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REAL ID: Perpetuating the Myth of Authenticity
A fter college, I moved to Cleveland, Ohio and in the fall of 2003 was asked to get an Ohio driver’s license for insurance purposes at my work. I called the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and asked what documents I needed to receive an Ohio driver’s license.
Growing up east Asian in the rural midwest taught me never to take my “American-ness” for granted. Armed with the required social security card and an unexpired Michigan driver’s license, I reached the front of the line at the DMV. The woman behind the counter glanced at me and abruptly asked for my citizenship papers.
We went back and forth—me, dumbfounded, mumbling, and stuttering about how I had called and I brought what I was told was necessary, attempting to keep my voice from shaking, attempting to assert that citizenship is not a requirement for a driver’s license. She responded by asking me if I had my passport. I replied in the negative, still mumbling, stuttering, voice unsteady, and asserted my citizenship status. She replied, even more forcefully, well, were you born here? At that point, I half-heartedly replied no, and tried one last time, hey, aren’t you even going to look at what I have? She glanced at my social security card and said, yeah, you need to have further documentation. For me, visceral anger is almost always accompanied by tears and I could feel the moisture collecting, just waiting to betray me even further. So I left.
When I share this experience, it is not uncommon for the person to respond, well, what did you do? To which I respond, I did nothing. I went to another DMV to get my driver’s license.
What is still so startling about bigotry to me is how powerful and debilitating those experiences can be, even if it is something with which I am all too familiar. As an educated, politicized person of color, I expect more of myself.
I come back to this moment often to analyze my reactions and I realize that when I was backed into a corner, when my ever precarious grasp on my identity was threatened, I displayed my own self-hatred, my desire to differentiate myself from the connotations my appearance holds for others. In essence, I was trying to assert my whiteness and, therefore, my normalcy. But I couldn’t, because I am not white.
something like the REAL ID Act is passed and signed into law with
very little debate, it gives me pause. I wonder what “authen-
ticating identity” really means.
For those who don’t know about it, the Real ID Act (HR418) was attached to the $82 billion emergency supplemental appropriations bill (HR1268) for military expenses in Iraq and Afghanistan and signed by President Bush on May 11, 2005. Under this legislation, the minimum standards for issuing a driver’s license are: a photo ID, documentation of date of birth, proof of social security number, and documentation of principal residence.
Before issuing drivers’ licenses, states are also now required to verify legal residency within the United States. All required documents must be issued by the United States with the exception of official passports. States are required to fulfill the obligations of the Real ID Act within three years and must have the information available to all other states.
As I read news articles and commentary about the REAL ID Act, I am most troubled by the refusal of commentators to explicitly confront what this Act codified. There is talk about identity theft, the bureaucratic complications of coordination, of training employees and relying on them to authenticate documents, costs, the implications of a national ID, etc., and all of these issues should be talked about. But this is yet another example that what is politically expedient to discuss is not always what is ethically necessary to discuss.
To be fair, advocacy groups have raised the Act’s implications for immigrants and there are many. Unfortunately, most commentaries on immigration fail to place the effect of the REAL ID Act within the larger context of U.S. racial policies. It is important to stress how our use of language defines the terms of the debate, so when we say that someone is “illegal” or an “alien,” we are talking about much more than residency status. To speak of citizenship is to refer to privilege and power, no matter how obliquely. Citizenship is the affirmation of one’s human-ness, that there are certain rights accorded to individuals, that there is a right to exist within a certain space. As well, citizenship is a reminder that rights are given to some and not others. What is clear is that only certain immigrants have to explain their presence here. The REAL ID Act is the state sanctioning of bigotry. The Minutemen vigilantes spread out on the Mexi- can/American border to pre- vent Mexican immigrants into the U.S. is just another manifestation of this.
The REAL ID Act is about much more than identity theft. It is about the notion that identity is something that can be authenticated in the first place. Indeed, if I knew of certain documents that did justice to my whole identity, that validated the authenticity of my experiences as an American, as an Asian, as an Asian American, and my ability to make choices about my life as a woman of color living in the U.S., I might be convinced to get them, if only to stop hearing the same stale commentary about how interesting my childhood must have been, about how interesting I look.
But even with my U.S. passport in hand, I still get asked the question of where I am from, where I was born, where my family is from, and people who ask me those questions are never satisfied with answers that reflect the fact that I grew up in the rural Midwest. Documents cannot authenticate my identity to the satisfaction of many of these questioners because to them my very presence in this country will never be authentic.
Many supporters of the REAL ID Act have responded to criticisms with the assertion that the intent of REAL ID is neither to create a national ID, nor to discriminate against a certain group of people. While this sounds comforting, we all know that, regardless of intent, the result of REAL ID will be a further polarization of races in the U.S., which will benefit some and damage others.
The REAL ID Act has passed, so let’s take its implications seriously because it is rooted in fear, the result of which is the codification of racial profiling that is shameful. Where is our response to this white vigilance against nonwhites? Where is our outrage? Why is it so easy to place our outrage in abstract legal conceptualizations of rights, such as privacy, but so difficult to place our outrage in our own experiences? Why do we continue denying the experiences of others? Where is our ethical vigilance against bigotry?
My fear at the DMV in Cleveland was based in the idea that I didn’t have the right papers to prove I am who I say I am. The reality is, I may be a “naturalized alien,” but most people see nothing natural about my presence and no piece of ID is going to change that, “real” or not. If we really care about security and safety, then these are the things we should be talking about, rather than honing our fears into tools for erecting even more divisions, leading to even more ignorance.
Laura Newland was co-coordinator of Ohio Free the Vote, a jail-based voter education and registration program.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.