I’m not one who tends to hold onto something for too long. But under the right circumstances, I can be a champion grudge-holder.
So, here’s a completely justifiable story of one such occasion:
My partner and I were at a friend’s place. It was a low-key housewarming party. We got into a conversation with another partygoer.
Let’s call her “Susan Smith” – no, that’s not her real name, but I promise it’s just as Anglo sounding – and to clarify, Susan is white, and she didn’t seem to know that I’m Latinx.
Exchanging a few niceties, we learned that Susan worked in broadcasting. But until then, she hadn’t had much on-screen time.
“You can do it,” we encouraged.
“Actually, I’m thinking of changing my name to Susana Martínez or something ethnic-sounding like that. I’m sure to get screen time then. You gotta hit your ‘diversity quota!’”
Then she laughed innocently as I struggled to pick my angry, exhausted, embarrassed, why-does-this-still-surprise-me jaw off the linoleum floor.
I don’t know if Susan is still “Susan” or if she’s using that more “ethnic sounding” name.
Nonetheless, she revealed an all-too-common (and an all-too-problematic) misunderstanding of race in the US: that people of color supposedly get privileges at white folks’ expense.
How ironic, that so many white people complain about people of color bringing up race – about “playing the race card” – but use it when they experience hardship!
Clearly, many have a serious disconnect between the impact of racialized oppression and just experiencing competitiveness in a career.
Here are two things people of color are actually doing when they “use the race card.”
1. Rejecting Societal Whitewashing and Colorblindness
“This land is your land, this land is my land…”
“Puerto Rico isn’t a colony.”
“We elected a Black president, so racism is over.”
Um, no, no, and no.
Many white folks promote national historical narratives that distort and promote the accomplishments of white folks – such as the myth that Davy Crockett “opened” the American west, that Abraham Lincoln “freed” enslaved Black folks, and so much more.
However, these narratives disregard and minimize very real histories of oppression, as well as the work that people of color engaged in toward their own liberation.
Davy Crockett is a well-documented murderer of Native soldiers and civilians, and Black Americans have been fighting for their freedom for centuries.
Rather than confront these histories and their legacies in contemporary oppression, though, many pretend that they “just don’t see color.”
Therefore, when I complain about Mexicans-stole-our-jobs rhetoric, or when monolingual folks bastardize Spanish with “I speak-o Spanish-o” and then unironically tell me to “speak American,” I am not asking for a pity party. And neither are other people of color when they bring up race.
Instead, I’m demanding that everybody recognize the very real histories of race in the US.
I’m demanding that people get off their “all lives matter” pedestals in order to acknowledge the pervasiveness – if not the intensification – of interpersonal and structural racism and white supremacy.
2. Addressing Structural Racism by Leveling the Playing Field
We’re talking about Affirmative Action.
But when I marked “Hispanic” on my application to graduate school, for example, I was not asking for a handout or suggesting that I didn’t want to work hard. Nor did any of my colleagues of color indicate their racial background in some attempt to get out of work.
Furthermore, we weren’t expecting to be admitted into a heavily competitive graduate program because of our racial affiliation. Let’s think about it: Historically, people of color have been excluded from universities for being non-white, not the reverse.
No one is admitted into school, for example, or gets a job, because of their race.
Indeed, racial quotas have been deemed illegal. What Affirmative Action programs do say, however, is that all things being equal, the tiebreaker should go to a person of color in recognition of the structural oppression that obstructed their advancement up to that point.
Unfortunately, many white folks still misunderstand Affirmative Action as some kind of free meal ticket.
Why? They rarely see all of the people of color who didn’t even get the chance to be considered for such a program.
Rendered socially invisible to white communities, most don’t see all of the people of color who’ve been wrongly suspended, expelled, arrested, and imprisoned, and thus haven’t even had the opportunity to qualify for an Affirmative Action program.
Most don’t see the “bootstrap pulling” taken to even apply for that college, scholarship, job, apartment, or loan in the first place.
Therefore, one justification for Affirmative Action programs is that non-white folks have been and continue to be marginalized in terms of applications for housing and advancement.
For example, numerous studies show that the same – the exact same! – resumes on job applications get different responses depending upon the name used. “John” and “Adam,” for instance, are much more likely to get an interview than “Juan” and “Mohamed.”
And people of color know that, even though many white folks would rather deny it.
This ongoing racist discrimination is what motivated my parents to change my surname from “Hernández” to “Hernann” when I was a toddler. It’s what motivated a Black coworker of mine to ultimately decide to name her newborn “Jeremy” rather than her preferred “Jamal.”
Affirmative Action, therefore, is an attempt at even a semblance of an equalizing system (which, given the nature of structural racism and how early it begins to affect the lives and success of people of color, nonetheless, remains entirely insufficient).
Meanwhile, here are three things white people are doing when they play the race card:
1. Avoiding White Guilt
For many white folks, it’s easier to criticize Affirmative Action than it is to acknowledge pervasive racism.
It’s more comfortable to gaslight people of color who mention race than it is to recognize how white people have benefited from and been complicit in reproducing racist structures.
Such discomfort has influenced many, including some white allies, to silence people of color by accusing them of being “divisive” or for problematically engaging in “identity politics.”
“Not everything is about race, Andrew,” many a white people have lectured me. (Funny, none of friends of color have ever said that.)
These critiques suggest that mentioning race is what’s divisive, not the centuries of racialized oppression stemming from settler colonialism, enslavement, Jim Crow segregation, gerrymandering, and so on.
2. Attempting to Undercut Affirmative Action
Many white people interpret Affirmative Action as an unfair advantage or even as anti-white “reverse racism.”
Many think: Why should they get accepted into a program or be offered a job because of their race?
In a feat of racial gymnastics, these criticisms actually attempt to guilt people of color for taking advantage of Affirmative Action when white folks benefit from being white every single day.
Adopting a problematic moral high ground, they suggest that people of color shouldn’t take advantage of Affirmative Action.
Indeed, unaware as to if I had even benefited from any such program, more than once a white classmate – after giggling, “I wish I could qualify for Affirmative Action” – proffered that I should instead just “pull myself up by my bootstraps and pay my dues.”
3. Presuming White Superiority
These critiques of the race card assume the inherent superiority of white folks and minimize the accomplishments of people of color.
We’re taught to assume that any successful student or professional of color only achieved their success due to Affirmative Action, not due to their hard work or natural abilities.
My friends of color and I encountered this numerous times during college.
Often to assuage their own frustrations for earning a lower grade, lacking any critical self-reflection many of my white classmates would paradoxically suggest that it was us who were only admitted because of our race.
Such sentiment negates the really, really hard work it takes just to get to the point of qualifying for an Affirmative Action program. It also negates that white women are the most common beneficiaries of Affirmative Action programs, further denying just how hard people of color have to work to benefit from them.
Additionally, it assumes that people of color are never smarter or more talented than their white counterparts.
That is, it assumes that any person of color in an elite university, in a position of power, and so on must have gotten there through Affirmative Action and must have “stolen” that position from a more deserving white person.
Is it really that hard to imagine that a person of color could actually be more qualified than someone who’s white?
If you really strive towards allyship and the liberation of people of color, we need to shift our thinking and actions regarding race and racism. Here are some ways how:
1. Don’t Let White Guilt Get in the Way of Social Justice
As difficult as it is to do, white folks need to engage in some soul searching, recognizing your feelings of white guilt.
Of course this is awkward and uncomfortable.
But you need to hold yourself – and your friends, family, and colleagues – accountable for your white privilege and how you might (even inadvertently) contribute to ongoing racism.
Acknowledging how you’ve benefited from white supremacy – and the guilt that you might feel about that – will allow you to be more receptive to people of color who discuss race and/or make use of Affirmative Action.
2. Demand Further Investment in Affirmative Action Programs
Speak out against administrators, pundits, and politicians, as well as family members and friends, who misrepresent the “race card” and/or attempt to weaken Affirmative Action programs from universities, employers, and so on.
You can also work or volunteer with communities of color – with them taking the lead! – to help provide resources and general assistance to combat oppressive sociopolitical and economic structures. Particularly within Native communities, this means supporting demands for (access to) land and natural resources.
Additionally, you can donate to scholarship funds for students of color. And you can call on universities and employers to expand their Affirmative Action programs.
Let’s invert the toxic public narrative that demonizes people of color’s use of the race card!
We should welcome the race card. We should embrace it.
Because welcoming and embracing the race card means welcoming and embracing people of color. It means striving to actively listen and respond to our experiences with racialized oppression. It means practicing active solidarity and compassion.
And it means weakening the white supremicist structures that make the race card necessary in the first place.
Andrew Hernández is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He is a public anthropologist and teacher, completing his PhD in cultural anthropology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Andrew bases his research out of West Africa and the Sahara, working on issues of human rights, crisis and religion. A former adjunct lecturer, he is now a Professional Teaching Fellow at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. You can follow him on Twitter @AndrewHernann or at his website www.AndrewHernann.com.
Search our 3000+ articles!
Our online racial justice training
Used by hundreds of universities, non-profits, and businesses.
Click to learn more