When I turned 50 a few years ago, I started doing something sort of paranoid: I always jog with my driver’s license and medical card, in case I have a heart attack. So far it’s never come in handy, but I keep doing it.
Paranoia has its costs, though. Almost two weeks ago, I was at Logan Airport in Boston when I flipped my wallet open and stared at an empty plastic window. My driver’s license was in a t-shirt pocket in my laundry hamper. I had no other photo ID.
My first thought was to change my flight and come back tomorrow, but that would mean missing a whole day of the conference I was going to – the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Phoenix – so I went with my second thought: See what happens.
I got a boarding pass from a machine that didn’t care what I looked like, then waited in line with everybody else and apologetically told my story to the TSA guy. He called over a supervisor, who looked at what I did have: two credit cards and prescription bottle. Making no promises about what would happen when I tried to come home, he let me through.
Eight days later, TSA in Phoenix was more thorough. They scoffed at my credit cards and pill bottle, as well as at my business card (which has a photo), and the ID the conference had given me. They asked about my health-insurance card, which of course was keeping my driver’s license company in the laundry hamper. They would have liked to have seen some mail with my address on it or maybe a utility bill, which I might have packed if I had known I was going to forget all my other ID.
So they called up a government database and started asking me questions about myself: my address and phone number, my wife’s maiden name, other towns I had lived in, and so on. Some of the stuff I didn’t know, like the names of the neighbors in my apartment building. Eventually they did an explosives-residue test on my hands, and then let me through.
At no time was I treated with anything other than respect. No one implied that I was a criminal or that I was trying to get away with something.
While I was undocumented, I learned two things of political significance:
First, those advocates of voter-ID laws who claim it’s no big deal because you already need a photo ID to do absolutely everything else in this society – they’re just wrong. A lot of people will ask for a photo ID, but if you don’t have one they work around it. For example, some places took my credit card without asking. When someone did ask, nobody batted an eye when I said, “Oh, never mind, I’ll pay cash” or called my wife over to charge it on her card. They may have had other work-arounds, but I didn’t ask.
TSA definitely will work with what you have, because they’re just trying to verify your identity, not stop you from traveling. On the other hand, when you try to vote in a Republican state, you run into a process that absolutely won’t work if you don’t have an official state-issued photo ID, and even a state-university ID isn’t good enough. That’s unusual, and you have to wonder if that’s because the purpose is to stop you from voting.
Second, it was ironic that I was on my way to Phoenix, and that one of the things I would do there was protest the Arizona immigration law, S.B. 1070, which is sometimes known as the papers-please law.
I wandered around Arizona for a week with no proof that I’m a US citizen other than my white skin, my Illinois accent, and a nice pair of khakis. Nobody cared. I never had to explain myself and I never had cause to be afraid.
Everybody who heard my license-in-the-hamper anecdote thought it was funny and wanted to know how I got through TSA. But if I’d been brown, poor, and speaking with a heavy Hispanic accent, the story might not have been so entertaining.
So I was undocumented in Arizona and nothing happened. No drama, no excitement.
That’s how white privilege usually shows up: Nothing happens. Think about that the next time you’re out in public and nothing is happening.