The topic of race causes social consternation for many, and the phrase “the race card” may be the most sensitive hot button within that topic.
I’ve been reading articles, watching videos, and talking with people about the idea of the race card. What happens? Why is this topic so fraught with anxiety? And what can we do to create a healthier response? After all, dealing directly with such a topic is not what causes issues. Conversely, not talking about it continues the often-unspoken tensions.
Some observations from Black authors expressing their experiences and their hopes (some specific resources listed at the end):
- Some of us hate the phrase “the race card.” “I have a particular revulsion for this phrase,” columnist Charles Blow writes, “because of all that it implies: that people often invoke race as a cynical ploy to curry favor, or sympathy, and to cast aspersions on the character of others.”
- White people play the race card without calling it that – like when they claim we’re playing the race card!
- White supervisors play the race card as a means of deflecting legitimate complaints from Black employees.
- White employees also discount the capabilities of newly hired minority employees by assuming they got the job because of affirmative action, thus belittling their competence and qualifications.
- Yes, some doors have been opened. Yes, we had a Black President. And he was mercilessly mocked and undermined because of his race.
- When we call your attention to attitudes and incidents you’ve been conditioned to deny we take tremendous risks. We’ve seen and experienced the backlash, the vengeance that can occur when we finally speak up. This is not “playing” anything. It rarely goes well for us when we attempt to give feedback to white people about the racism we perceive.
- This is a courageous act. We often hold back, and you have no clue that we are doing so. We’ve left your companies and your clubs out of pent-up frustration with this treatment – and you remain unaware that this was our reason for leaving.
- We agree with you on one aspect of this: there are Black people who do “play” this card, slackers who try to manipulate and intimidate you to deflect attention from their own incompetence, their own failures. Author Richard Ford chastises the use of “strategic blackness, as distinguished from authentic blackness.”
- Even so, we need you to take us seriously when we do dare to object, when we do claim that racial dynamics are at play. We need you to check your fragile white ego, to stop your immediate urge to deny you’re a racist and hear us out! Then maybe, just maybe, we can salvage the situation and forge a healthier more genuine relationship.
- Genuine relationships are vital to us, so dare to broach the topic with us! Trust that we can perceive when your question is fueled by a genuine desire to learn, to engage honestly and openly.
Some observations from white authors:
- Whenever the claim arises that racial dynamics are present in a situation, we immediately tense. We’re so petrified of being considered a racist, so wary of doing or saying something wrong, that we often simply tend to clam up.
- Rather than learn how to improve on our communications with Black people, we hunker down when they claim racism, often with judgments about their super-sensitivity.
- We simply think of ourselves as normal. We’re perplexed and defensive when a person of color sees us as “acting white.”
- We’ve experienced Black employees claiming that race is at play when we know the real issue is their own incompetence, so we’re suspicious when we hear the charge that racism is involved.
- We’ve seen our companies bend over backwards to grant jobs to Black people, and that, to us, is the race card being played. Potential white employees lose out. So who’s being treated unfairly in that case?
- Why can’t Black people be more tactful and less accusatory when they bring up these charges?
- We have a moral objection to racism, so we certainly don’t intend to practice it. Any implication that we do is very emotionally upsetting. When we are questioned, we feel “victimized, slammed, blamed and attacked.” (author Robin DiAngelo)
- We are adept at using our emotional angst in order to deflect the conversation from what was said to how upset we feel.
- White people intentionally play the race card, particularly politicians who know precisely what buttons to push to stir voters who harbor any racial animus.
- A majority of white people (55%) believe that discrimination against them exists in America today, though “a much smaller percentage say that they have actually experienced it.” (Robert Wood Johnson survey)
To put this race card dynamic in a broader context, here are some prevalent tendencies in the societal soup in which we all swim, tendencies noted in a broad consensus of sociological/psychological studies:
- We (people of all races) are reluctant to accept responsibility for our own emotional stirrings
- We tend to blame others for any discomfort we experience
- We focus more on how others are behaving than we do on examining our own participation.
- These tendencies can be observed in a spectrum of flash points, e.g.: LGBTQ rights, immigration policies, reproductive rights, and wealth distribution.
People often ask me, “So what can we do about racial issues?” That last list represents a lifetime to-do list. The challenge is to improve our own emotional maturity, to check our defensive impulses, to listen without reactivity, to hear beyond the words. In regard to racism, anything less is playing the race card!
Just do that. That’s all.
“The Race Card: The scariest card in the deck” by Ruth C. White, PhD. (Black author) Psychology Today 11/20/2012.
“Stop Playing the ‘Race Card’ Card” by Charles M. Blow (Black author). NY Times Opinion 3/19/15.
The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse by Richard Thompson Ford (Black author).
The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality by Tali Mendelberg (white author).
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo (white author).
“Majority of White Americans Say They Believe Whites Face Discrimination” NPR, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health 10/24/17.