When I was a high school sophomore, I read a short bio of Huey P.Newton over my school’s loudspeaker during some sort of Black History Month activity. Later that day, my (Jewish) English teacher made a “joke” about my omission of the details of Newton’s death (he was allegedly killed while purchasing crack in 1989). I didn’t find this funny at all. Up until this point, he had been one of my favorite teachers. I decided to write him a letter expressing my feelings and at the end, I quoted Langston Hughes’ “Theme For English B:”
You are white—yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. That’s American. Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me. Nor do I often want to be a part of you. But we are, that’s true! As I learn from you, I guess you learn from me—although you’re older—and white—and somewhat more free.
I felt mature and thoughtful…until he returned it to me with his response: “…if you play the race card, you’ll oft be ignored.”
While I understood his argument that he’d mocked the Puritans, Homer and plenty of other White folks…he’d only taught us about White folks. Most of whom were also male. This had been the case in most of my History classes as well: Whiteness at the center. So I took my opportunity to share some Black facts with my classmates very seriously. But even if the teacher couldn’t handle my critique of his words, the fact that he accused me–a 16-year-old–of “pulling the race card” upset me greatly. That was the last time I registered for one of his classes. By senior year, we no longer spoke when we passed one another in the hallway.
The “race card” is a concept that has been used to silence people of color who attempt to speak out when they feel that race has been used unfairly in determining how people are treated. It is one of the most dangerous weapons in the White privilege toolbox, for it implies that a non-POC would know better when something is truly racist than someone who is constantly subjected to racism. That said, it isn’t that people of color can never be wrong about denouncing something as racism, but that they should be treated with a level of deference when expressing their concerns. Instead of having something dismissed as someone pulling a card, these complaints should be respectfully analyzed and received. If someone is truly committed to being non-racist, the appropriate reaction to a charge of racism is “I don’t feel like what I did was racist. Can you help me understand why you feel that way?”, not accusing someone of using race to be manipulative or deceitful.
But, alas, in a world of White privilege where is the incentive to say “You’re right, that was racist of me”? or “I didn’t mean to be racially insensitive”? And for even those who pride themselves in being non-racist, where would a non-Black person be taught the difference? If racism doesn’t negatively impact you in a very obvious way, it’s quite a task to say, “hey, let me learn about this so I make sure that I’m not out here supporting an unfair system of advantage that benefits me.”
It’s an amazingly duplicitous thing, to flip racism around so that the person who is the victim now looks like the guilty party because of their observations of someone’s behavior. A Black woman who feels that she has been passed over for a raise because of her background may be told that she is ‘pulling the race card’ and that racism will never end so long as people like her “see race in everything.” But how can you not see something that is constantly there?
The race card concept implies that the true racial power in this country lies in the hands of minorities, and that as soon as we “cry racism,” we will then be allowed to get away with anything or to unjustly persecute innocent White people. This is so infrequently the case. We holler “race” because so often it IS about race. While racism should not instill in Black folks a sense of paranoia, we must be constantly diligent and aware of how we are being treated. I do not wish to be color-blind. I am glad that I am aware of the racial climate that I live in, so that I may arm myself accordingly for whatever may come my way. We will never end or even lessen racism so long as we are made to be afraid to challenge it. Thus, I understand that the “race card” that I carry is not some get-out-of-culpability trump card, but instead, a challenging reality that I have been dealt.