Sacred Soil

This is what privilege looks like
July 31, 2013, 6:01 pm
Filed under: Weeds

We’re a one-car family, though we do occasionally aspire to guzzle more gas. I’d like to say we’re frugal, Eco-conscious people, but the reality is that we just can’t afford another car. So, on the days when we need a second car, I find my way to the local car rental place. They know me well in the office, greeting me with a friendly handshake. They always ask how I’m doing. I feel comfortable there, especially now that they know better than to try to up-sell me.

A few months ago, I rented a car and headed on over to the the West side of Chicago for a few church supplies. When I came back out to the car, a police officer was hovering over the vehicle, ready to write a ticket. I quickly looked around, examining all the signs. I saw nothing wrong. Confused and anxious, I approached her and asked what was going on.

She was gentle and kind, noting that the registration on the vehicle had expired. She then walked to the front of the vehicle and noticed that the car was designated as a rental. She pointed at the sticker and said, “Here, this car is a rental, so the registration is not your responsibility. Hand this off to the agency and they’ll take care of it.”

I was relieved, though annoyed. This isn’t the first time I’ve rented a car with an expired registration. Now, I’ve learned to check that before leaving the lot. The company paid for the ticket, apologized, and gave me a discount on the rental.

A month or two later, back at the rental agency, I was sitting in the office waiting. I don’t quite remember why. Rental offices often involve a lot of waiting. While I sat playing with my phone, an African American woman was pacing the floor. She was agitated, worried about her schedule, wondering how long it would take the office to have a new car ready for her. She mentioned that she needed to get a new car because the car she’d rented had an expired registration.

I commiserated. “Oh, how frustrating. I’ve been there,” I told her. And then she told me the story of how it came to be that she found out about the expired registration. And then I realized, I hadn’t been there at all. I had been in the land where white skin means these things, though frustrating, are easily resolved. All it cost me was 5 minutes and a smile. It wasn’t so easy for her.

She was on the same side of town when a police officer discovered her registration expired. He then asked for the rental papers, which she had accidentally left at home. Apparently, he didn’t bother to look at the “rental” sticker, or if he had, it didn’t matter to him. He told her, “We’ve seen a lot of thefts in this area, so I need to see those papers.” My police officer never even thought to suggest such a thing to me.

And then, rather than take her to her home, where she could produce the papers, they took her to the police station where they held her for three hours. Three hours. How long does it take to call the rental office? Run by her home? How long does it take to show someone a little dignity?

What cost me 5 minutes, cost her 3 hours and a huge dose of humiliation. And then she had to return the car and get a new one.

She was mad. I’d have been mad too. She had a right to be very angry, but the young men in the office couldn’t look her in the eye. They couldn’t bring themselves to say, “I’m sorry.” They merely took the ticket and walked around her as if she were a bomb that might explode if you showed an ounce of kindness.

As they prepared to go out to the new car, she asked, “Is the sticker updated on this one?” The young man said, “Yes” with a a huff, incredulous that she’d asked. Then they both stepped outside to the car for the closing rituals. Two minutes later, he was back inside, searching for the new sticker. Apparently, she was right to ask.

When I was talking with this woman, I got the sense that this sort of thing felt “normal” to her. I suppose my experience felt “normal” to me as well. I expected that the officer would be nice, that the rental place would apologize, that my time would be valued. She expected the opposite.

This is what privilege looks like. This is what happens when the world assumes that just because I’m white that I’m not going to steal a car. The world assumes that I require an apology when I’m wronged. They assume I am entitled to a discount. I don’t think that any of these folks intended to mistreat this woman–but by responding to their implicit assumptions about who she was, and what she deserved, what should have been an apology for a careless mistake, turned into an opportunity to deny her dignity and respect.

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