White Privilege at the DMV

Scene: The State DMV

Purpose: To get drivers’ licenses in the state where we had recently moved

What to bring: Passport, Social Security Card, 2 pieces of mail with your current address

We moved during the Covid-19 global pandemic to a state that requires a quarantine for all visitors. As soon as our self-quarantine expired we were anxious to get about the business of settling in to our new home and community.

We had heard people say that because of the quarantine, police were pulling over drivers’ with out-of-state tags. We were eager to get new state tags to avoid being pulled over.

The state primaries are coming up. We wanted to be eligible to vote.

We wanted to be credentialed in our new state and were willing to make the hour-long round-trip three times to do so.

This would be our third trip to the DMV. First to get 2 cars inspected. Second to get two sets of license plates and tags. Third to get our drivers’ licenses. NOTE: because appointments are required during COVID it was impossible to take care of all 3 things in one trip.

A few days before our trip to the DMV for the drivers’ licenses I carefully assembled a packet for myself and one for my spouse that contained our passports and social security cards.

I was careful to grab 3 pieces of mail. One package, sent USPS that was addressed to both of us, and two Amazon-Prime envelopes, one addressed to each of us solo. It is the pandemic, we were on a self-quarantine. We had a lot of Amazon deliveries, along with some junk mail and not much else. I grabbed the only pieces I could find.

COVID protocols require an appointment at the DVM. Only 10 people allowed in at a time. We arrived a few minutes earlier and alerted the security guard we were there for our 10 AM appointment. We moved to the front of the line (awkward) had our temperatures and appointments checked and we were dispatched. Me to window 11, my spouse to window 13.

I nervously approached window 11…I always expect a hassle at the DMV. Things started off easily. We moved through paperwork, and once my mail was cleared, I excused myself to window 13 to give my spouse our “shared” piece of mail, knowing he needed 2 pieces as well.

No sooner was I back at my window 11, standing for my ID picture, when trouble began with my spouse and the attendant at window 13. “This is AMAZON PRIME, not mail,” the attendant at window 13 barked. 

I quickly looked at the person helping me. My “solo” “mail” was also marked PRIME. He just shrugged. “Do you want to be an organ donor?” 

I can hear my spouse saying….”Prime, whatever, it was delivered to my house!”

The female attendant at window 13 barked again. “It has to be US MAIL.”

I wracked my brain. Did the woman on the phone say US MAIL and I forgot? Did she just say “mail?” Did she say US MAIL and I heard “mail?” It all comes to the MAILbox, right? In fact, when we can’t find an Amazon package, or a package is late and we call Amazon, they say “did you check the MAIL box?” Amazon prime shifts some deliveries to the US post office which drives Donald Trump crazy because he hates Jeff Bezos. What’s the distinction between real MAIL and not-real mail? Packages that come to your porch, with your address on them, delivered by UPS or Fedex aren’t MAIL? Is she really making a federal case out of mail? Or is this something else?

I looked pleadingly at window 11, half scared he would deny me. “Can you talk to window 13?” 

“Its up to her. Register to vote?” 

“Yes…mmm, sir, this is our third time here in 10 days…we’re just trying to get our licenses. He’s my husband. You can see [pointing to our shared mail] that we have the same address…”

“Have him come down here.”

“You can help?”

“Have him come down here.”

My spouse stands behind me. I barely turn around and whisper “He says he will help you.”

A few minutes later window 11 hands me some paperwork, asks me to slide my credit card, and directs me around the corner to pick up my new drivers license ID. I reach for my “mail.” 

“Leave it here,” window 11 says.

My husband steps up to window 11. I can read the distrust on his face.

I step around the corner to get my ID and by the time I return to window 11 he is having his picture taken. We both know his ID is within sight.

Inside of 30 minutes, we both have newly issued state driver’s licenses.

But our experiences were as different as Black and white. Literally. 

We get into the car. My husband is furious.

I turn to him and say, what we just experienced was the quintessential example of white privilege.

My “mail” was accepted without question. Because I’m white.
His was not only questioned, but not accepted. Because he is Black.

How do you know it is racial? Well, it was the same mail. In fact, identical mail. It really wasn’t about the mail. So, um, what else could it be?

So, what does one do with white privilege? 

You can’t give it away. 

I couldn’t “loan” it to my husband.

I had two choices. I could have protested and said I wouldn’t take my license if he couldn’t have his. 

But, look, let’s be honest, I didn’t want to ride 30 minutes home with a pissed-off, NO-ID husband and I sure didn’t want to come back 30 minutes each way with him and US MAIL to complete the process. Ironically when we got home our power bill was in the mailbox…real mail.

I had a real self-interest in his ID success that day.

We are an interracial couple. We are used to getting looks. We are used to people assuming we are not together…which is exacerbated by the fact that we have different last names. He has his. I have mine.

But, usually we are together. In this case, window 13 didn’t know my husband’s wife, a white woman, was at window 11

I’m glad I was able to extend my white privilege to him long enough to complete the transaction.

But, I didn’t feel good about it. I felt terrible about it. It hurt to see someone I love be treated so differently than I was treated. Period. It just hurt.There is no glory in white privilege. Not when your loved one is on the opposite side. 

My privilege, as Audre Lord would say, is inextricably bound up in my husband’s oppression. There’s nothing to feel good about in that.

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