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A Little Bit of Power: Bias at the DMV - Sheila Wilensky

I passed my Minnesota Class D knowledge test. I had failed it three times. Was it because I hadn't fully studied the driver's handbook?

Passing the test was instructive. I resolved to consider each of the forty questions more carefully, without getting nervous.

There I was on a snowy day at the Minnesota Department of Motor Vehicles.

Determined to not do what the State wanted me to do.

But I did.

I only got two questions wrong. I was a winner! I gave the thumbs-up sign to the service reps who had directed me to my test computer.

I wasn't prepared to queue up for a different service rep handing over a rash of paperwork to fill out.

Because I was a winner.

My first clue that I was different: The bespectacled working woman singled out a small group of Somali women waiting in front of me.

Somalis in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul metropolitan area comprise the largest of the ethnic group's diasporas in the United States. By 2018, approximately 43,000 people born in Somalia were living in Minnesota, and approximately 94,000 Minnesotans spoke Somali, Amharic, or a related language at home.

"You're not listening," she blasts the women, newcomers dressed to the hilt in their good coats and dressy hats. Respectful. Their first time dealing with American bureaucracy?

"Maybe they don't understand what you're saying," I retaliate. A Somali-American woman in jeans, speaking fluent English, accompanies the newcomers. We chat. She came from Ohio. I moved from Tucson to participate more in my grandchildren's lives.

The working woman leads the newcomers into the inner chamber of the Minnesota DMV.

A Napoleon-height security officer admonishes the rest of us waiting in the impossibly long line outside of the DVM inner sanctum: "Stand outside the door in single file. Single file only, don't go inside until you're called."

"This is such bullshit," mumbles a young, possibly seven-foot-tall Black man with dreadlocks. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't need an ID."

"Yeah, that little security man (who was also Black, as were most of my compadres in the line) needs something to do. Makes him feel powerful, I guess."

A woman behind me, wearing a pancake velvet hat, pipes up: "I was just telling my husband the same thing. It's a little bit of power."

Oh yeah. We all chuckle. The would-be basketball star is still mumbling to himself.

A young woman with turquoise clumps of hair, storms out of the sanctuary, carrying wads of applications.

"The U.S. government is rotten through and through. F**k them," she bellows, stomping up the stairs.

Suddenly the working woman gets down from her perch. Emerging into the hallway she removes her glasses, staring at the line of humanity. I'm next in line.

Disputing the short security man's instructions, she says, "Get behind the door. Watch through the glass window for me to wave you in. Don't come inside until I do so."

"What if I can't see you waving me in?" Guess I'm ready for an argument, defending those who wouldn't dare. They knew what it's like to grapple with authority. I take my chances. I'm an old white woman with purple hair.

"She's waving you in," the tall guy taps me on the back.

"That's demeaning to wave people in like that, like they're a herd of cattle," I tell the working woman at her perch again.

She doesn't yell at me like she did at the Somali women.

"What can I do for you?" the working woman politely asks. I tell her. She hands me the appropriate papers to fill out.

A Somali-American man calls me up to Window 10. He hands over my new license plates. "That will be $137. Welcome to big tax Minnesota."

My Minnesota blue license plates will match my ocean blue Toyota Prius.

I've lived in three different parts of the country. Because I can.

I have the luxury of owning a car. Of procuring a free global entry card with my Visa credit card that piles up travel points. After covid dies, before I die, I will travel to Sicily.

Because I can.


Sheila Wilensky is a freelance writer/editor living in Minneapolis. "A Little Bit of Power" blog post on Wilensky is a freelance writer/editor living in Minneapolis, to be close to her two grandkids. She moved from Tucson, Arizona in July. Trading the hellish heat for the super cold of a Minnesota winter.

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