Sunday, April 6, 2008

play the race card

What exactly is "the race card"? The term usually pops out when a non-white person is accused of "playing" this card (rather than "giving" a greeting card) by claiming that something negative happened because of racism. The accuser in such cases is usually a white person, and the accuser uses the term to express doubt about the validity of the non-white person's claims. A further implication is that playing this card is unfair. The extended metaphor at work here is a card game, and the implications are that racial minorities have an extra card in their hand, that whites don't have such a card, and thus that whites don't play it.

When black leaders Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Al Sharpton ran for president, one reason they didn't get very far is because they are largely perceived (whether fairly or not) as habitual players of the race card. In contrast, Barack Obama is largely seen as a black candidate who "transcends" race, in large part, so the perception goes, because he does not play the race card. Thus, because Obama distances himself from overt discussion of African American issues (and leaders, and audiences), he is perceived as more fair-minded on such issues than are Jackson and Sharpton, who are considered by many whites biased and even paranoid.

As author and lecturer Tim Wise further explains,
white folks have been quick to accuse blacks . . . of playing the race card, as if their conclusions have been reached not because of careful consideration of the facts as they see them, but rather, because of some irrational (even borderline paranoid) tendency to see racism everywhere. So too, discussions over immigration, "terrorist" profiling, and Katrina and its aftermath, often turn on issues of race, and so give rise to the charge that as regards these subjects, people of color are "overreacting" when they allege racism in one or another circumstance.
As I pointed out in an earlier post ("explain away racist incidents"), whites often imply that they know more about what it is to live as a non-white person than non-white people themselves do. Derogatory charges of "playing the race card" are often another instance of this tendency.

However, an irony here is that whites have race cards of their own, and they do often play them. Indeed, as Wise goes on to explain in his article, this common white response--the denial of non-white interpretations of reality--is itself the playing of a card, a move that Wise calls the "denial card." To continue with the extended metaphor of a card game, if the first card, played by minorities, is perceived as a "race card," then this white denial card played in response is a race card too (it's one of several common instances of "white denial" that Wise describes).

Actually, there are many other circumstances in which whites commonly play a race card. In most cases, though, they don't seem to realize that they're doing so (so really, it's somewhat difficult to blame them for doing so). When they step to the curb of a busy street, for example, and raise a hand to hail a taxi, they expect empty taxis to stop for them. And if any empty taxis don't stop, they rarely if ever think that those taxis didn't stop because of their own skin color. But such is not the case, of course, for those who wear, say, black skin. As so many who wear it have pointed out, even if their black skin is mostly encased in very expensive, "professional" clothing, it can be difficult to get a taxi to pick them up.

When the white passenger steps to the curb and raises her hand, it's as if that hand has a card in it, a card that bears the word "white."

Th card-playing metaphor could be applied to many other common instances in which white skin invites good service, opens doors, and eases access. Surely, since there are so many ways in which white people hold and play race cards, whether consciously played or not, common usage of the term "to play the race card" should be extended to both its white and non-white players.


  1. The "denial card" is the most commonly played conversation ender in racially based discussions in my experience. Apparently if you deny the experiences of others along with their right to interpret those experiences, we will finally achieve equality--or something like that.

  2. Yes, I think I see what you mean, oco. A common point made when white people deny the validity of the way a non-white person sees the world is basically, "Surely you should see the world the way I do, that is, as a world in which race no longer matters." Which, of course, is an especially white way of seeing the world. So what such a person ends up insisting is that non-white people should see the world the way white people do. Which is pretty ironic, given that what they're insisting is true about the world is that race no longer matters.

  3. That's what always gets me. The argument that non whites should acquiesce to the white world view to promote harmony asserts that the white point of view is the only correct one which means that not only does race exist but that there's a hierarchy as well. Proving the argument of your opponent with your supposed counter point tends to be deliciously ironic.

  4. I love the taxi cab example. It illustrates how "white privlege" is really often "black disadvantage". I don't know, but I'll concede that cabs evidently aren't as likely to stop for black people than white people. Why is that? Are cab drivers predominately white and they are more likely to trust people that look like them? That has not been my experience. I cannot recall the last time I had a "white" cab driver.
    So why does the cab driver not want to pick up the black person? Honestly, I don't know.
    However, as I often see, the unspecified blame is put on the white person that does not realize that the black person is at this disadvantage. Supposedly this hainus white denial prevents the white person from seeing the grande privlege they have. Why is there no question as to WHY this happens. What stereotypes create this situation, or how these stereotypes are created. No, we must create a bully, for if there is no bully, there can be no VICTIM. If you are black and you cannot hail a cap, I'm sorry, I truly am. Frustration for sure. However, it is not my fault. If it makes you feel better to villify me by labeling it as white privlege so you can feel like a victim, then I recommend digging to the source of the problem, and address it at that level. I will not feel guilty.


  5. Thank you for your comment, Hippoplatypus. It would be great if you could elaborate on just how you feel I'm vilifying you. That's certainly not my intention.

    I mean instead to vilify an ongoing system of white favoritism, one that's in the heads of white or non-white taxi drivers, as well as the heads of most white and non-white people. It takes work to excavate and discard the remnants and effects of that system. But again, that work needn't involve vilifying ordinary white people themselves.

  6. I think that the most important point you bring up in this discussion is the need for all people to try and see things through other people's eyes. If that's a little too much to ask, and it understandably is in many cases, people need to at least respect and trust other people's perspective.
    Education is the key to all our social problems.

  7. SagaciousHillbilly, I agree with you. The dialogue about race requires a willingness to listen that isn't always displayed. The message being put out doesn't seem fair or reasonable if race has never been a salient part of one's lived experience. It's hard to get over the hump of truly seeing race in the first place, let alone having the discussion.

  8. These phenomena mostly strike me as "50%+1 disease" ... the notion that only the majority perspective is relevant or worth discussing.

    It's an extremely difficult challenge. It mutes non-majority voices, kills non-majority efforts in their infancy, locks out change, and lock in majority processes. That lockout applies very broadly to numerical-minority opinions. That denial/lockout is exacerbated by correlations between opinion and other categories, like gender or skin color -- e.g. the minority Republican opinion that the party and the government should support _indivdual_ reproductive decisions.


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