My Car Got Keyed. Here’s What It Taught Me About Division In Our Country.

This month, I left it all. I quit my job, walked from my house, and gave almost everything away. I packed what was left into my Prius to take the next year off for a roadtrip. I’m traveling across the United States to connect with everyday people who are bridging across difference in our country.

The first thing I’d need for the journey: a car. I was shocked when my friend offered his old wheels. “I’m not using it anyways, I was going to donate it,” he told me. Now that’s a good friend!

I picked it up, drove it home, and parked it. I was going to spend the week getting it ready for a cross-country trip.

The next day, when I got back to my car, I saw two bold words keyed into the sides of my door: “CHEATER” and “LIAR.” It cut right through the paint, etched so deep that whoever did it really wanted the world to know that they were hurt.

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The thing is — they got the wrong guy.

That might seem like the obvious answer for an alleged cheater and liar to say, but it’s the truth. Twenty-nine years around the sun and I haven’t ever been in the kind of romantic relationship where I could have cheated on someone (the epic saga of my love life is a story for another time).

At the time, there was still some mold growth under the floor carpets that I needed to take care of. I also hadn’t received the plates for my car yet. So for a few days, I drove around the city with the windows completely down — to air out the smell — and no license plates. The words “CHEATER” and “LIAR” were also etched in big letters on the sides of my car too. Despite the condition of my vehicle, my spirits were high.

I remember one sunny day, I was stopped at a red light. A woman pulled up in the lane next to me. She saw me in my pink onesie — perfect driving attire. I looked like this:

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My dress made her smile. But then, her eyes gazed down toward the word “CHEATER” keyed into my car. Her smile quickly turned into a look of disgust. She sneered at me, rolled up her window and looked away. I tried to tell her through her wall of protective glass, “It’s not what it looks like! They got the wrong guy!” But as soon as the light turned green, she sped off. I felt awful for something I didn’t do, and even a little angry. More than anything, I felt judged.

A few weeks later, I installed my licenses plates and bought a $20 can of spray paint — matching the color of my Prius — to cover up the keyed messages. As I painted my doors, it dawned on me. I realized why I went through this experience before I began a roadtrip to report on division and unity.

That woman in the car beside me, a complete stranger, made an assumption about who I was based on a label forced onto me by someone else. Being seen as a cheater and liar shaped her whole perspective about me before we really got to know each other. She didn’t have an opportunity to hear my story. I didn’t have a chance to hear hers either. The circumstance made us feel a mix of anger, disgust and sadness — not the healthiest or most productive emotions.

How often does this kind of thing happen in our lives? For me, I’m both the woman and the man. I’ve judged others based on my biases and assumptions. I’ve also been judged too. It’s easy for us to take labels bestowed on people we don’t know — whose stories we haven’t yet heard — and assume they’re truthful. What do we really gain from this though? More importantly, what do we lose?

The dominant mass media — like MSNBC or Fox News — tend to paint divisional lines and often cast the opposition as enemies. We don’t often take the time to question these labels and really listen to each other.

In psychology, there’s a term called the availability heuristic. It informs the way we view people who are novel or extreme to us. Many people’s exposure to social groups they do not regularly interact with (Muslims, African Americans, undocumented immigrants, Trump supporters) are through news reports. This is due to segregation or a lack of access (e.g. a small town might not have people from a social group who live there). Since the news doesn’t report on positive stories, the news we see about these social groups are often framed negatively (e.g. related to crime). This information from news sources is a filtered, small subset of a group that reaffirms stereotypes, and ultimately leads to discrimination.

If we have more information to draw from, it counters these stereotypes. For instance, if we have friends from these social groups, we can pull from those interactions to balance what we see on the news. We might watch a news piece that casts Muslims in a negative light and think: “My friends are Muslim, this doesn’t represent them at all.” (Writer’s note: the media’s mission to expose the truth and bring accountability to power structures is important to me. I’m not trying to cast a bad light on journalism as a field).

Hopefully, we can all develop our practice to become better listeners. By prioritizing understanding, we can avoid making the kinds of snap judgments that deepen the lines of division. Through this journey across the country, I know that I’ll find good people. Some of them will even be allies who are bridging differences like I am. Like a can of spray paint, I hope this trip covers up the labels of those who I don’t know with real stories that are based on truth. In order for me to look out and report on our country’s division and unity, I need to look in and find ways to address it within myself.

Scott Shigeoka