Culture in Mind

Mental health, culture, and ethnicity

The Race Card

The scariest card in the deck

 

Everyone in the USA is born with a race card.

As infants turn into children and children into teenagers, some people acquire other racial accroutrements like a race filter through which all their experiences are seen or various sizes of race chips that sit on shoulders burdened by a life of slights, insults, discrimination and outright hostility.

The problem with the race card is that noone is allowed to use it. When a white person suggests that a black person is using it they are accused of being 'in denial' about race, racism, discrimination and history. When a non-white person uses it, they are accused of defaulting to race as an 'excuse' for whatever it is that transpired. Noone can win with the 'race card' and yet there it is: Ready to be 'played' and everyone in fear of what will happen when it does get played. A stand-off much colder and more volatile than the Cold War. Though like the slow dissipation of the Cold War, race is getting to be less and less of an issue. Though the glacial pace of change in this area means that the Harvard Business Review just released a case study on the use of incentives for the promotion of minorities when only white men are being promoted. Yes. Race is still very relevant in America.

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Obama and Race

In the US elections of 2008, race hung in the air like the humidity of a summer afternoon in Miami and yet it seemed the only conversations that were being had about race was that we were beyond race. So beyond it in fact that all we seemed to do was talk about how beyond it we were. 'Post-racial' became a term debated and discussed in academe and in the media. Were we beyond race because noone was talking about it? Or were we simply not willing to talk about it and thus it was really all about race?  In 2012, there was no mention of it at all. It's not that noone was thinking about it but it seemed that noone knew what to say.

Obama's colour did not matter in 2008. Except that it did. A lot. Especially to black people. That was reason enough to vote for him. (Not that the McCain/Palin ticket was any competition). And Obama's wife's color mattered. There are still pictures of them all over the interweb as an example of 'black love'. Because 'black love' matters. (Black) people want images of black couples loving each other. Because love is not just love. Black love is different from 'interracial' love or the never spoken 'white love'.

Race Outside America

For more open discussions of race in popular media one needs to turn to outlets outside of the USA. In the UK, for example, reading about race in the newspaper almost seems brave and shocking if one is used to the walking on eggshells approach taken by the US press.

Recently I was reading the Economist and in a November 15 article called, 'Room at the Top' in The Cabinet section, there was a paragraph that read,

"The selection of Ms Rice as secretary of state would also spark a row. In the immediate aftermath of the Libyan attack, she was the main voice in the administration describing it, mistakenly, as an act of mob violence, rather than terrorism. Republicans have railed against this version of events as inexcusable incompetence if not wilful deceit. But after a poor showing in the elections with women and minorities, they may not want to pillory an otherwise well-qualified black woman. Mr Obama this week defiantly declared their criticism of Ms Rice “outrageous”."

The mention of her race as a reason NOT to use Ms Rice's mistake against her is an explicit statement about what her race means as a 'symbol' and not just as a 'descriptor' of who who she is. Race as 'protection' against political derision is a play of the race card. And we will have to see how that plays out.

My Race Card

I should qualify my position in this discussion of the race card. I was born in the UK but left too young to know the abuses of which my parents suffered because of their race. (Though I was later told and it was the reason my father moved us back to Jamaica so we could grow up in a black majority). I grew up in Jamaica during a time when being black was not a liability and we were proudly post-colonial. I learned of Africa in my classroom. From Egypt to Timbuktu, from the Sahara to the Kalahari. I didn't have a race card because almost everyone I knew was black.

I didn't know I had anything to prove because noone thought there was anything I could not do. I didn't know my dark skin was a liability because people told me how pretty my skin was and how pretty I was. Being smart wasn't 'white' because there were few 'white' people and everyone wanted their name at the top of the class. I came from a family who on both sides traced their lineage back to achievers of different shades of brown. Even the slave ancestor whose story I was told about over and over was a man of whom we were all proud. I wasn't raised with an inferiority complex but with a superiority one. My immediate family did not have money but we had privilege and status.

So when I moved to Canada as a teenager and then to the USA as an adult, I was always reading race 'wrong'. What to me seemed like someone's innocent mistake was 'racism'. It is not that I did not see obvious, blatant racism..... that was easy. But the stuff of which white people get nervous because they do not want to be called the 'R' word and the stuff of which black people said it was so obviously the R word. The word against which there is no defense because denial simply means that "you dont get it" and makes one even more of a racist than when the word was first lobbied at them. And so this fear silences people - both black and white. Race is a topic as volatile as an IED in an urban war zone. People may want to learn and understand but their questions can rarely be asked in emotional safety. It also silences non-white people who may want to question the 'party line' when it comes to race but fear being also told that "you don't get it" because they are also in denial or have been 'coopted'.

Playing the Race Card

In this land built on the most ugly forms of racism, specifically the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of imported ones, race is a word spoken very gently and quietly among friends, if at all. Polls show that white people rarely think about race and non-white people spend a lot of time thinking about it. This imbalance creates a hostile environment that leave non-white people raging and white people either scared or indifferent. Because in their eyes, for non-white people it's 'always' about race. And perhaps it is.

In a recent incident (early November), CNN anchor Don Lemon accused (actor,writer, producer) Jonah Hill of treating him like 'the help' because he didn't respond appropriately to his offer of a handshake and hello. Using his media platform, he went after Jonah Hill who responded in kind in the twittersphere. There was a bit of a cyberfight and the apology Don Lemon wanted was not forthcoming from Jonah Hill. The possibility that Jonah Hill was really just in a hurry was not an option for Don Lemon. It was about race. And he cannot undo that feeling anymore than Jonah Hill can understand why a limp handshake has a racial implication.

Living on the West Coast means that the 'liberals' that populate the 'best coast' or 'the left coast', are well trained in the politically correct language of race. Powerful white men speak of their privilege and their desire to use their privilege to change the world. And black people of privilege also are very sensitive to the ways in which race still impacts their lives.

In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, called "The Actors", Denzel Washington spoke of how his daughter being black and dark skinned had to work that much harder than other people to overcome the disadvantage of her complexion, her race, and also her parentage. Though the latter was a bit of an afterthought.

I, as privileged immigrant from a black majority country, have never seen my color, my hair or my race as a disadvantage. In fact, I dont see it as much of anything with regard to who I am. I was born such and live such and thus unless someone calls attention to it, I spend much more time thinking about my musculature than my color.

I am lucky. I do not have a race card and I don't want one, though many people have tried to give me one. I refuse it. It feels like a weapon in which I have no training so I'd rather not shoot my foot with it.

That said, I wrote this blog entry while giving a test to students in my Race and Ethnicity class - a course I have taught for more than a decade in Canada and in the USA. A class in which I learn a lot. A class in which I spend little time talking about theory or unpacking race knapsacks but having students critically think about race in America and in their own lives; providing a 'safe' place to ask questions and say 'dumb stuff' and at least feel a little less scared of crossing 'racial borders'.

Because as one student noted when asked what happened when one crosses racial borders, "you realize that there was no border there at all".

Ruth C. White, Ph.D., M.S.W., and M.P.H., is the author of Bipolar 101 and is an associate clinical professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California. 

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