In Other Shoes: A Tale of Privilege Perceived in Its Absence

The video at the bottom of this post appeared in one of my social media feeds yesterday and reminded me of something.

This past winter, I took my daughter for her second ski lesson ever. She had loved her first one, I had not been present for it, and we were both very excited.

As often happens, we had to park a fair distance down the mountain and hike up with all the stuff. We were renting skis for her, but I had a bag containing her helmet and a variety of weather gear options, depending on how cold it turned out to be, plus my laptop because there are tables to sit and work at while watching the lessons.

We hiked up the mountain and checked in for the lesson. I paid and we went to pick up the rental equipment. Although the equipment came with the lesson and I had already paid, the rental shop wanted a drivers license. At that point I realized I had left it in the car.

You see, my sweet niece J-Bug had given me a little plastic card case, which she picked out and paid for herself, as a Christmas present. It wasn’t big enough to hold all of my cards, but I had moved some of them into it from the wallet. Not the drivers license, though. It was down the mountain in the car, still in the wallet inside my purse, which in an effort to be economical about the amount of crap to be carried, I had left behind and simply transferred the card case with my debit card in it to my laptop bag.

“Shoot… Does it just need to be a picture I.D.? Let me see what I have.”

I shuffled through what was in the card case, wondering if they would accept my bar license, or maybe the Costco card since it has my picture on it, when I realized I had something better.

Glad that I would not have to hike back down the mountain with the child and the laptop and the helmet and the stuff, I pulled it out and handed it to the woman with a wide, relieved smile.

“What is this?”

Moments before she had been friendly, cheerful, helpful. Now her voice was cold. Her face had transformed to a look of distaste.

“It’s my tribal I.D. card.”

“What does it do?” she asked in a voice one might use with a slow person.

“It’s a picture I.D. that identifies me as a member of the Chickasaw tribe.”

To my own ears, I sounded slow. My tongue was too thick. I stumbled over the words. My breathing was off, my voice breathy and unsteady.

It was as though the ground had shifted and suddenly everything was different.

The woman continued to be cold and disdainful, bordering on sneering, throughout the rest of our interaction. I tried to ask two follow-up questions about the meeting point for the ski lesson. She gave a passive-aggressively empty answer to the first, scoffing in annoyance, and upon being asked the second, essentially told me that she did not wish to interact any longer.

All of this happened in front of my daughter.

In those moments, even as it was unfolding, several different thoughts and feelings swept over me simultaneously.

I felt absolutely, 100% sure that this woman did not care for Native Americans and did not believe I had a drivers license in the car.

I felt unkempt and unsuccessful, like I needed to prove myself worthy of borrowing equipment from the ski shop.

I was confused and mystified as to why it was throwing me off, why I even cared, why I was suddenly so needy of this woman’s approval and acceptance.

I was shaken that my daughter was watching as I found myself so inexplicably and uncharacteristically flustered and groveling.

I was intensely aware of the irony.

I, who have been known to make fun of trigger warnings, could only describe my state as triggered. I, who resent hasty accusations of racism, was indicting this stranger of it when perhaps it was only my lack of license or me as a person she disliked. I, who get annoyed at the suggestion I should be aware of my privilege, did not much like the way it felt to have it taken.

My daughter was too young to even form the questions I could see reflected in the newfound uncertainty on her face as a different shop employee fitted her for the gear and helped her into a pair of boots. I could tell the same shadow had been cast over her excitement as mine. I was conscious of the need to rise above it, make my own way back to that bright place so she could follow.

It was easier once we were outside the rental shop, where the sky was blue and the sun shone warm and bright, reflecting off the fresh snow. Where no one knew I just used my tribal I.D. card to rent skis. Where I was again the mother with a drivers license, a law degree, a job, and my own house.

Someone gave us directions to the meeting point for the lesson with the helpful friendliness I am more accustomed to encountering.

I have thought about it many times since.

What must it be like facing that sort of thing, not one time because you stupidly left your drivers license in the car at the ski mountain, but day after day for an entire life? To see that look on your child’s face not as a single, unpleasant episode, quickly forgotten, but again and again until she has learned the lesson? To have to explain slurs, not as words aimed at others, but as ones aimed at her? To watch her notice a news clip of fraternity members singing about excluding people who look like her to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It?”

I think it’s possible I would be a different person if I had lived that life instead of this one.

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