My first reporting job after a couple years in the Berkeley journalism program was at the Arkansas Democrat, one of two papers battling it out in the early ’80s in Little Rock.
I had a lot of assumptions about Arkansas. Although I had grown up in Missouri, it’s a different world across that state line. My stepfather used to drive a truck hauling chickens in Arkansas and he told me the roads were all unpaved and the people walked around barefoot. My own experience was limited to a two-day stay when I was interviewing for the job. All I knew for sure was that it was unbearably hot and muggy in the summer, and there were lots of giant mosquitoes.
I got to town a couple of days before I was supposed to show up at the paper. I took a little tour around the state capital grounds and happened to notice the Arkansas motor vehicles department building. I figured I’d go in and see about getting an Arkansas driver’s license. It was a tiny office. Nothing at all like San Francisco’s DMV, with the big crowds and different lines for everything. Here it was just a few clerks behind a counter. All the staff seemed to be young women. This was before computers took over, so their electric typewriters were clacking away.
Maybe two or three people were waiting. When it was my turn at the counter, one of the clerks said she would take my information and type up my application. Nothing for me even to fill out—I assumed because they had so much illiteracy in Arkansas they couldn’t expect people to fill out their own forms.
The clerk had a really pronounced Arkansas accent, which reminded me of the chickens and going barefoot. It made me think that I was a real sophisticated cat, coming from Berkeley. At least I wore shoes most of the time.
The clerk asked me for each personal item of information and typed it onto the form she had rolled into her Selectric. Her drawl made every one-syllable word sound like about six. But it went along fine through “name,” “age,” “date of birth.”
Then she asked: “You’re white?”
I was a little taken aback. I am white, and pretty obviously so, I had always thought. After a little pause, while she looked at me, I figured she was just doing her job, and could hardly be expected to take one’s whiteness for granted in a state like Arkansas, what with its school desegregation difficulties and all that. So I answered, “Yes.”
She gave me a really quizzical look. In fact, she looked at me as if I were the most ignorant oaf she’d ever seen and she was the smartypants, even though I assumed she knew I was from California. She had my old driver’s license right there.
She repeated the question, louder now. She was almost shouting, like she thought I might have been hard of hearing. “You’re white?” she yelled.
Good grief, I thought, she doesn’t believe me! Maybe I’d need some kind of racial ID card, like I’d heard about in South Africa. Was Arkansas so backward they couldn’t just take your word for it if you say you’re white? I thought this race doubting at the DMV might make a good story. Would they have doubted me if I’d said I was black? After I left the DMV office, I figured I would go find a copy of Richard Wright to prepare for my first big story exposing the racial ignorance running wild in the Arkansas Office of Motor Vehicles.
Before I claimed to be black, though, I figured I should try the white answer one more time. Just to be clear. So I leaned toward her over the counter and said, very loudly and clearly, “Yes!”
Now she looked really exasperated. She swiveled all the way around in her chair and gave me a look as though I were the dumbest guy in the whole state. Then I noticed one of the other people in line was chuckling. Had I said something wrong?
Then she leaned toward me, and in a very loud voice, said: “How MUCH do you WEIGH?”
“One hundred eighty-five pounds,” I said.