Civil Rights Colorblind Critical Race Theory Race Discrimination Racial Equality segregation Social Justice

Playing the “Race Card”: A Contradiction in America’s Colorblind Society.

Nikita Srivastava (’19)

Image from HuffPost.

“You can’t play your race card when discussing this issue. Bringing race into this matter will not get us anywhere. I am telling you now, it won’t be a constructive conversation.” John Doe said this to a woman of color while we were discussing the socio-economic effects of government programs in one of my undergraduate classes. He angrily slammed his hands on the table and began chugging his water. I imagined that he grabbed his water to cool himself down as if there was a fire inside of him that he needed to put out. Another classmate stated that our country was founded on racism and I stated, “these policies are supposedly ‘race-neutral,’ but are not. By not considering race, we are disregarding more than half the people in this country.” (I thought to myself: race is a part of everything in this country, ignoring it only makes it worse.) As silence ensued, my professor quickly turned to another portion of our assigned reading. However, I could not focus on anything else. I called my mother after the class and recalled the event to her. She said, “With each generation, things get better, but then you hear someone say something like that. It makes you think: are we better now?”

The Card Concept

Dr. Martin Luther King.

After the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the United States strives to be a “colorblind” society. Colorblindness is a simple concept: individuals don’t see another’s race, or skin tone, instead, individuals are blind to color. On its surface, colorblindness is ideal. The concept promotes individuality, which means people are defined not by their skin tone but, as Dr. King famously said in his I Have A Dream speech, by “the content of [their] character.”  However, this concept as it has been used since Dr. King uttered those words, is flawed. The concept attempts to promote racial equality by encouraging Americans to disregard a person’s race. But, by disregarding race, individuals are discouraged from seeing how one’s race affects their daily lives. Colorblindness does not acknowledge the Black Lives Matter movement, affirmative action, welfare programs, and voter suppression (to name a few). Since a colorblind society disregards race, acknowledging race becomes a taboo. If a person of color claims they’re a victim of racial discrimination or “benefits” from affirmative action, then this person of color has played their “race card.” According to this logic, the race card hurts the colorblind society America worked so hard to create.

President Obama and the Native American Community (Image from the Obama White House Archives.)

As a woman of color living in this “colorblind” society, the idea of the race card and how people understand it baffles me. For example, I heard one of my high school classmates say, “I should just say I am Native American on all my college applications, that’s how they get into college – they play their race card.” Not only is this statement inaccurate, but it also demonstrates a lack of understanding of what Native Americans continue to experience in this country. When President Barack Obama ran for his second term, we would discuss the parties’ tactics used in the election during my college political science classes. After talking about potential policy changes and gerrymandering issues, one student said, “Obama cannot play his race card now to win since he used that in the last election.” My professor quickly turned that comment around to shift the focus of the class on how people vote with their guts. (I thought to myself: okay, so are we just going ignore that racist comment?)

The race card was never again discussed in that class, but I continuously heard my colleagues say that President Obama played his race card to win his first term. Or, I heard my colleagues say, “Yeah, but Obama has not done anything for race relations.” Every time anyone said anything about President Obama’s race card, I would get deeply offended because I knew the race card was not a thing. Then I realized, I had to understand why people thought a race card even existed.

White Space and White Fragility

Joe Feagin first introduced the sociological term of the “White Racial Frame.” Basically, WRF explains that the centuries-old notion of white superiority is embedded in the national subconscious and reinforced by the use of certain imagery and language.  The WRF is such an integral part of society that Americans—regardless of skin color—are skilled in its use even though they are unaware that they engage in practices reinforcing white superiority, such as stereotyping people of color. Usually, colorblindness is exhibited in predominately white spaces. These spaces include professional work environments, schools, and, sometimes, people’s homes. Robin DiAngelo in her book, White Fragility, explains why it’s difficult for so many white people to discuss and understand how racism works in America. DiAngelo shows in White Fragility that white privilege activates like a shield when race is mentioned. The moment someone of color mentions the history of and current forms of racism, the privilege shield shoots up like a knee jerk reaction. That shield allows for instant dismissal of racist reasoning or invalidation of people of color’s emotions and experiences. The shield makes the “race talk” personal, which sparks the reaction: “not all white people.” In an article DiAngelo wrote for NBC News, she states:

“Yet regardless of my intentions, these defensive reactions only protect the racist status quo. Those of us who profess to believe in racial equality have to challenge our understanding of racism in ways that don’t uphold it. We also need to build our skills and stamina for the racial discomfort engendered by a new paradigm… people of color have been providing us with the feedback we need for centuries, but our biases have prevented us from granting legitimacy to their voices. Those same biases make us more receptive to the information when we hear it from other white people. This makes it all the more critical that white people use our positions to break with white solidarity and hold one another accountable.”

Image from The Week.

Being a person of color in the U.S. is not a game. Race is not a magical card one can pull to gain an advantage.  Rather, it’s a social construct that has been used for centuries to structure society in a profoundly inequitable way and to enable people to exploit others for gain. While race itself isn’t “real,” its consequences are very real.  So, the term “race card” is objectionable not only because it totally misunderstands the nature of racism, but also trivializes it.

Back to School

When my classmate said, “you can’t play your race card, and talking about race won’t lead to a constructive conversation,” I wanted to scream. I saw him shoot down the validity of a woman of color’s perspective because it made him feel uncomfortable. He used the term “race card” to invalidate her experience. He put up his privilege shield to end any discussion of race. For that young man, our society is post-racial. Sumi Cho in her law review article, Post-Racialism, addresses the concept of a “post-racial America.” She argues that creating race-neutral policies are a product of colorblindness; that America is not post-race, but simply is ignoring race. Race cannot be ignored. Race defines opportunities, lifestyles, experiences, and our daily lives. Race is something we cannot wash out in the shower or cover up with make-up. Race is everywhere and everpresent.


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