Racism and Common Humanity at the DMV
The way I see it, there are two great equalizers in life: death, and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Everyone has to pass the same nerve-wracking driver’s test. Everyone has to stand in the same wretched line. Everyone’s equal at the DMV.
I recently did my friend a favor and took her daughter to sit for her permit test in Durham, North Carolina. As we drove up, about twenty people were standing outside the state office in the midday sun.
We joined the jagged line. Five minutes passed, then ten. The line hadn’t budged. It was ninety-two degrees in the shade and dark-tinted windows of the DMV were sucking the heat right out of the air and spitting it back into our faces. Even so, something wonderful was happening out there, the way we were all stuck on the same boat—suffering, yes, but suffering equally—our fate bundled up together at a time when the country feels so not-together.
Suddenly, a woman said loudly, “Why did she tell me to go to my car?”
She had been standing apart from the line as though waiting awhile, maybe longer than any of us.
Up ahead another woman, older, was also standing to the side. She turned and called out, “She told me I had to go to my car too.”
Said the younger woman, “What do you and I have in common?”
All chatter stopped cold.
Both women were black. Were they implying that a woman who worked at the DMV had emerged and ordered them back to their cars because of it?
Not even remotely possible, I thought.
“She’s a racist,” the younger woman continued loudly. “I could tell when I saw her. She’s a racist.”
In front of me in line I could see an older couple from India, an Asian woman, some white women, and some black men. People had begun shifting nervously in place.
“I sure wish I could change the color of my skin whenever I wanted,” the younger woman said. “White privilege.”
I had an urge to hug those hot windows then, just to stay out of the line of fire.
“I know how to report her,” the older woman said. “I’m going to make a call to the district attorney.” She got on her phone and started a hushed conversation, reminding me of a dour school secretary—the kind that never lets anyone else win.
Who, I wondered, conjures up insults that don’t exist? The unhinged, that’s who.
The Indian couple turned around and began energetically inviting the two women toward the head of the line. Not a soul protested, surely because some were cowed. But it also seemed likely that both women had been standing out there the longest, and first come, first served, of course, because fair is fair—whether you’re Mother Theresa or the biggest jerk in Durham.
Out came a DMV employee. She was middle-aged, white, and breathing heavily, and she immediately started talking to the Indian couple. They were there to get North Carolina IDs, they said, and already had driver’s licenses from Texas. But the DMV woman said no, they couldn’t have both simultaneously, and that to get North Carolina IDs they would have to relinquish their Texas driver’s licenses. And then, well, they could no longer legally drive.
Fine, said the Indian couple. But the DMV woman couldn’t believe they fully understood what they were agreeing to. She went over the details four, five, maybe six times, getting more wound-up every time. The line started shifting uncomfortably again.
That’s when the DMV employee noticed the two black women standing there—and ordered them back to their cars.
And suddenly those unhinged women didn’t seem so unhinged anymore. My charge shot me a deadly look that said: Not everybody’s equal at the DMV.
I could barely believe my eyes. Like most Southern towns, in Durham we’d been trying to make things right for a long time, and in many ways it seemed we had. In fact, we weren’t five miles from where a Confederate soldier statue had stood on a pedestal for ninety-three years until 2017, when we, the people, had had enough and yanked it to the ground.
The DMV is—and sure as hell better be—just another unexceptional state office that guarantees us America isn’t a boiling cesspool of prejudice and malice. It’s proof that we still have a fighting chance to sustain this wild, wonderful experiment that is the country I love, because when it’s time to get a damned driver’s permit, everybody stands in the same damned line and everybody gets the same damned treatment.
But that’s not what this looked like. This looked like racism.
The DMV woman went inside, still huffing and puffing. But she came right out again, holding a pen and paper. “Give me your names and your numbers so I can put you on my list,” she said. “Go to your cars. I will call you when it’s your turn to come in.”
Her voice had a new softness to it, and she said she wasn’t allowed to let people line the sidewalk. It was some sort of security issue. There are cameras, she said, and her boss would see. She talked to the Indian couple again, only more gently, and she sounded genuinely concerned that they were about to relinquish the only thing that entitled them to drive.
Then she walked over to the black women to make sure she wrote down the right numbers the first time. And both women spoke to her kindly, almost like they were friends now.
She worked her way through the rest of the line until we all got our names and numbers on the list. And I started thinking about the labor shortage and the gas prices, and how this woman might be the only person manning the DMV office on this sweltering Friday afternoon. She seemed a little sorry, maybe for just about everything. I think she knew that everyone out there was just hustling a little, trying to make life work. I looked triumphantly at my charge, because that right there is the DMV, baby!
We dispersed then, heading slowly through the Southern heat to sit in our cars and wait.
I started to regret how quickly I had judged those women as unhinged and the DMV woman as racist. I wondered if the younger woman felt at all bad about publicly labeling some people “privileged,” or if the older woman rued how she had almost reported the DMV lady for discrimination.
And I wanted to tell that jagged line that this country just feels so broken. And that it does seem messed up how in some black neighborhoods the houses look sort of stuck, like not enough has changed in this old cotton and tobacco state. But that when I drive through Virginia, I see the same stuck-ness in a lot of tumbledown mountain homes—and it’s mostly white folks living in those. And that I still firmly believe America is good for the taking. That we’re all in this boat together and I’m glad. That I wish we weren’t so scared of each other now. And that I wish we could agree to disagree about what our problems are and what might help solve them—without calling each other names.
But I said nothing. Because you never know who could get offended these days and what disasters that could lead to. My charge sat next to me, holding the driver’s handbook and concentrating on the difference between North Carolina’s route marker signs and secondary road signs. Thirty minutes later, a guy who had been standing behind me in line climbed out of a sports car and started making his way to the DMV door.
He recognized me through my windshield, and he smiled and gestured to his phone as if to say, “Look! I’m in!”
I smiled right back, because his good fortune felt like my good fortune. And if his number got called, maybe ours soon would too.
And because at the DMV at least, all’s still right with the world.
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