REAL ID: Perpetuating the Myth of Authenticity


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

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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

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.

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. 

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. 

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

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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? 

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.