by Ahmed Olayinka Sule 

What do Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Diane Abbott, Serena Williams and Oprah Winfrey have in common? Besides being black public figures, they have all been accused of playing, using or pulling the race card. According to Wikipedia, “Playing the race card is an idiomatic phrase that refers to exploitation of either racist or anti-racist attitudes by accusing others of racism.” 

Example 1
Example 1

A close examination of the usage of the phrase reveals that it is applied almost exclusively to people with non-white skin pigmentation in general and against black people in particular. If one conducts a simple experiment by typing “race card” into a Google browser and then clicks on the image tab, the result will reveal the faces of black people inscribed on various forms of cards with comments such as, “Race Card: For the morally & intellectually bankrupt” or “God gave you your skin colour, so why not use it to your advantage.” Anytime black people open their mouth to speak about racial injustice, they are silenced with five words that have stood the test of time: “Stop Playing The Race Card.” If a dollar were to be awarded every time a person used the phrase, it is likely sufficient funds would be generated to settle the reparation for slavery claims or even the US debt.

“Playing the race card” is a term used by the so-called dominant Western culture to silence people of colour from seeking racial justice, but is this a new phenomenon? Not at all. A bit of history might be useful here. When Europeans first came into contact with the black peoples in the 15th century, the main basis of interaction was trade, but over the centuries it morphed into slavery, colonisation, Jim Crow and Apartheid. As each form of racial injustice was implemented, blacks screamed for justice. A number of tools were deployed in response to silence them. In the slavery era, outspoken slaves were whipped in public or iron mouth masks were used. During the period of colonisation, agitators like King Jaja of Opobo were sent into exile while others like Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta were thrown into prison. In the Jim Crow period, the burning cross of the Ku Klux Klan was an effective way to intimidate blacks into silence. In the 21st century, these methods of overt violence and intimidation have evolved. While racialised violence continues, “softer” psychological tools such as the labeling of racial agitators as race card players have also developed.

There are several reasons why the phrase “playing the race card” is widely used. As mentioned earlier, it is an effective way to silence people for calling out racism. When a person is accused of racism, he usually adopts a defensive or an offensive position. The most common defensive strategy is to suggest some form of association with black people as a justification for not being racist such as, “I am not racist after all my best friend is black” or “How can I be racist when I send money to African charities” or “I once dated a black woman.” But sometimes when these defensive tools are ineffective, the accused party goes on the offensive by telling the aggrieved party that she is pulling the race card; this is a handy non-violent offensive weapon for maintaining the racial status quo. It puts the racial agitators in an uncomfortable position and can act to silence further dissent.

Another reason why the phrase is used is because some believe that we live in a colourblind post-racial world where racism no longer exists. Those of the colourblind school of thought argue that great progress has been made and racism is no longer an issue. They are blind to all forms of racial injustice and only see the token gains made. They have developed a syllogism along the following lines:

Premise 1: Tidjane Thiam has been appointed Chief Executive Officer of Credit Suisse.

Premise 2: Tidjane Thiam is black.

Conclusion: Therefore racism does not exist and anyone crying racism is playing the race card.

People of colour are also accused of playing the race card because when it comes to racial issues, they can see things differently from white people.  As Martin Luther King once said, “I should have realised that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race.” There is an African proverb, which says that a person who defecates on the street does not remember, but the person who clears the mess never forgets. Ever since the Europeans first set foot in Africa, the relationship between the black and white worlds has been a one-sided affair characterised by the troika of manipulation, domination and exploitation. It should come as no surprise that while one group of people see racism as a card game, those on the oppressed side of the colour line see racism as a reality, a burden and a violation.

In August 2014, the Pew Research Centre conducted a survey to examine reactions to a police officer shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson. According to the survey, 80% of the black people polled felt the shooting raised important issues of race; however, only 37% of the white people interviewed felt this way. In another instance, while blacks saw the Barbican human zoo exhibition (an exhibition which was to feature black people in cages) and the image of a white woman sitting on a chair resembling a half-naked black woman as racist, some on the other side of the colour line saw it as a work of art. The agitators against these so-called works of art were accused of playing the race card and stifling freedom of expression. The notion that people who call out racism are playing a card game serves a white privilege narrative about the inability of people of colour to engage in rational thought and intellectual conversations.

Contemporary racism, in other words, has morphed to also include matters of judgment. The indistinct nature of this new form of racism makes it easier for people to hide behind the cloak of “playing the race card” to deny the existence of racism. It also becomes difficult to provide rational evidence for it. Tumaini Carayol, the tennis sports writer, eloquently described this attitude in graphic form when he wrote that there is “an unwillingness and an inability to see and acknowledge racism unless the actions and words are patently clear, viewed in HD with subtitles, aided by sign language, corroborated by the country’s premier lip readers and preferably executed by card-carrying KKK members.

Example 2

In February 2009, the President Obama appointed Eric Holder as the first African American Attorney General. Ever since assuming office, Holder has been very vocal on issues relating to race. In a speech commemorating Black History month, he called America a nation of cowards for failing to talk about race. He also challenged voter ID laws in states such as Texas, Florida, Ohio and North Carolina. These laws had the potential to disenfranchise many, especially people of colour. He has also been vocal about the subtle form of racism, saying, “These outbursts of bigotry, while deplorable, are not the true markers of the struggle that still must be waged, or the work that still needs to be done—because the greatest threats do not announce themselves in screaming headlines. They are more subtle. They cut deeper.” Recently, Holder stated that some of the opposition faced by both Obama and himself is because, “there’s a certain racial component to this for some people. …. for some, there’s a racial animus.” In response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Holder ordered an investigation into the killing and the findings revealed deeply entrenched racial bias in Ferguson’s law enforcement.

Holder’s crusade against racism has resulted in a backlash. He has been accused of playing the race card. On Twitter, there have been several tweets about Holder using the race card. Dick Cheney, the former US Vice President in reference to President Obama and Eric Holder said, I think they’re playing the race card, in my view.” In an example of colourblindness, Cheney said that the criticism targeted at Holder and Obama had nothing to do with race. The conservative media have devoted significant coverage to Holder with headlines like, “Eric Holder and the race card”; “Will Eric Holder Ever Run Out of Race Cards?” “Holder’s race card”; “Holder playing racial politics”; “Eric Holder Plays Race Card As Obama Admin Collapses.”

If we are to concede that race is a card game that is played by the black world, then we should also concede that the “race card game” was invented by the white world. Differences among people of different parts of the world were initially defined along geographical and ethnic lines. It wasn’t until a few centuries ago when the white world came into contact with the black, brown, red and yellow worlds that European ethnologists began to classify people along racial lines. These racial divisions were later used to perpetrate European domination initially on religious grounds through the suggestion that black people were the cursed descendants of Ham (sic). Racism was later justified on philosophical grounds through the use of theories such as Social Darwinism. Philosophy then gave way to science as scientists from a range of fields like anthropology, biology, medicine and psychology suggested an empirically based hierarchy of race, which put the white race at the summit of the racial ladder, and the black race at the bottom.

Where do we go from here? Even though the issue of race is a sensitive topic in the Western world, we should be more willing to discuss it. The first step in consigning racism to the dustbin of history is for us (on both sides of the colour divide) to acknowledge the existence of racism. Once we admit the existence of racism, we should have an honest conversation on race. A number of politicians and activists have called for a dialogue on race, but it has never been followed through. An overriding objective of the conversation should be to promote positive race relations. It could take the form of national leaders drawing up a year-long programme to facilitate a dialogue on race throughout their respective countries. The leader could commence the first dialogue by participating in a televised discussion with a selected number of citizens, including but not limited to senior religious leaders, business leaders, academics, media representatives, race representatives and members of civil society. The dialogue should also take place at the grassroots level including schools, offices, community centres etc. It is important that the dialogue should cater for the views of both sides of the colour line so as to prevent a situation whereby the honest conversation is used as a platform to widen the racial divide, as was the case in Trevor Philips’ documentary on race.

The national dialogue could cover issues such as historical racial injustices, institutional racism, immigration, negative portrayals of ethnic minorities and stereotypes. There should also be a mechanism for collating and analysing the information gathered. Once the results have been analysed, a final report containing the findings, recommendations and action plans could be presented to the country leader by the body overseeing the national conversation. The country leader could communicate a summary of the report to the public. The detailed report of the National Conversation on Race could be made available to the public via the Internet. A Declaration of Positive Race Relation Charter could be issued in which the government and the people make a commitment to treat all races with respect and agree not to discriminate on the basis of race. Furthermore, the dialogue should be ongoing and perhaps a weekend could be set aside annually during, say, Black History Month to continue the dialogue.

Whatever we do, let’s strive to recognise and discuss racial injustices rather than dismiss it as a card game.

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ahmed sule

Ahmed Sule is a CFA Charterholder, Chartered Accountant, photojournalist and social critic. He also obtained a Certificate in Photojournalism at the University of Arts London. He has also worked on various photojournalism projects including Obama: The Impact, Jesus Christ: The Impact, and The Williams Sisters. He cites Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Kwame Nkrumah and W.E. Du Bois as his major influences. Find him on Twitter @Alatenumo

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam and Henna Butt. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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2 thoughts on ““Playing the Race Card”: A Transatlantic Perspective

  1. People today are accused of playing the race card when they use race to complain about something that is clearly stupid. Oprah Winfrey felt like it was about race when she was shopping in France. Instead of her possibly running into a person who is just a jerk or ass its automaticly race related. These type of instances become more and more frequent and people begin to call bull. Everything or everyone you encounter in life that treats you wrong didn’t do it because of race. I believe the individual just hasnt learned that life isn’t fair and you are going to meet people who don’t like you no matter what but to fall back on your race every time is wrong. You’re right about the history between white and black people and you could run circles around me a high school graduate current janitor but I refuse to believe that today’s white people think like their ancestors or that the hatred is as strong as it once was. I’m actually sad about race in today’s world because I believe both sides have things so screwed up or twisted. For instance there are so many words we’ve changed the definition of and not for the better. Too many news stories, articles, tweets and so on cherry picked to prove a persons point when they are being just as negative and ignorant as the other side of their argument. I remove race from every story or incident brought to my attention and I deal with the facts and if I come to the same conclusion regardless or skin color than I believe I’ve judged correctly. Don’t tell today’s people the skin color of the cop or criminal till the end and then see who is dealing with facts and who is dealing with skin color. I also HATE the phrase “white people”. Don’t you agree that that phrase completely erases who someone with light or white skin is? Both white and black communities have their problems and to just say white people this or black people that is wrong. Beyoncé pointed the finger at both black and white people with her Formation lyrics (the video doesn’t match the lyrics and is manipulative. Strong in its art but clearly made to direct your thoughts on the lyrics) yet today’s youth seemed to have missed the fingers toward the black community. Ask the black youth what creole is? The black community rips itself apart over nose size and dark or lightness of skin. Yet I only heard or saw the pro black lyrics talked about or celebrated. Maria Sharapova slips up and every negative tweet I’ve read involving race or Serena Williams was from a person of color. Every tweet attacking her income and blonde hair blue eyes was from a person of color. Create a crack and we crawl in, why??? We are so justified in our feelings and feel so right about what and how we feel that when we do the exact thing we hate we don’t even see it!!


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