All the Right [White] Stuff

Last week, I had to make a quick trip to New Orleans to pick up a computer part. I like to drive, so I took a meandering scenic route. It wasn’t till nearly an hour in, when I stopped for coffee in a small town, that I realized that I had meandered out of my house without my wallet. Instead of my billfold, I had grabbed the leather case with my business cards. No credit or debit cards, no ID, and I hadn’t installed a payment app on my phone yet.

Shit.

The computer part wasn’t expensive, but it was critical. I was going to need about $25 to get it. As I wanly contemplated the extra two hours that would be tacked on to my trip if I had to return home, I noticed that there was a branch of my bank across the street.

It was worth a try. I cleaned up as best I could (translation: I exchanged my flip-flops for running shoes and smoothed my t shirt and shorts), gave myself a pep talk, and went inside.

I was greeted in the lobby by the branch manager, a friendly dark-haired woman with a French last name. I explained my predicament, expressed my profound embarrassment, and asked if she could help. I told her my account number and showed her a business card with my company name on it. She had the teller pull up my accounts and ask me a few questions. I had enough right answers, apparently, and they gave me $75.00, though I had the feeling I could have asked for more. They couldn’t have been nicer. I was (and am) sooooo grateful.

As I got back into my car, however, it occurred to me that there was one other thing that I brought in with me that worked in my favor: my white skin. I wondered, given all the same circumstances, if I had been a person of color, would it have gone the same for me—a stranger in that small Louisiana town? All the bank personnel that I saw were white. I never got any sense that they were the least bit suspicious. The spirit of the questions they asked weren’t so much to test me as to confirm my story.

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I imagine that if I were a POC, if nothing else, my baseline anxiety in that situation might be higher, anticipating a few more hurdles. And that subtle difference, if palpable, might fuel the concerns of the bank personnel. I hope that that wouldn’t be the case, and that any customer, regardless of their skin color, would feel as valued, supported, and at ease in that environment as I did.

And I’m not meaning to imply that I think that any of the bank personnel would be deliberately or knowingly racist (if they were at all). But I’m also aware that context matters. Unconscious bias matters. Our assumptions about people matter. We’re caught in cultural and historical webs that perhaps we didn’t spin, but that we have a responsibility to question and pull apart, so that we can all rise together.

Because while bank accounts sometimes come with perks, privilege always does.