Tuesday, February 10, 2015

You Don't Need to See My Identification

You know the scene in Star Wars when Obi-Wan uses a Jedi mind trick to fool the weak-minded stormtroopers into letting his group pass through the checkpoint? The other day that happened to me, only I'm not aware of any particular kinship with The Force, at least not as George Lucas imagined it. In my case, I experienced a big fat case of unearned privilege. It happened when I arrived at my bank, feeling frustrated after being foiled at the Rite Aid’s Western Union kiosk.

Now, the first evidence of unearned privilege is the fact that I’ve gone 42 years without ever having sent money via Western Union. You know the stereotype: Western Union is for sending bail money, or money to the family members back home who didn’t cross the border illegally, or money to that cousin who’s always making bad decisions, but to whom I'm going to give a break just one more time. Indeed, when I picked up the phone at the kiosk to dial in my order, the phone literally smelled like homelessness. And I thought, “Wow, I’m in a totally new situation here.”

I was using Western Union to send money to a seminary colleague, a priest in Burundi who is raising money for a truck that will be very helpful to his congregation. After some research, I was sure I had all the tools I needed to transfer money from my clergy discretionary fund all the way to Africa. I had established a security question and an answer, and I had messaged those to my friend. I got off the phone at Rite Aid and brought my ten-digit code to the register to pay the money.

Now, I’m a new priest. I had written checks from my discretionary fund before. But this was the first time I’d used my debit card, and I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember my four-digit PIN. This was frustrating and more than a little embarrassing. As a line formed behind me, I inputted several different possibilities, but none of them was correct. So I had to admit defeat and cancel the transaction.

But I wasn’t totally foiled yet. It was Friday at 4:00, and dadgummit, I was going to finish this before the weekend. So I drove to the bank where I have my discretionary fund, walked in with good humor, and admitted I didn’t know my PIN.

I was immediately directed to a desk where a woman greeted me with, “No problem! Let’s take care of this for you.” She asked me to swipe my card. She asked me to input my new desired PIN. And then she said, “You’re all set! Thanks for coming in.”

I paused. “Um,” I said, “shouldn’t you check my ID or something?”

For an instant the woman looked like a deer in the headlights. Then she regained her composure, smiled broadly, and said, “Normally I should, but I decided to take you on good faith.”

Good faith. So I should be grateful, right? I should be glad that my bank loves me, right? No, not at all. Because, number one, anyone could bring my wallet in there. And number two, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Whom would you not take on good faith? What is it about me that makes you inherently trust me?”

"No, it's OK. I'm a white Jedi."
Bear in mind that I did not wave my hand vaguely and murmur, "You don't need to see my identification." And no, I was not wearing my collar. And I wasn’t especially well dressed. This was supposed to be my day off.

Now, if I say, “It’s because I’m white,” doubtless many will respond, “You can’t prove her intent.” No, I can’t. I could say, “It’s because I wasn’t smelly.” But it’s no use. Because no matter how you look at it, I gave off some sort of vibe that told the woman, “He can be trusted completely.” Subconsciously at least, this bank clerk believed her radar for trustworthiness to be infallible. And that radar was triggered by something about my physical appearance and demeanor.

And that, my friends, is what is known as unearned privilege.

And I fell right into it and left, so baffled that I didn’t even have the wherewithal to tell her how little I appreciated her “good faith.”

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