Join me in a flashback to me and my aunt in Lagos. My aunt is driving a car that has a Lagos number plate. Whenever any of the public bus drivers tries to get ahead of her in a crawling traffic she yells at them to draw their attention to the number plate of her car. They should know better than to try to get ahead of her; can’t they see that she is a Lagosian? Of course, her reaction only emphasises – at least to my mind – that she is not a Lagosian, or at the very least, that she has been using cars that do not have Lagos number plates.
Almost everyone who has ever ridden in a government car knows the thrill of being driven in one. I mean this in reference to the way policemen – mobile or otherwise – raise their hands to stop the car when it is still some distance away, and the way they wave the car off when they realise that the letters and numbers on the plate is in that familiar green of a government car. Of course, there is some discrimination here too. The number plate of a government car from, say, Gombe State would definitely not command as much respect as one from the federal government. This does not mean that the Gombe number plate will not command its own respect in any case, only that it is more likely to be stopped by the policeman than one from the federal government.
The story is slightly different with my mother. In Lagos, she would warn the driver to take it easy since the car does not have a Lagos number. Lagos drivers, impolite and rough drivers that they are, would think it nothing to harass the driver up to the point of running them off the road. At least that is her assumption. She assumes that an Ondo State number plate in Lagos – number plate awon ara oke – would not command any respect from Lagos drivers.
Thinking about these instances leads me to wonder how we attach meaning to things. When we see a car that is from a particular part of the country it conjures images of our stereotypes of that place and then we watch to see the confirmations of those stereotypes. Even when we don’t watch for confirmations we are prepared to excuse their behaviour because of that/those sign(s). Or we are prepared to cheat or bully them because of those signs. The same signs could take on different meanings at different points. Dealing with number plates could be as harmless as it was the night my friends and I were going to the restaurant, or as dangerous as to be markers for acts of violence. Imagine a crisis in which people from a particular part of the country are targets. Then imagine that someone drives over in the car that is marked as being from that part of the country. I do not think I need to complete that picture.
It also leads me to think about how we make sense of people by assigning them into categories and placing them in mental boxes. I am not a psychologist, and I am ready to be corrected by one, but I imagine that it helps us to make sense of people and things by giving them ready-made labels. Once those labels are attached we can then go on to relate with them as we would people whom we have categorised under that label. I try not to do this because I know that it precludes the possibility of surprise, of serendipity. But I often catch myself in the act.