Divided by an Invisible Distance

April Armstrong, Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library

Honorable Mention

2015-2016 Staff Essay Contest


When I went to get my New Jersey driver’s license, I was unprepared for the reaction at the Motor Vehicle Commission. The clerk asked if I was from California, only giving my old license a quick glance. “No,” I said, and stopped speaking as her jaw dropped upon closer examination of what I’d handed her.

“I’ve never seen one of these before,” the clerk said, then called the rest of the staff over. No one else had seen one, either. A book was checked. It was, they verified, legal identification. “Wow,” she finally said. “What brings you all the way to New Jersey? Oklahoma is so far away!”

At first, I thought to myself that Oklahoma is only half as far away from New Jersey as California, and thus this reaction made no sense. Yet upon further reflection, I realized California is closer to New Jersey in many ways. There is more than one kind of distance, and geographic distances can be, on balance, far less significant than others. I crossed over more territory to come to Princeton than most people I encounter, even the Australian graduate student I met during my first week here.

Some signs of difference are worn on the outside. Others are more hidden. All of them create breaches between us. Diversity is, to me, about these distances—sometimes huge chasms—that can separate people standing face to face, and the challenges we face as we try to close the gaps.

Getting my driver’s license wasn’t a new experience just because of the reaction to my Oklahoma ID. It also meant dealing with a government agency for the first time in my life that didn’t offer the option of using my tribal identification cards as valid supports for my claim that I was who I said I was. “Oklahoma” derives from okla humma, which is Choctaw for “red people.” Apparently, in this new land of okla tohbi, the humma people’s documents no longer mattered. My U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs-issued Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood languishes, untouched, largely useless now because pretty much nobody knows what it is or what it means here. Refer to a “CDIB” card in most Princeton circles and all you’ll get is a blank stare. My citizenship card from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma also stays in my wallet, rarely brought out, and when I use it I feel I’m doing it just to prove a point. For federal documents, like my I-9 form, I do, typically showing it to someone who has never before seen such a thing.

Although I have other, less “exotic” forms of identification to offer, I want, somehow, the reassurance that my people are out there somewhere, and that they’re really mine. It seems important to connect myself to my homeland, to try to close the distance from there to here. Without these documents, the only thing that marks me as Choctaw in New Jersey seems to be the watch former Chief Gregory Pyle gave me as a graduation present when I completed my first master’s degree, with the seal of the Choctaw Nation on the face. I am mixed race, but look decidedly like my Irish grandmother in complexion, the palest in my immediate family. I have no Native American acquaintances in this area. Most people don’t even know that the Choctaw exist.

I think the hardest thing about the hidden differences written into who we are is how few resources society has given us to sort them out. When names and ethnicity came up in one conversation on campus, I mentioned that my last name sounds English to most people, but I haven’t got a drop of English blood in me that I know of. Instead, it’s a Choctaw name that, like most of the other Choctaw names in my lineage, doesn’t sound “authentic” to ears trained to hear other things. My conversation partner responded, as many do, with both disbelief—“No! It is not!”—and the assertion that it doesn’t make any difference if one can’t see it in my face. If I don’t look Choctaw, I am not Choctaw, no matter what my name is. The scandal over Rachel Dolezal’s passing for black hasn’t helped me here.

That Choctaws do see it in my face when I’m among them is, I think, a moot point. Whether anyone sees it or not, I know who I am, and it matters to me. Chahta sia hoke (“I am Choctaw”). My ancestors walked what you probably call the Trail of Tears from Mississippi to Oklahoma and made a life in the harsh climate of the red dirt plains on the orders of the Andrew Jackson administration. I know their names. Their story is my story. I will not give them up for superficial reasons like skin color. So sometimes I cook walakshi (grape dumplings, eaten by the Choctaw for 5,000 years) and cornmeal cakes. I read our tribal newspaper, the Bishinik, every week. I never go anywhere without my Choctaw watch.

Invisible differences can be profound. Yet lately I find myself thinking a lot more about the visible ones. Living among people who don’t see my facial features or my last name as a giveaway of my ethnic background, and who don’t see in my highly educated, middle class life any sign of the poverty of my childhood, I’ve somehow managed to get beyond the discrimination that was the dominant note in the melody of my life’s theme song growing up. Now, in quite disorienting ways, I have begun to truly benefit from white privilege. I still half expect the police to treat me more harshly than they do, or for a store clerk to say, as one once did, that there was “nothing in the store likely suitable for you” before I’ve spoken a word. These things don’t happen anymore because my appearance here affords me unfamiliar protections, but there are those among us for whom closing the gaps between privilege and lack of it just isn’t possible. Okla tohbi don’t assume others belong to them so quickly.

Over the past several months, our community has been talking a lot about distances: the distances between a white person’s typical life experiences and a black person’s, the distances between Woodrow Wilson and modern Princetonians, the distances between a gay student and his football teammates. From my vantage point, this seems to be our most consistent challenge throughout time. Though it may be difficult to see given the gulf we’d have to cross to visit 18th-century Princeton, it has always prided itself on having a diverse campus, from its original charter’s guarantee of religious freedom (a radical notion in the 1740s) until now, with concerns about a legacy built on white male hegemony and its impact on those who’ve crossed the greatest non-geographic distances to join us. It has gradually but deliberately striven to chip away at barriers of religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, and economic class, but the job remains unfinished. I’m not sure I know what that fully means for Princeton’s future or my own. What I do know is that as much as these chasms divide us, they don’t always have to do so with such depth. If we all take steps to close this distance, we can bring these intergalactic separations down to a more manageable size.

So let’s talk about it. I’ll bring the walakshi.