Riddle me this? An advanced test on racism and classism


I repost things i think are clever from Facebook with some regularity, i re-shared the image above.

The response from one friend i got on this post was “fuck this racist, classist paternalism.”

i have some explanation of this now, and i am wondering if it is clear to others.  This is what i got from one helpful friend:

Here is where the issue lies…. This is not a gas pump in an upscale neighborhood. This is an old, beatendown, rusted pump with bullet holted in it. So essentially what it’s saying to some people of a certain mindset is, “Hey poor, second class citizens, stop bitching about rising gas prices and ride your damn bike.”

More thoughts on this to come.  Your  (especially critical ones) are welcome.


About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

22 responses to “Riddle me this? An advanced test on racism and classism”

  1. cardin seabrook says :

    i like the bullet holes. ur friend is skitzo

  2. joshua t says :

    I would classify this as reflective of the fact that due to circumstance this particular pump is no longer of service, it’s location is not definite to me (unless I’m missing something?) How thoughful of the former proprietor for their kind suggestion. I have a television paited READ. tho. have fun, ha.

  3. Kip Gardner says :

    I assume that the image is photoshopped, so there’s no actual ‘reality’ to comment on with regard to the photo. However, my take on the sentiment of the photo is one that I sometimes point out to my environmental science class – namely that those of us in the “haves” category are essentially telling the “have nots” all over the world “WE had a wonderful party, SO sorry you missed it. Now, be good peasants and go get by on whatever crumbs you can scrounge.” I’m guessing that may be part of what’s behind your friend’s comment. I usually follow up my comment with an observation that we are now obligated to find solutions that work for everyone. I know, I’m one of those subversive, anti-capitalist academics (who also happens to run a small business) 😉

  4. Eric says :

    I wouldn’t have thought of that, although I can see it. My first thought was that I don’t think my kids would recognize that as a gas pump! It reminds me of a clever Facebook picture I’ve seen in which a picture of a bike with a caption “burns fat, makes you healthy” and a picture of a car with the caption “burns fossil fuel, makes you fat”. Who knows, maybe someone’s offended by that too. lol

  5. Co says :

    I think this image is more about an artistic warning more anything else. There is something about it that seems to hark back to a ‘better time” where the gas flowed freely. Where everybody was all too happy to hop off their bikes and buy some gas to fuel their can do spirit. “See the USA in your Chevrolet”. That time now seems long ago, as does this pump.

    If you will: it almost looks like (stars and stripes aside) something out a post-industrial-Stalinist-shit-hole. Once our union collapses. Gas no longer being available, stations and pumps will fall out of service, and quickly became dilapidated.

    Let it be a warning — time out of place… there will come a day when the pump no longer helps you live a life a cosmopolitan modernity…
    And it’s back to the bike.

    And to the co who thinks this image is targeted only at the peasantry, I don’t think that will be the case for very long….

  6. joan says :

    well, taking the photo literally and to heart, this is what i see – it’s a rural gas pump. assuming a racial divide, class divide, and gender divide, as your friend did, we’ll put ‘non whites’, poorer folks, and women on the low side of things just by default. i am a woman who is not wealthy, and while to me this sign feels hopeful – i’d love more people to ride bikes and get rid of cars – it can also be considered presumptuous. if you can afford to ride your bike somewhere this rural, it means you have the freedom of time to take longer to get where you need to go. i live paycheck to paycheck and often consider biking the 13 miles to my job to save on gas in a borrowed vehicle, but can’t justify the extra time it would take when i need those hours on my land caring for my livestock and doing other work that needs done. how nice for rich white boys that they get to play with signs and haughtily tell people that they should go buy an expensive touring bike and cross the country without using petroleum – now if only i could outfit myself with hundreds or thousands of dollars of nice gear and have weeks of my schedule freed up from feeding myself and paying for my shelter to go somewhere else! sure that’s a devil’s advocate situation, and can also be true enough depending on who’s on each side of this conversation. it doesn’t change the truth in my mind that the more we support biking and transitioning away from vehicles the easier and more realistic it’ll be for Everyone to do so without threatening their solvency or livelihood.

  7. Nexus says :

    I want to fail this test. Here’s how:

    I don’t think this is a Photoshop job. If it is, the artist wasted too much time on making the letters look like a real gas pump. My theory is that someone found this old gas pump in a junkyard. It was discarded long ago due to the rust, and the bullet holes, and it had probably stopped working. Then some transition towns activist started to wonder if this decaying relic could be turned into some kind of political statement in favor of sustainability. Constrained by having only three 4-letter words to work with, the activist manages to painstakingly turn the knobs of this derelict machine until it says something pithy.

    The activist probably never stopped to think how some people take offense at any imperative sentence and react with, “you can’t tell me what to do!” Or about how it would be labeled “paternalism”. Or how someone else would interpret the word “paternalism” to mean sexism. Or how the rust, which enabled access to the machine in the first place, is interpreted as classism, which is then extended into racism (assumingly because some races in the US have a disproportionate number living in poverty.)

    I’m worried about this subcultural trend that encourages taking offense at words and symbols, and then uses outrage as a social bargaining chip, and a way to pass time with friends. There is so much tangible, physical oppression going on in the world, that I’d hate to see most of the concern focused on photographs.

    If I were the activist who created this photo, I’d react to this post by either wanting to quit activism altogether and go drive an SUV, or if I took it personally, I’d want to go ride my bike off a cliff in a desperate act of contrition. I’m concerned about the cultural chill effect of this kind of invective. I’d like to see space opened up to talk about issues of sexism, racism, classism and myriad other perspectives as well with an emotionally safer, nonjudgmental approach.

    I’m not willing to settle for a culture of identity-politics inquisitioners and the tiptoeing mice who try to appease them:

  8. Ed Zavada says :

    I understand that there are myriad reasons why people don’t bicycle. Mine is habit… well, that and I stripped down my last bike to take to Burning Man so now I need to get another bicycle. I keep telling myself that I’m going to go to Community Bikes and buy another street bike soon, but I keep getting distracted by the habits of daily life. I can easily bike to work (takes about 7 minutes despite a few tough hills)

    This sign is a great reminder for me that riding a bike would serve several benefits: get me in better physical shape, reduce the amount of money I spend on gas, reduce the wear and tear on my car, and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere on my behalf. It also reminds me that I still haven’t done it despite the relative ease, so in a sense it’s calling me out for being lazy.

    When I first saw it on Paxus’ page, I smiled at how right that reminder was for me and the knowledge that it was telling me the same thing that I was telling myself. But even more than that I enjoyed the irony that nevertheless I still wasn’t going to go buy a bike tomorrow start riding it, because I know myself well enough to appreciate that right now I’m being a lazy ass bastard and mostly enjoying it right now, even though I know that I need to stop. There’s even more irony because of course that’s how, as a society, we got to where we are now. We enjoy are comforts and conveniences in the short terms and put off dealing with the consequences. Or worse, deny they even exist.

    So, I was surprised when I saw the “fuck this racist, classist paternalism” response. I didn’t know the person who posted it, so I just ignored it, half expecting it was a joke of some sort.

    Then I read with interest the explanations from others about just how they saw this as racist, classist paternalism.

    The suggestion that it is somehow racist I must dismiss. There is absolutely nothing about that that suggests that it was aimed at any particular race. It’s a rural setting and the rural population of the country is not dominated by any racial minority. Rusty gas pumps like this are likely to be seen all over this country in plenty of places that are almost entirely Caucasian. Yes, racism can be subtle. This, however, is not even that.

    The classism I can accept. This is, as pointed out, not a gas pump in an upscale neighborhood, but a rusty rural one. In our society the rural poor have few alternatives to cars, and certainly bicycles are awkward or unsuitable for certain types of travel, particular weather conditions, and other circumstances. And often the poor have less flexibility in their schedules, so they may not have time to travel by bike even if everything else was in alignment. So I can understand the subtext of classism in this, even though there is no indication that was intentional on the part of either the creator or reposter.

    The one that is most interesting though, is the charge of paternalism.

    Sure, this is phrased as a command. So are “kill your tv”, “mind the gap” or “eat at joe’s”. Is everything phrased as a command automatically paternalistic?
    Arguably the exact phrasing is because they were limited by the format to 3 words of 4 (or fewer) letters each, so it’s an imprecise communication to begin with, unlikely to express the nuances of anyone’s opinion. A nuanced interpretation of it is thus more likely to reflect the interpreter’s mindset than anyone else’s.

    So, I ask those who were offended by this to take an honest look at yourself, and ask yourselves in particular what is paternalistic about it?

    Was it because it came from a male who likes to post his often interesting insights? Should we dismiss people’s insights because of their gender?

    Perhaps you have personal knowledge of Paxus that I don’t, that shows him to be a paternalistic bastard? If so, fine, but maybe then attack the messenger rather than the message.

    Could it be because you are feeling guilty? I know I’d like to do more to improve our society and environment, but as explained above I haven’t. If so, don’t give in to guilt. You have good reasons for what you do, and you aren’t obligated to defend them to anyone. We all do what we can, and it’s rarely as much as we wish we could do. Even being a lazy-ass bastard like I am now is sometimes necessary. I’ve learned to accept that something can remind me of my defects without being paternalistic or maternalistic.

    In short, even something that hits you strongly may not be aimed at you. Sometime a simple “that doesn’t work for me right now in these circumstances” is far more effective than a bold -ism declaration. Yes, racism, sexism and classism pervade our society. That means they pervade us all too. If you interpret things through the lense of isms you are helping to keep those isms alive.

  9. Adelord says :

    A person with a laptop and photoshop skills in an urban area should ride a bike and can likely afford to. A person living in the kind of rural area depicted in the sign probably sees a need to use an infernal combustion engine in order to participate in the economic activity he believes is necessary to afford his kids the chance to own a laptop and develop the photoshop skills necessary for this kind of meme-crafting.

    Yes, most of the people in this world who use that kind of pump are not white.

    Yes, the tools used to craft and broadcast the image require a level of class and privilege that means that the image’s author likely will never use gas from this kind of pump.

    Yes, it is paternalistic for a person from a position of technological superiority to to tell someone at a lower tech level to give up the tech that works for them.

    So ya, fuck that racist, classist paternalism.

    Cheers from Haiti,

    • Ed Zavada says :

      Not every message you are able to read is intended for you 🙂


      • Adelord says :

        I am having trouble understanding your message, which seems intended to communicate with me.
        I did not think the image was intended for me. I have no bike nor do I enjoy a petrol habit other than for my electricity generation.

      • Ed Zavada says :

        Perhaps I misunderstood what you were saying?

        You said “paternalistic for a person from a position of technological superiority to to tell someone at a lower tech level to give up the tech that works for them. So ya, fuck that racist, classist paternalism.”

        It seems like this message was created by Americans, and aimed at American society, which does, indeed have a petrol problem.

        I don’t have any problem understanding how that message could be perceived as racist, classist and paternalistic if it were aimed at Haiti, or even at the African American community. I think pointing that out would be beneficial to understanding and broadening our limited American perspective. But you didn’t make your condemnation conditional, it was completely unreserved. Thus my comment — this message wasn’t aimed at you, nor at Haiti (which could benefit from a lot MORE petrol use without any real harm to the global environment).

        I’ll refer you to my post just above yours if you would like further explanation.

        If I misunderstood what you were saying, then please accept my apologies in advance.

      • Adelord says :

        You did not understand my post. Anything that makes the image paternalistic and classist if issued towards the two special classes you mention also makes it paternalistic and classist if issued towards poor American Whites. It is the connections implied by the location and condition of the Pump (poor, rural) compared with the tools used for the creation of the image that correctly inspire the FB comment which Praxis initially sought help in understanding. “Fuck that racist, classist paternalism.” is not a formulation of words I would choose, but it is a perspective I understand and believed I had some chance in explaining to a larger audience.

        Of course, our conflict here depends upon the meaning behind artist’s choice of image. My position depends upon the implied audience being those familiar with similar pumps, which I do not see in those areas of the world where people use the most petrol. Your position depends upon the intended audience being those that need to hear the message, and that the kind and condition of the pump is not common in those parts of the world is immaterial.

        If you are the artist that made the image then you can illuminate us as to what your intentions were. It is the art critics who get to hash out who the “implied” audience is. I stand my defense of the critic who stated “fuck that racist, classist paternalism.”

      • Ed Zavada says :

        Nope, I think I got what you were saying.

        First, I think that you misunderstand how common old gas pumps are around the US, the country that most uses petrol. It’s the field behind it that gives it away as rural, not the pump itself. And of course you wouldn’t see a pump in this condition in Beverly Hills, downtown Manhattan, because property is just too valuable to remain un-utilized. But you will find place like this right near the entrance to gated communities and multi-million dollar homes in central Virginia where I live. So it doesn’t even automatically reflect a poor community.

        Regardless, there are lots of reasons an artist might choose that that particular photo. They might have wanted a pump that didn’t have an active corporate logo on it, since that could get them in trouble in our litigious society. They might have like the colors, or the contrast between the rusty industrial age equipment and the nature behind it. It might have been the first gas pump they came across in a google image search that was the right size and angle. And yes, they might have deliberately chosen to attack the rural poor and racial minorities.

        But if that was their goal, they did a piss poor job of it. They aren’t using any racial or rural stereotypes that would be widely recognized in this society. They didn’t put it in a watermelon patch or even a cotton field. They didn’t have some toothless weatherbeaten old farmer sucking a piece of straw next to it. They didn’t even have a big beat up old truck with a confederate flag anywhere.

        There are plenty of examples of those sorts of truly racist and classist things to go around. It’s not like we really have to search to find them. And the people who create and redistribute them will, of course, claim they meant no harm and that they aren’t racist or classist, even though their intent is obvious by their actions.

        This just isn’t one of those cases. There are plenty of explanations for the use of that particular photo that are more plausible that some kind of racist or classist intent of the part of the artist.

        I don’t really want to be the kind of person who always assumes the worst of people, especially with scant evidence. Whether indented or not, that’s what “fuck that racist, classist paternalism” is. It assumes the worst of the artist, and everyone who reposted or appreciated it.

        If I were the artist, and someone called my work racist, classist and paternalistic I’d be rather annoyed and offended. Especially if my intent were just to offer a humorous reminder that as a society we should use less petrol and bicycle more.

      • Adelord says :

        Please share pictures of a pump like that in a non-rural non-poor area, or I’ll continue to believe it didn’t exist. Note the lack of magic stickers from the Authority with Jurisdiction on the pump. Your pumps in VA have magic stickers that signify that the machine will not cheat you, don’t they? My understanding is that every pump in the USA has at least one magic sticker.

        I do not recognize your right to decide what other people get to find to be racist or classist or paternalistic. I deny your right to enjoy that privilege. There is such a thing as accidental racism; it is similar to how you have been accidentally paternalistic and condescending towards me. I never assumed anything less than good intentions from the artist or from you. Racism is not always as obvert as the cotton and watermelon stereotypes you reference. Should the mysterious intent of the artist matter more than the appearance of his product? I believe not.

  10. paxus says :

    Dearest Adelord and Ed:

    i am appreciative you are choosing to have this discussion here, and it is interesting to me. And i am also feeling quite behind in a number of things, including blogging. So excuse me if i dont weigh in on this just yet.

    If you want to step down tensions, you could try summarizing the other persons
    views from a compassionate perspective and see if that helps discover common ground

    Paxus at Acorn
    12 Pregnant Ivy, Claire and Rosie 2013

    • Adelord says :

      Step down tensions? Sir! This is a model of polite and non-tense interaction. Art criticism is conflict, and you invited such! Please applaud us for playing your game. There is common ground, obviously, or neither of us would be bother to attempt to communicate with the other. There is no need for a referee or a “non-violent communication” lesson. We are ok without a dad or big brother looking over our shoulders, I assure you! Others need your talents far more than we do.

      • Jack says :

        To be fair, I wouldn’t normally think that polite and non-tense interaction is characterized by placing someone in the essentialist-moralist categories of “condescending” and “paternalistic” (referring to Ed). The goal of doing so would be to incite some kind of self-hatred in the other person (i.e. the goal of morally judging another person is to get them to feel bad about themselves while reaffirming your implied superiority), whereas I think Paxus is suggesting that it might be more constructive to let go of these enemy images (again, saying that Ed was basically, and paradoxically, “accidentally malicious”) that have been thus far been expressed. You’re right to say that there’s no need for a referee, because polite conversation isn’t usually a matter of “winning vs losing” but as soon as moral judgements enter the equation, you enter this win-lose game and make yourself the referee.

      • Adelord says :


        (and remember to hail eris 😉

    • Ed Zavada says :

      Well, from my point of view Adelord has declared me a liar or severely deluded, as he believes that what I’ve said I see doesn’t exist.

      I find it difficult to perceive that as a presumption of good intent.

      It’s fine to discuss the way something is or can be perceived, it is another to declare it is so. Adelord seems determined to prove that if a thing can be perceived by someone as racist, then it is racist (albeit perhaps merely accidentally racist).

      This necessitates that perception is reality, at least where ethics are concerned.

      That’s just not going to work for me as a base premise.

  11. Arjen says :

    I have a hard time seeing the racism and paternalism in this and the classist statement I find interesting in the sense that the USA must be about the only country in the world where a bike rider is considered more privileged than a car driver.

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