I give a brief hat tip and a shout out to Lynne Childress of The Sweet Midlife, who brought this back up in her Facebook feed the other day. It rekindled all kinds of thoughts and feelings that I’ve been meaning to say for years, but never took the time to do so.
So in the spirit of resisting any further procrastination, here it is…
If you want to be my friend on any level, please see to it that you never use the phrase “the race card.”
Being someone who appreciates vivid word pictures and solid metaphors, I can appreciate its allure. “The race card” is one of those expressions that is handy for White people who wish to convey their frustration about racial discussions, particularly when they feel that race is being injected into the conversation in ways that it doesn’t belong. It’s often accompanied by the idea that such an injection is an example of “reverse racism.”
But it’s got to stop, and here’s why:
Using the phrase “the race card” implies that racial conversations are a zero-sum game that white people cannot win.
(See that there? Feel free to copy and paste that sentence into your next flame war heated argument civil discussion on this issue.)
This idea is offensive on several levels.
First, because it’s been my experience that racial conversations aren’t usually zero-sum affairs, where in order for one side to win, the other side has to lose. That may be true in presidential elections, but not out in the real world where people just want fair access to housing or fair treatment in the workplace. Real racial equality is about everyone being able to have a seat at the table, not about me taking your seat.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t zero-sum scenarios where racial issues are present and need to be accounted for. On the contrary, it’s precisely because those scenarios exist that we need to be able to talk about racial issues fairly. If a person of color needs to be disciplined or punished, we need to be able to discuss both personal responsibility and institutional privilege, because both concepts are highly relevant to the conversation.
But “the race card” does the opposite. People who use the acidic sarcasm of “the race card” are often hoping to discredit any mention of race in order to shut down that aspect of the conversation. And they may not be consciously trying to silence the voices of people of color and deny them access to economic, political, and cultural power and influence… but the rhetorical effect is the same.
Second, “the race card” is offensive because you think this is a game?!
So often when white people begin to engage in racial conversations, it’s usually in abstract, emotional terms that deal with the content of a person’s heart or character (“How can you call me racist, you can’t see inside my heart!”) rather than dealing with concrete things like actions and outcomes.
But people of color are rarely afforded the privilege of thinking about race only in abstract metaphors, because we have real-life outcomes to worry about – whether we’re being graded fairly in school, whether our peers will be treated fairly in the criminal justice and/or immigration system, whether or not our tech startups can be funded if we don’t fit the Mark Zuckerberg profile… you get the idea.
In this context, complaining about “the race card” is akin to complaining about the rules of Phase 10 during a life-threatening emergency. It’s not that I don’t think you (the white person complaining about a race-card-pulling) don’t have a point. It’s that your use of terms indicates a lack of understanding concerning the gravity of the situation. It connotes a silly, Ron-Burgundy-esque obliviousness to reality, which would be hilarious if it wasn’t so infuriating.
And finally, “the race card” is offensive because it implies that white people are playing in a game that is unfairly rigged against them, when almost any objective measure of reality indicates otherwise. Not that all white people live charmed, happy lives – of course not. But there are plenty of research findings in almost every facet of modern life that list staggering disparities and inequities across racial lines, and they indicate that white people, in the aggregate, have been doing pretty well for a really long time.
And if that weren’t true, nobody would laugh at this R-rated Louis C.K. routine:
So please. Don’t say “the race card.” Not even if you precede it with, “I’m not racist.” Trust me, it’s just a bad idea. And hipsters, don’t try to reclaim it ironically either. Just leave it alone.
Actually, I take that back – don’t leave it alone. If you can, try to stop people in your circle of influence from saying “the race card.” Since I’ve made peace with the idea that we can’t create a separate, racism-friendly version of the internet, the only way this stuff will end is if regular people like you and I decide to take an active stance against its use.
If you consider me a friend, please don’t do this. And if you don’t want your friends to do it either, then share this article with them.