Playing the race card

10 Nov

When Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain claimed that he is a “victim of a high-tech lynching,” in response to multiple charges of sexual harassment that former co-workers have made against him, Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice responded (

“I don’t care much for incendiary language. I actually am someone who doesn’t believe in playing the race card on either side. I’ve seen it played, by the way, on the other side quite a lot too. And it’s not good for the country. I’m not much for the race card.”  

Those two words: “race card,” especially when preceded by “playing,” make me cringe. I actually think Rice used it quite thoughtfully and perhaps even fittingly in this context. And I still take issue with the phrase in general.

Claiming that someone is “playing the race card” is playing a race card of your own—and hoping it’s a trump. It’s a move designed to negate the validity of any mention of race whatsoever, as if it’s imperative and even commendable to “move beyond race” (post-racial, anyone?) so that we can proceed more purely and truly with each other. As if it’s even possible to shed our racial identities, attitudes and beliefs when we engage each other.

Well, it’s not: race is just a part of who we are, like sex, height, age and abilities. Yes, it can be challenging, hurtful and complex at times, but that’s just it: at times. Fully 95% of my racial experiences (which comprise 100% of my experiences because I’m never without my race) are so mundane that I don’t even register that I’m being Asian. I just am. And so to deny race—to demand that we take it off the table when we come together—is to deny our full humanity, because race informs our identities and experiences, even the everyday unconflicted experiences when we’re just being us.

What’s even more unfair about playing the “playing the race card” card (if you follow me) is that it only gets played to trump people of color: you never hear about white people playing the race card. Do you? And this despite the fact that the very act of accusing someone of playing the race card is itself playing the race card!

Clever, no?

This is all to say that regardless of whether you agree with Rice’s analysis of Cain’s comments or not, consider the validity and impact of the phrase “playing the race card.” What does it cost us to continue encouraging the idea that race is a histrionic red herring, rather than a complicated and integral part of identity? If we keep crying, “Wolf!” who will listen when we need to have a real conversation about race and how it plays out in our lives and in society?

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