“Four Guys and a Hole in the Floor”

Racial Politics of Mobility and Excretion among BC-Based Long Haul Truckers

in Transfers

Abstract

In this article, I map out the foundational context and procedural dynamics through which the normative status of the white male trucker is achieved and maintained in the British Columbia-based long haul trucking industry. I pay particular attention to the dehumanizing racism and masculine subordination directed toward South Asian truckers. Drawing on ethnographic data, I socially and historically situate these dynamics in relation to Canadian national mythologies, practices of nation building, and the neoliberal organization of trucking labor. To provide a richly detailed analysis of precisely how these narrative dynamics shape hierarchies of race and mobility in the industry, I examine a pervasive, racializing story among white truckers concerning workplace politics and practices of excretion.

But the East Indian drivers, and owner-operators, have really destroyed the industry. Not only with the way they do their job, but with under-cutting pricing, an’, an’ everything else. So, yeah. You, you don’t very often see a white guy an’ a East Indian guy in the same room. [Chad]

Although the persistence of slavery in the American South led to early, regionally specific links being drawn between trucking and a denigrated black masculinity,1 elsewhere in North America the relationship between trucking and colonization, as well as the manifest physical rigors of the job, led to broad associations between trucking and working-class white men from very early on.2 In contemporary contexts, despite the existence of some antiracist counternarratives, powerful stories locate the white working-class male settler as the normative truck driver.3 These narratives are especially reliant on the dehumanization and feminization of truckers with South Asian ancestry. Inasmuch as racializing narratives in the industry provide interpretive frameworks that shape “what can be known, thought, and said” by drivers, they profoundly influence truckers’ interpretive experiences, workplace encounters, and labor practices.4 In this article, I interrogate narrative dynamics and normative power arrangements in the British Columbia (BC)-based trucking industry. I argue that differential mobilities therein are profoundly shaped by racial mobility politics. To provide a detailed analysis of how these narratives shape hierarchies of race and mobility in the industry, I examine a pervasive, racializing story among white truckers concerning workplace politics and practices of excretion.

Methods

This paper is based on my ethnography of the BC-based long haul trucking industry.5 While not making claims to representative samples or generalizability, ethnography is particularly well-suited to adaptive and contextually specific explorations of social and cultural practices.6 Conducting this study has involved researching an extremely mobile group of people doing highly varied types of labor. The industry encompasses an array of imagined communities,7 and research subjects’ own conceptualizations of long haul trucking were markedly heterogeneous, contested, and fluid. Data were generated through qualitative interviews with current and former female and male truck drivers; observant participation8 at truck stops, weigh scales, and industry-associated sites; listening to and recording VHF radio communications;9 and ride-alongs with truckers. Ride-alongs ranged in duration from six hours to multiple days, and took me through two Western Canadian provinces and three Northwestern American states.10 A total of thirty-four truckers (six women and twenty-eight men) participated in recorded interviews, which ranged from one hour to over three hours in length.11

Ethnographic research embraces the self as a tool and condition for generating knowledge.12 The inevitable complexity of researcher positionality creates certain opportunities for knowledge, even as it shuts down others. My capacity to engage in this research was enhanced by having grown up in a working-class trucking subculture, my previous experiences being on the road in a truck for weeks at a time, and my long-standing familiarity with trucking mobilities, labor, and spaces. At the same time, the research is necessarily both the product of and an intervention into hierarchical and contentious mobilities and power dynamics—dynamics in which my white-female-settler subjectivity is a factor. For reasons relating to racial power dynamics in the industry, as well as my white-female subjectivity, all but one of the recorded interviews were with white drivers. Although broader ethnographic interactions and research endeavors were inclusive of nonwhite drivers, the focus of this article is on the dominant (and dominating) narratives of white truckers.

Neoliberalism and Gendered Racial Mobility Politics in Trucking

In the BC-based trucking industry, South Asian drivers are the especial targets of virulent, dehumanizing racism and masculine subordination. White drivers pervasively depict South Asian truckers in association with illegal, corrupt, and “cut-throat” business practices; they are identified with religion and hot, “un-Canadian” geographies,13 they are constructed as dangerous, dirty, and animalistic; and they are held responsible for both industry stigmas and trucking-related collisions. South Asian drivers are also feminized through the narrative denial of masculine rationality and instrumentality. These gendered and racialized narrative dynamics need to be contextualized within industry and labor market patterns of gender and racialization, neoliberal restructuring, and shifts in Canadian nation-building strategies.

A growing body of research demonstrates that relational hierarchies of femininities and masculinities are embedded within multiple and interlocking systems of domination and privilege, whereby nonheterosexual and racialized femininities and masculinities exist in subordinated tension to white, heterosexual, elite gender formations.14 Trucking as a whole remains extremely male-dominated; in 2004, 97 percent of all truckers in Canada were men.15 Gendering norms in the industry and broader society deny women the identity of “real” trucker.16 These understandings emerge out of complex historical and cultural relations that, among other things, associate women with domesticity and the home and exclude them from the most privileged constructions of the laborer and driver. Sarah Jain points out that the symbolic associations between the automobile and masculinity have resulted in the virtual exclusion of women “from whole professions that range from automobile and safety engineering, design, sales, repair, policy making, racing, road construction, and, until recently, urban planning.”17 Lawrence Ouellet argues that truckers’ masculine identity-making processes are central to truckers’ lack of resistance to exploitative labor relations.18 Many white truckers in my study invoked subordinated racialized masculinities in order to confirm themselves as “real” truckers and enforce the normative exclusion of South Asian drivers. Neoliberal restructuring has profoundly shaped the social context in which these gendered and racialized mobility politics play out.

Since 1987, the trucking industry has been adjusting to a period of deregulation and the ongoing removal of trade restrictions. Deregulation eliminated previous systems of government oversight of rates and pay structures, as well as motor carrier licensing.19 This removed barriers to industry entry, significantly increasing competition among for-hire carriers and often resulting in race-to-the-bottom bidding practices for hauling contracts. Todd, who owned a profitable trucking firm with over a dozen trucks prior to deregulation, explained:

when the industry was deregulated, all of a sudden everybody that could afford to buy a truck and a trailer—which is really, really easy, because the banks are just giving you money for zero money down. They said “Hey! Use me! I’ll go to Vancouver, and I’ll do it for eighty dollars a skid.”20 “Seventy five dollars a skid.” It was a race to the bottom. So, meanwhile, I’m paying my guys X amount of dollars an hour. My rent is set. My truck payments were set. And yet now, my revenue stream is rapidly decreasing. … It was terrible! The strong survived. … And even so, a lot of big ones didn’t survive.

In the end, Todd had to shut down his business, restructure his considerable debts, and eventually started hauling again on a smaller scale, augmented by related business endeavors.

Studies in the United States have concluded that the dual processes of deregulation and deunionization have been primary sources of wage decline and increased wage inequality among truck drivers.21 Available data in Canada do not distinguish between long haul truckers and other sectors of the trucking industry. However, for the Canadian trucking industry as a whole, only about one-quarter of truckers are unionized, truckers’ average wages have remained stagnant since 1998,22 and employed truckers are less likely to receive benefits than workers overall.23 Heightened regional and international competition combined with complex and stringent safety regulations have placed increased pressure on truckers.24 At the same time, a growing body of research indicates that neoliberal restructuring through the 1980s and 1990s has increased racial patterns of inequality in the Canadian labor market.25

Significantly, neoliberal restructuring has followed shifts in Canadian immigration in 1967, and the later official adoption of multiculturalism. These shifts proportionally reduced immigration from Europe and increased it from other areas, especially Asia.26 Scholars point out that, in recent decades, multiculturalism has played an increasingly important role in the Canadian national imaginary. Despite this, Gillian Creese argues that nationalist discourses remain complexly racialized: “with common-sense discourses constructing people of colour as immigrants, and immigrants as people of colour. … The implication is that white ethnic communities have a longer lineage that somehow makes them ‘more Canadian’ than others.”27 Such constructions ignore the historical participation of nonwhite settlers in Canadian colonization,28 and that “three out of every ten people of colour in Canada were born in Canada, and many can trace their Canadian heritage back several generations.”29

These dynamics are evident in white truckers’ widespread use of the term “New Canadian” as a coded racial epithet for South Asian drivers. For example, when asked to clarify exactly whom he was referring to in a story depicting criminal activities by truckers, Luke succinctly explained, “East Indians. Pakis. The ‘New Canadians.’” By co-opting an apparently “politically correct” and supposedly racially neutral term in this way, truckers invoke and censure Canadian ideals and practices of multiculturalism and, implicitly, the social elites perceived to sustain them. In qualifying and denigrating the citizenship status of South Asian drivers, white truckers invoke racial hierarchies of citizenship and belonging that expel nonwhite bodies from the national imaginary or the possibility of legitimate labor force participation. This expulsion occurs even though South Asian drivers have participated in the BC-based trucking industry from very early on. At least as early as the 1920s, when provincially based trucking was in its infancy, Punjabi-heritage truckers worked both as company drivers and independent owner-operators.30

Sherene Razack argues that, by presuming the innocence and generosity of white Canadian settlers, the multicultural imaginary paves the way for claims of racial inferiority to become “coded in the language of culture rather than biology.”31 White truckers commonly invoked the explanatory power of cultural difference to frame narratives of dangerous, degenerate, corrupt, or “uncivilized” driving or work practices by South Asian drivers:

most of the guys think that East Indians drive like complete assholes. Which, I’m not saying that they don’t. But, at the end of the day, East Indians come by it honestly. The way they drive is a style. That is a style they’ve been taught, and that is a style that if they’ve moved here from India, that is the style that they drive over there. … That’s the way its done in India. Okay? We think he’s tryin’ to kill us. Right? So, we hate them because of that. We think he’s doin’ it on purpose. … It’s a cultural difference that we’re not talking about and embracing. And God knows, I don’t want to embrace it, but I think what, what we need to do is we need to make sure that these guys, uh … that, that have that style … uh, un-adopt that style. And perhaps adopt a more socially, uh, acceptable style of driving. [Chris]

In such narratives, it is the dangerously inferior driving cultures of the South Asian Others that are positioned as “the problem,” obscuring the dynamics of racialization within a neoliberal, neocolonial gendered labor market.32
As the previous quote indicates, racial politics of mobility in the long haul trucking industry are also inextricably connected to processes of responsibilization and blame. Nonwhite, and specifically South Asian, truckers are responsibilized for everything from perceived social stigma against truckers to industry-related exploitation and carnage. These narrative dynamics are iterative: for instance, South Asian drivers are often depicted as causing the vast majority of truck-involved road collisions. They are therefore also often seen as the cause of negative public perceptions regarding truck drivers. After recounting a collision he had witnessed, Luke explained:

That’s the problem I have with Hindus. Uh … You know, this is—it gets scary! You watch them wipe out! Alright? It’s like, “You’re not gonna make the corner! Slow down! You’re not gonna make the corner!” Pff that! Ho! “You didn’t make the corner.” It all comes back, all the drivers are the same. So, I don’t like them destroying my reputation, along with their own.

Similar stories consistently arose throughout the fieldwork process. In multiple cases, white truckers would blame a South Asian driver for a collision, even though there was no logically consistent way the race of the driver in the wreck could have been ascertained by the narrator.33

In the course of my research, I often invited white truckers to speak to potential interpretations of their words or perspectives as manifestations of racism. For example, I asked Luke what he would say to people who interpreted his views as racist. In response, he reinvoked depictions of South Asian drivers as posing an immediate threat: “Put ’em in a truck with a Hindu. Send ’em down ’e road. You tell me I’m racist, you drive with ’em. … Guaranteed, wouldn’t be screamin’ at me bein’ a racist anymore.” Importantly, Luke also went on to link the labeling of his observations as racist to governmental and class-based dismissals of truckers’ knowledges and understandings. In this regard, any overarching dismissal of white truckers’ undoubtedly racist narratives is deeply problematic, because it risks also dismissing the potentially life-and-death consequences of racial mobility politics in the long haul trucking industry. Tania Das Gupta argues that “Racism is the effect of rather than the intention to cause deprivation to people of colour.”34 The racist narratives of many white drivers, therefore, need to be understood in relation to broader organizational and relational processes and patterns in the trucking industry.

The proportion of immigrant truckers in Canada has been increasing in recent years,35 with higher numbers of South Asian drivers entering the BC-based industry since the 1970s.36 Moreover, because of problematic industry claims of a shortage of truckers,37 government programs have implemented targeted initiatives for importing foreign drivers as unskilled laborers, including under the Temporary Foreign Worker program. These programs have been widely criticized for permitting and encouraging the suppression of wages and working conditions, as well as exploiting migrant workers.38 Additional research is needed to determine whether the combined dynamics of economic restructuring and immigration reform have concentrated South Asian drivers in more precarious sectors of the industry. Anecdotally, Sikh male preferences for entrepreneurial employment could be a contributing factor to such potential trends, inasmuch as the income and labor of small owner-operators can be especially insecure. When such precarious labor results in increased pressure to drive long hours, less opportunity to refuse work, access to poorly maintained equipment, and/or inadequate training or knowledge of workers’ rights, patterns of racialization in the trucking industry have the potential to result in significantly unequal patterns of labor, mobility, and embodied risk.

Practicing Antiracism in the Trucking Industry: Katie and Heather

Although most narratives about South Asian drivers told by white truckers in my study reinscribed racial hierarchies, there were some promising antiracist counternarratives. Nascent critiques of racist mobility politics were particularly evident in my interviews with Katie and Heather. Notable characteristics of these stories were that they emerged from interracial interactions that pushed the white drivers to recognize how they themselves are implicated in hierarchical and racialized mobility politics. In contrast to other interviews, both drivers told stories about witnessing racist discrimination, harassment, and abuse of South Asian truckers.

After her own truck was destroyed in a wreck, Katie took a job in the office of a trucking company. Her new job brought her into sustained interactions with South Asian truckers. She explained that these interactions challenged her racist assumptions; she came to know the drivers as hardworking professionals. In contrast to national mythologies of Canada as a generous, multicultural nation, Katie emphasized the everyday racisms experienced by her coworkers: “A white driver’ll go buy tires for his truck. An’ say, ‘Well, this is the price I got, go over there an’ get tires there as well.’ An’ he’ll have the price jacked up a thousand dollars.”

When Heather joined her husband on the road as a spousal team driver, she was shocked by the virulent racism in the industry. She spoke of working to establish relationships with nonwhite drivers, and to recognize racism in her own thoughts and actions:

they’re just as tired as we are. They’re going down the road just the same as we are. … But because you can see a difference, you identify that difference. So, the prejudice, um, well, it’s, it was, its really disturbing, uh, to me, and to my husband. So we would work really hard, really hard, like, you know, like, we would go, “Oh! You know what? I didn’t realize that I was talking like this! Or I didn’t realize that I said that, and this is really a slanderous, or could be a slanderous comment.” And, and so, we would analyze ourselves, an’ say, “Okay, this is wrong.” An’ we, we, we, we go out of our way to have conversations with, uh, drivers that are noticeably different.

What is especially notable about both Katie and Heather’s narratives is that neither trucker engaged in a “race to innocence.”39 They did not present themselves as outside or above racism in the industry. Instead, they recognized and challenged the role of racism in structuring their thinking, and were accountable to what they defined as their own racist thoughts and actions. Katie spoke openly about holding racist assumptions about South Asian drivers prior to changing jobs. Heather told stories of how she continued to struggle to move beyond racist interpretations of people and events, including in relation to experiences of sexism from some foreign (non-South Asian) drivers. She explained “So, I have, in some ways, got, um, some of it has seeped into my pores, and I hate it.” In these and other ways, the two truckers acknowledged that addressing personal complicity in perpetuating racial hierarchies was a stuttering, imperfect, ongoing process rather than a given facet of one’s subjectivity (i.e., self-defining as not racist). Both Heather and Katie also drew connections between racism and racial inequality in the trucking industry and systemic failures of the government and industry to properly support and prevent the exploitation of truckers, and foreign truckers in particular.

In drawing attention to these narratives of critique, it is not my intention to rehabilitate white truckers as a whole or white women truckers specifically. Although it is beyond the scope of this article to fully explore these dynamics, other white women truckers in the study invoked racialized narratives of white supremacy—at times as a mechanism for negotiating gendered relations of power in the industry.40 My goal, instead, has been to consider on what grounds and in what circumstances antiracist and antioppressive sensibilities can be productively fostered among truckers. I further seek to problematize depictions of white working-class ways of being as singularly or exceptionally racist, sexist, and/or homophobic.41 Such tendencies belie the complexity of white working-class negotiations of race politics,42 including in the workplace and as related to mobilities.

While some white truckers engaged in antiracist narratives, such stories were considerably rarer than those that reinscribed racial hierarchies of power and mobility. In the following section, I analyze a specific narrative to provide a more richly detailed account of how gendered colonial interpretive frameworks shape racial politics of mobility in trucking.

Four Guys and a Hole in the Floor

The story analyzed here surfaced often in the course of my research; it is a narrative that white truckers consistently turned to as both a descriptive allegory of and a political intervention into racial hierarchies of mobility in the industry. The basic plotline is simple and consistent: three or four South Asian drivers live and work out of a single rig, a rig that has been altered to allow them to urinate and defecate through the floor onto “the open road.” Often the situation is discovered because of a rig-involved collision, for which the South Asian drivers are presumably (or explicitly) held to blame.

And that’s East Indians. That’s what they do. ’Cause they won’t stop, see? They piss in these bottles and throw them out the window. And then they drill holes in the floor of the truck. And they piss and shit through that hole. That’s what the East Indians do. [Greg]

I, just think that, uh … You know, two guys tops to a truck. You know, when they’re startin’ to cut holes in the floorboards! I’ve heard horrendous stories of trucks that go into shops to get worked on, an’ there’s, you know, caked-on TP on drive shafts an’ stuff. An’ … you know, just, just … Those are extreme stories. You know, an’ I’m sure that’s not the case with all New Canadians. [Connor]

Truckers face a daunting range of limitations when it comes to accessing toilet facilities. They are restricted to trucking routes only, they must try to secure safe and legal parking for vehicles that are longer than many houses, and at privately owned washrooms they are generally required to spend time and money making purchases. Canadian regulations concerning tractor and trailer length make the inclusion of proper toilets in rigs a virtual impossibility. Unlike much of the United States, rig-accessible public toilet facilities in Canada are often few and far between, and are rarely equipped with luxuries such as running water. Although women have greater need and make more use of toilets,43 the regular inclusion of fully equipped women’s washrooms at truck stops is a relatively recent phenomenon. Truckers consistently identified the lack of adequate toilet facilities as a major impediment to women’s participation in the industry.

As a result, truckers have, at best, highly sporadic access to toilets, showers, or running water. Consistent lack of access to basic bathroom facilities is not the inevitable result of the highly mobile nature of truckers’ labor. Rather, embodied capacities for mobility are profoundly shaped by social politics and practices of excretion. Judith Plaskow argues that access to toilets is a requirement for full social participation and citizenship. She further contends that the “distribution, quality, and structure of public toilets are both symbols and concrete representations of a larger system of social hierarchies.”44 Truckers’ limited access to toilets is an expression of spatial and embodied power relations that debase and exploit working-class bodies. For example, lack of public funding for the adequate provision, maintenance, and cleaning of bathrooms and outhouses at rest stops relies heavily on the social norm that men—and especially working-class men—may urinate in public. At brake checks, this often means that truckers are legally required to crawl through and lie on urine- (and sometimes feces-) soaked ground in order to inspect their equipment or chain up.

Small wonder, then, that the politics of excretion is an immensely important aspect of truckers’ lived experiences and work cultures. These politics are forged out of specific histories of gendered capitalist colonial power relations. Western European colonial and settler societies have historically associated embodiment and excretion with feminine, lower-class, and non-white subjectivity. Alison Moore argues that Western colonial anxieties about the excretory practices of former colonial subjects and cultures “stem from a continuous and pervasive notion of the inherent relationship between progress or the civilizing process, and excretory control.”45 Considered in this light, these narratives can be read as an example of truckers making claims to white civility and, thereby, privilege through the denigration and negation of South Asian bodies.

Despite residual associations with frontier masculinity and as “knights of the road,”46 in contemporary society truckers are widely associated with a stigmatized masculinity. These associations are highly embodied: the stereotypical trucker of the social imaginary is dirty, fat, dangerously licentious, lazy, and smelly. Truckers themselves were highly cognizant of these stereotypes, as Garrett explained: “It’s that overall image. It’s the image of the whole that we are lazy, that we are dirty, that we are pigs.” Many truckers drew direct associations between stereotypes about drivers and the lack of access to basic sanitation facilities. Heather observed: “It goes right into infrastructure, like roads. Especially infrastructure, government, the perception of a truck driver is usually that of an imbecile that probably has a grade three or grade four education, that’s very poor hygiene.” Chris, a longtime trucker and owner-operator argued:

They’re disheveled because they got no place to wash! Okay? They’re pissin’ an’ crappin’ on the ground and in pop bottles because they got no washrooms! …

[G]o out on the highway, and look in the ditch as you’re drivin’ by, and see the endless array of pop bottles, water bottles, anti-freeze bottles, milk jugs, full o’ piss, tossed out the window. Because this is what you got people doin’. You think they’re pigs! But let me ask you another question. If you are a truck driver and you are sitting in the driveway of your customer … You parked there overnight so you’d be first in line. … You wake up in the mornin’, what’s the first thing you do? I go to the bathroom. So. You go piss in your customer’s parkin’ lot? What, pray tell, do you do if you have to have a dump? … As much as we think this is disgusting to see a bottle with urine in it, yeah, well, “If these guys, they could dispose of it properly.” Yeah, they could. Except that it might be a little bit demeaning walking across a parking lot into a, a rest area, or into a—I got an idea, how about this? You own a restaurant, and I’m going to stop there for lunch. And I come walkin’ in with a bottle full o’ piss!

Truckers race to meet strident deadlines that inevitably result from “justin-time” manufacturing processes and consumer expectations for low prices and overnight delivery. In doing so, they find that the inordinate amount of time it takes to locate and use functioning and accessible toilets becomes increasingly difficult. Truckers with secure jobs, regular and predictable routes, and/or who work for companies that plan routes in accordance with legal hours of service and drivers’ needs are generally most empowered to meet higher standards of hygiene and self-care. Drivers in more precarious sectors often find it much more difficult to meet those standards.

Inasmuch as the “four guys and a hole in the floor” narrative defers stigmas of filth and excretion onto South Asian drivers, it also allows white truckers to assert their own cleanliness, civility, and decency. In such stories, “uncivilized” practices of excretion are, as Greg stated earlier, “what they do” (emphasis added). The potential implications of this are especially significant given widespread beliefs among truckers and Commercial Vehicle Safety Enforcement (CVSE) officers that conflate personal and vehicular cleanliness with driver competence and equipment maintenance.47 CVSE officers have the authority to stop and inspect trucks and driver logs. Given the tight time-lines many drivers operate under, even an inspection that goes well can result in a costly delay.

In my research with CVSE officers, they often asserted that the cleanliness of a driver, and of the rig they drove, was a primary determinant as to whether they would pull a trucker over, as well as how detailed an inspection would be. For example, while observing at an inspection site, one officer remarked to me that you “can almost tell which truckers to pull over based on how they’re dressed. This guy is dirty. Tells you something about the driver. How you take care of yourself is how you take care of the truck.”48 During ride-alongs, drivers were often at pains to tidy up themselves and their truck prior to passing an inspection site, especially if we were running over-hours. Considering these dynamics, it is worth asking whether pervasive narratives that associate South Asian drivers with filthy practices of personal hygiene influence the levels of scrutiny they receive from CVSE officers—a question that it is beyond the scope of this research to answer.49

The multiplicity of drivers in the story is also an important racializing dimension of the narrative. That multiplicity resonates with recent iterations of Canadian national mythologies, which depict crowds of nonwhite migrants and refugees as threatening the “calm, ordered spaces” of white settler society.50 In context, the presence of multiple drivers also reinscribes associations between South Asian drivers and corrupt, unethical business practices. Under current regulations that govern the length of time a trucker can legally drive, a truck with three drivers is able to travel almost continuously, hauling many more loads and generating much more revenue. By supposedly “choosing” to work in this way, South Asian drivers are depicted as being willing or even eager to abandon basic standards of decency, privacy, and hygiene in order to “make a buck.” Such practices are read as unfair to white truckers who could, presumably, never make such a “choice.”

Allison was explicit about these connections:

They can monopolize the whole industry, take it over, an’ then cry “We don’t get enough money!” Well, now they’ve got you! Like this! [gestures] An’ I, yeah! There’s a lot o’, um—unrest, or unhappiness in that regard, because—why should they benefit when they’ve just come over to this country? A lot of ’em. An’ yet we’ve lived here all our lives an’ worked our backsides off, an’ you can’t get ahead! … I know I’ve been in [a smaller BC city] when they’d one that’s come in, that was in an accident. An’ the company that they took it to repair it said, “There is no way! I won’t touch that truck!” They dig a hole in the floor-boards of the sleeper, and they use it as their toilet! On the … So it just goes down, and out onto your highway! The bunk had—instead of one sleeper with a bed in it, it had—like this [gestures]. You know, like a train berth?

Amie:

Okay.

Allison:

So they could just slide in. So you could put three or four guys in there. So they’re all runnin’!

Emily Reid-Musson points out that automobility “is an often-overlooked site where citizenship—the social and legal regulation of national belonging—is concretely articulated.”51 In asserting a (presumably shared) ownership of the highway to myself (“onto your highway!”), Allison recruited and implicated me in the racist expulsion of South Asian drivers from legitimate ownership or use of Canada’s shared resources. As a white person, the highway is mine; it manifestly does not belong to the South Asian drivers in her story.

The significance of this narrative lies in the work it does to shape racial mobility politics in the industry. Through this story and others like it, the exploitation, inequality, and carnage resulting from the current organization of labor in the trucking industry is primarily responsibilized onto South Asian drivers, and is thereby easily dismissed as a racial or cultural problem. In this way, the complex ways that shippers, receivers, governments, and consumers as a whole rely on and benefit from dangerous, demanding, unequal, and exploitative working conditions in the industry are elided and erased. The apparent proliferation of trucker bombs and other “uncivilized” excretory practices are explained away through the gendered politics of racial, cultural, and class difference.52 At the same time, the complex network of beneficiaries of truckers’ exploitation are absolved of social responsibility for the more abysmal aspects of their working conditions.

Conclusion

By focusing on the dominating narratives of white truckers, it is not my intention here to position South Asian drivers as objects in need of saving,53 or, conversely, to depict the white working class as singularly oppressive. Rather, my goal has been to identify and explore how normative racial hierarchies are sustained and reproduced in the BC-based long haul trucking industry. In this regard, I take seriously the challenge posed by Razack, who argues “If we can name the organizational frames, the conceptual formulas, the rhetorical devices that disguise and sustain elites, we can begin to develop responses that bring us closer to social justice.”54

By examining white truckers’ narrative engagements with racial mobility politics in the trucking industry, I have sought to map out the foundational context and procedural dynamics in and through which the normative status of the white male trucker is achieved and maintained. These racial negotiations of subjectivity are linked to broader systems of oppression, from the legacy of gendered colonial automobility, to exploitative neoliberal labor market and government reforms, to Canadian nation-building imperatives. Although some white truckers in my study did engage in antiracist narratives and practices, virulent and dehumanizing racism against South Asian truckers was commonplace. The complex ways that dominant narratives in the industry reflect and reproduce racial hierarchies of power and mobility in trucking are evident in stories such as those that link South Asian heritage truckers with “uncivilized” practices of excretion and labor.

There is a wide range of implications of the racial mobility politics that such narratives enact and engender. Certainly they undermine the possibility of labor solidarity across racial divides. They further enable a toxic and ostracizing work environment where South Asian truckers are conceptualized as an underclass who are presumed to be deserving of racist segregation, exclusion, harassment, abuse, and violence. These stories—which are simultaneously negotiations of identity and exercises of power—functionally erase the historical and contemporary privileges of white men in the trucking industry; deny white men’s role in excluding women and nonwhite men from the industry and the labor movement; and mask the manifestly and dangerously exploitative conditions under which many bodies in the trucking industry labor.

Notes
1

Richard Leone, The Negro in the Trucking Industry (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970), 8–9.

2

Lawrence Ouellet, Pedal to the Metal: The Work Lives of Truckers (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994); James Thomas, The Long Haul: Truckers, Truck Stops and Trucking (Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1979).

3

My sincere thanks to the participants who made this research possible. I am grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for their support. Thanks to the reviewers and editors whose expertise contributed greatly to this article.

4

Racialization is the ongoing, adaptive, and historically situated process through which social significance is attached to racial or cultural difference. Gillian Creese, “Racializing Work/Reproducing White Privilege,” in Work in Tumultuous Times: Critical Perspectives, ed. Vivian Shalla and Wallace Clement (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007), 192–226, here: 193. See also Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis, Racialized Boundaries: Race, Nation, Gender, Colour and Class and the Anti-Racist Struggle (London: Routledge, 1992); and Emily Reid-Musson, “Automobility’s Others: Migrant Mobility, Citizenship, and Racialization,” in The Urban Political Economy and Ecology of Automobility: Driving Cities, Driving Inequality, Driving Politics, ed. Alan Walks (New York: Routledge, 2014), 184–196. The quote is from Sherene Razack, Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 10.

5

Most data were generated in 2011 through 2013.

6

Elana Buch and Karen Staller, “The Feminist Practice of Ethnography,” in Feminist Research Practice, ed. Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Patricia Lina Leavy (London: Sage, 2007), 187–221.

7

See Ghassan Hage, “A Not-So Multi-Sited Ethnography of a Not-So Imagined Community,” Anthropological Theory 5, no. 4 (2005): 463–475.

8

Brian Moeran, “From Participant Observation to Observant Participation,” in Organizational Ethnography: Studying the Complexity of Everyday Life, ed. Sierk Ybema, Dvora Yanow, Harry Wels, and Frans Kamsteeg (London: Sage, 2009), 139–155.

9

Very high frequency (VHF) radios are used for truck-to-truck communication.

10

For confidentiality reasons, more specific route information is withheld. All ride-alongs originated in BC.

11

A slight majority of interview participants were employed with for-hire carriers, with the remainder almost evenly split between owner-operators and lease-operators. However, many drivers moved in and out of the industry or between types of trucking employment (both in the duration of their careers and in the course of the research). Drivers for large, unionized carriers had more job stability. Nonetheless, shifting employment in various sectors of trucking as a whole (rather than long-haul specifically) was the predominant norm among the truckers I encountered.

12

Buch and Staller, “The Feminist Practice of Ethnography,” 187–190; Allaine Cerwonka and Liisa H. Malkki, Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

13

For example, Kyle recounted: “We saw, that last winter, we saw an average of one major wreck, each direction, in an’ out of Ontario. At least one. Ninety-percent of them were East Indian people. … So, does that say anything? In my mind, it does. Inexperience. Stupidity? Maybe sunny where they come from. This isn’t sunshine. This is thirty-below an’ glare ice.” For more on notions of temperature and space in Canadian practices of racialization, see Sherene Razack, “From the ‘Clean Snows of Petawawa’: The Violence of Canadian Peacekeepers in Somalia,” Cultural Anthropology 15, no. 1 (2000): 127–163.

14

See R. W. Connell and James Messerschmidt, “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept,” Gender and Society 19, no. 6 (2005): 829–859; Joanne Nagel, “Masculinity and Nationalism: Gender and Sexuality in the Making of Nations,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 21, no. 2 (1998): 242–269; Razack, “From the ‘Clean Snows of Petawawa,’” 140.

15

Vincent Dubé and Denis Pilon, “On the Road Again,” Perspectives on Labour and Income 7, no. 1 (Statistics Canada, 2006): 11–21, here 12.

16

See Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 27–28.

17

Sarah Jain, “Violent Submission: Gendered Automobility,” Cultural Critique, no. 61 (2004): 186–214, here: 198.

18

Ouellet, Pedal to the Metal.

19

Daniel Madar, Heavy Traffic: Deregulation, Trade, and Transformation in North American Trucking (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000).

20

A skid is a flat wooden crate for transporting goods.

21

Dale Belman and Kristen Monaco, “The Effects of Deregulation, De-Unionization, Technology, and Human Capital on the Work and Work Lives of Truck Drivers,” Industrial and Labour Relations Review, Extra Issue: Industry Studies of Wage Inequality 54, no. 2a (2001): 502–524.

22

Dubé and Pilon find that the actual earnings of all truckers have been stagnant, but suggest “some sectors, such as long-distance haulage, may have registered strong wage increases.” However, they provide no data to support this supposition, which is completely contrary to the experiences of the truckers in my study. Dubé and Pilon, “On the Road Again,” 16.

23

Ibid., 11–21.

24

It is beyond the scope of this article to provide an overview of the complex and varied regulations impacting long haul truckers’ mobilities. Different aspects of the industry are variously regulated by national, provincial, and state bodies. Trade agreements such as NAFTA have been tremendously influential. See Garland Chow, “Labour Standard Issues in the Inter-Provincial Canadian Trucking Industry,” Federal Labour Standards Commission (5 June 2006); Madar, Heavy Traffic; Amie McLean, “Battling Blind Spots: Hours of Service Regulations and Contentious Mobilities in the BC-Based Long Haul Trucking Industry,” Canadian Journal of Sociology (forthcoming 2016). On increasing pressure faced by truckers, see Fred P. Nix, “Truck Activity in Canada: A Profile,” Transport Canada: Motor Carrier Policy Branch (2003): 21.

25

Creese, “Racializing Work/Reproducing White Privilege,” 203.

26

Gillian Creese, “From Africa to Canada: Bordered Spaces, Border Crossings, and Imagined Communities,” in Interrogating Race and Racism, ed. V. Agnew (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 232–385, here: 355.

27

Ibid., 355–356.

28

Adele Perry, On the Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849–1871 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001).

29

Creese, “Racializing Work/Reproducing White Privilege,” 197.

30

Kamala Elizabeth Nayar, The Punjabis in British Columbia: Location, Labour, First Nations, and Multiculturalism (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012).

31

Razack, Looking White People in the Eye, 19.

32

This is not to say we should ignore differing cultural norms and practices of automobility. Rather, I argue that “cultural difference” models of automobility map too easily onto racist constructions of nonwhite drivers. They thereby can and do elide racist colonial histories of automobility while translating racist driving assumptions into the coded language of cultural difference. For a discussion of similar dynamics in education and law, see Razack, Looking White People in the Eye.

33

I often observed similar dynamics in truckers’ VHF radio reports. For more on race and two-way radio technologies, see Art M. Blake, “Audible Citizenship and Audiomobility: Race, Technology, and CB Radio,” American Quarterly 63, no. 3 (2011): 531–553; Angela M. Blake, “An Audible Sense of Order: Race, Fear, and CB Radio on Los Angeles Freeways in the 1970s,” in Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, ed. David Suisman and Susan Strasser (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 159–178.

34

Tania Das Gupta, Racism and Paid Work (Toronto: Women’s Press, 1996), 14, quoted in Creese, “Racializing Work/Reproducing White Privilege,” 209.

35

Dubé and Pilon, “On the Road Again,” 18–19.

36

Sabik Singh, quoted in Daniel Francis, Trucking in British Columbia: An Illustrated History (Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2012), 127–129.

37

Such claims are often used to justify reliance on migrant workers through initiatives such as the Temporary Foreign Workers program. Critics argue that any such driver shortage—if it does exist—should be addressed first through improvements in wages and working conditions. See Harry Rudolfs, “Are Temporary Foreign Truck Drivers Being Abused?” Truck News, 9 May 2014); Jason Foster, “Making the Temporary Permanent: The Silent Transformation of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program,” Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society 19 (2012): 22–46.

38

Foster, “Making the Temporary Permanent”; Delphine Nakache, “The Canadian Temporary Foreign Worker Program: Regulations, Practices, and Protection Gaps,” in Producing and Negotiating Non-Citizenship: Precarious Legal Status in Canada, ed. Luin Goldring and Patricia Landolt (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 71–97.

39

Razack, Looking White People in the Eye, 14.

40

These strategies are not dissimilar from tactics employed by early women motorists to assert a place for themselves in car culture. Georgine Clarsen, Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

41

See, for example, Michelle Fine, Lois Weis, Judi Addelston, and Julia Marusza, “(In) Secure Times: Constructing White Working-Class Masculinities in the Late 20th Century,” Gender and Society 11, no. 1 (1997): 52–68; Kris Paap, Working Construction: Why Elite Working-Class Men Put Themselves—and the Labour Movement—in Harm’s Way (Ithaca, NY: ILR/Cornell University Press, 2006); Karen Pyke, “Class-Based Masculinities: The Interdependence of Gender, Class, and Interpersonal Power,” Gender and Society 10 (1996): 527–549.

42

See Perry, On the Edge of Empire; David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1999).

43

Judith Plaskow, “Embodiment, Elimination, and the Role of Toilets in Struggles for Social Justice,” Crosscurrents 58, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 51–64.

44

Ibid., 52.

45

Alison Moore, “Colonial Visions of ‘Third World’ Toilets: A Nineteenth-Century Discourse That Haunts Contemporary Tourism,” in Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender, ed. Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009), 105–125, here: 106.

46

Shane Hamilton, Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 108; Ouellet, Pedal to the Metal.

47

CVSE officers enforce Vehicle Inspection Standards and the National Safety Code for heavy vehicles. Among other duties, they conduct speed enforcement, perform mechanical inspections, and enforce Hours of Service regulations.

48

Fieldnotes, spring 2011.

49

These issues are especially troubling given the openly racist sentiments expressed to me by some CVSE officers. At our first meeting, one officer told me “All of my court cases for [this month] are named Singh. You can interpret that a number of ways. You know I pick on white guys as well.” Fieldnotes, spring 2011.

50

Sherene Razack, “Introduction: When Place Becomes Race” in Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society, ed. Sherene Razack, 2–20 (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002), 4.

51

Reid-Musson, “Automobility’s Others,” 186.

52

“Trucker bomb” refers to a discarded urine-filled container.

53

This is a particular risk because I do not include the words or lived experiences of South Asian truckers here. I do not mean to imply that such drivers are unagentic victims of the primarily racist power dynamics I explore; my fieldwork strongly suggests otherwise. Rather, my goal is to understand oppressive narrative and power dynamics in the industry so they may be undone.

54

Razack, Looking White People in the Eye, 16.

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Contributor Notes

Amie McLean is a PhD candidate in sociology at Simon Fraser University. Her Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada–funded doctoral research examines gendered and racialized power relations in the British Columbia-based long haul trucking industry. Her research interests include critical race feminism, ethnography, critical automobility studies, labor, (neo)colonialism, neoliberalism, and qualitative methods. She has published on colonialism, resistance, and Indigenous postsecondary education in Mobilizations, Protests, and Engagements: Canadian Perspectives on Social Movements. E-mail: amie_mclean@sfu.ca