The race card, the race card, the race card. Ohhhhhhhhh, the race card.
For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past couple of decades, the “race card” is a colloquial term used to describe a situation where “someone has deliberately and falsely accused another person of being a racist in order to gain some sort of advantage.”
The “race card” is seen as one of the most despised and dangerous tactics a non-white person has in their conversational arsenal. (Ironically, the concept of a “race card” is one of the most racist constructions to the twentieth century. But we’ll get to that later. First let’s talk about…)
Why the “race card” is seen as so dangerous…
Have you ever seen what happens when a company makes a huge, public blunder? (Think BP’s oil spill.) They scramble to get in front of the cameras and make nice. They donate money to a related charity, kiss babies, fire the guy who did whatever offensive thing that has everyone up in arms.
Why? Because no one wants to be the bad guy. No one wants to look like a complete jerk whose actions go against a commonly understood code of ethics. It’s bad for business.
America is that company. Racism is the pesky “bad guy” we keep trying to hide in the closet. Racism is not sexy. Racism is not progressive. Racism makes us look bad. So we pretend it doesn’t exist.
An article from the magazine Pyscology Today, sums up this conundrum quite nicely:
In this land built on the most ugly forms of racism, specifically the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of imported ones, race is a word spoken very gently and quietly among friends, if at all. Polls show that white people rarely think about race and non-white people spend a lot of time thinking about it. This imbalance creates a hostile environment that leave non-white people raging and white people either scared or indifferent. Because in their eyes, for non-white people it’s ‘always’ about race. And perhaps it is.
Is that why people of color (especially black people) always use the race card?
One question that constantly comes up in discussions of this topic is “why black people always use the race card.” (In fact, when I was doing research for this article – yes, bloggers do actually do research! – just googling the term “using race card” produced several related searches about why, oh why black people just looooooove using the race card. * insert side eye here *)
One of the reasons the notion of a “race card” is so problematic is that the traditional definition implies that a non-white person who uses the race card is attempting to “use racism” as an excuse when they don’t appreciate the outcome of a situation or a means of gaining some sort of an advantage in a situation.
This frames the discussion as immediately combative and discredits the lived experience of the person who is using “the card.”
No, not every rude remark or passed over job promotion has to do with racism. But the fact is, in a society which still struggles to dismantle centuries old systems of institutional racism, discrimination is still widely felt in big and small ways in the lives of non-whites living in America.
How and when to play the race card.
So, you may be wondering: When it it “appropriate” to play the race card and how do you do it without feeling like an ass?
My answer: Never.
I actually hate the race card.
Why? Mainly because my life is not a game of “Go Fish.” My experiences as a black person and as a woman are not fucking “cards” that I get a kick out of playing whenever it’s convenient for me.
Being the only black kid in an AP class and getting called on to share “the black perspective” (because clearly I have the ability to speak for an entire race) is not a card.
Growing up never feeling beautiful because my natural hair is too “nappy” is not a card.
Having someone I had just met tell me that I probably got into my university on affirmative action is not a card.
Sitting around a boardroom table with predominantly white men in ALMOST EVERY JOB I HAVE EVER HAD is not a card.
There is no way to play the “race card” and win.
The very notion of race as a card is as infuriating as it is insulted. So, I guess there really is no way to play the “race card” without feeling like an asshole. How else could you possibly feel after sharing your perception of an experience that can range from annoying to traumatic only to have your concerns seen as “too sensitive” or worse, opportunistic.
There is no way to play the race card and win.
The truth of the matter is that most people either believe that racism still exists and therefore will be willing to engage with you in an open-minded, caring, and curious manner. Or they don’t. And they won’t.
The guy who wrote the Forbes article containing this quote, for instance:
It would behoove minorities, particularly blacks, to overcome this bogus perception that their plight stems from a racist system… almost all whites, myself included, badly want blacks to thrive.
Is someone who just doesn’t get it. And probably never will. Don’t waste your breath – or your “race card.”