if this expression of culture through art isn't worthwhile," says Dr Alam. "Bradford is a sizeable place, and there's something in the back of most people's minds that tells them that it's not an especially affluent place. So if you come into this environment, and see a car like a Bentley or a Rolls, or even a Range Rover, you start thinking that doesn't fit here, it's not a Micra or a Mondeo or something.

Drug money “So you start trying to make sense of that, of that mismatch, and where most people’s minds go is ‘drug dealer’. Now, I’m not saying that drug dealers don’t have nice cars, but for the most part they are people who don’t especially want to be noticed.

“What you actually have is people who, they’re not aspiring to be a drug dealer, but they like some of the inferred lifestyle, the thug life, the 50 Cent look, that sort of thing. And that leaves a very fertile ground for some imaginative storylines to run riot.

“I spoke to one woman who said ‘Oh, well, it’s obvious where the money for these cars comes from.’ I was feeling cheeky, so I responded ‘Yeah, the bank.’ And she was shocked, and actually said that it was clearly coming from drug money, even though she was the one driving a forty-grand Mercedes.”

The odd thing is that the enthusiasm for modified cars, however innocent, can drive a strange kind of internal prejudice, whereby other people in the Pakistani or immigrant community look down on the car-nuts and modifiers as if they’re giving everyone a bad name.

"Some people, within the Pakistani community, feel as if they are disrupting and offending. It even goes so far as disgust, sometimes. People have said, 'You're not speaking for me, you and your car, your Subaru Impreza with the gold spinner wheels. Why are you living like that?'"

In Ireland, enthusiasm for cars is still, generally, a very white-centric interest, but there are divisions here too that we should work to eradicate. After all, is it any less legitimate in the motoring world to be into loud exhausts and bigger stereos than it is to be into historic racing cars and 1960s classics? In the midst of ongoing societal conflicts driven by people's prejudices, it's worth remembering that it's also wrong to draw conclusions from someone's choice of car.