Shirt Tales

I didn’t buy my political t-shirts to start confrontations, necessarily, but I confess I’ve been using them to conduct a sort of informal study. I wear the following: Love is Love; Black Lives Matter; Not My President; I Stand with Standing Rock; and a shirt with large, Arabic letters that say, “Be welcome and at ease, beloved friend.” (And yes, I did check to make sure that this what the letters actually say.)

I live in Iowa City, Iowa, which is a splendidly-liberal university town. If you go outside city limits, however, you quickly enter the land of Senators Ernst and Grassley. This isn’t is a bad as living in the northwest of Iowa, where the populace persists in electing Rep. King, but both senators are Trump supporters of an unwavering stripe. In my shirts, I have wandered the general public around Iowa City, and I’ve ranked message reactions accordingly:

“Not My President.” Every noticeable response has been positive. The Target check-out lady even said she liked it. 

“Love is Love.” Few people bat an eye here. Popular television and Pride parades might have done some good work. The only time I felt uncomfortable wearing this shirt was in a South-Dakota diner, where the stares were enough that I had James hold my hand. That said, the reactions might have been worse if I’d been wearing some of the other shirts.

“I Stand with Standing Rock.” Some stares here, and some cheers. The Native cashier at Panera was moved. The man who shared my elevator in a South Dakota hotel scowled at me for about three floors. 

“Black Lives Matter.” Considerable disapproval, at least at the Coral Ridge Mall, where middle-aged, white men scowled from across the corridor. Young people respond better to this shirt, but nobody has told me they like it.

The Arabic welcome shirt. Stares. One smile. Some people might be trying to decipher what the words say. But some of the other looks are long and dark, and not so much disapproving as borderline hostile. One waitress was outright surly while I wore the shirt—although it’s hard to tell precisely why. I’ve come to gather that people, in general, do not like Arabic lettering. I suspect they especially don’t like it if they can’t immediately tell what it says. And because I am somewhat mulish, this means I’ve worn this shirt until it’s begun to stink.

Do I suffer confirmation bias with some of these observations? Probably. And yet I do use James to check me. Also, I must admit some surprises. I would think “Not My President” would find more disapproval. And I’d imagine “Black Lives Matter” would encounter less. The outright disquiet with the Arabic shirt is discouraging, as this seems to be more aggressive than garden-variety disagreement. I hope to God that Muslim people don’t receive this reaction consistently when, say, they wear a head scarf.

Is there a pattern to the shirt responses? I’m no social scientist, but it does seem that the worst feedback occurs with shirts that support the non-whites whom we’ve unfairly decided are violent. People might like that I reject Trump, but they don’t like that I’m signaling to Arabs.

(Originally posted March 20, 2017)

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