I was born in Britain at the tail end of the Thatcher era. My mother was a nurse, my father an accountant, and we moved from London to a suburban part of Essex just after I came along.
There’s a lot I don’t remember about my childhood. I don’t remember any specific toys I liked or what my favorite meal was. I can’t remember the color of my first bike or how old I was when I first learned to ride it. What I lack in specifics, however, I make up for in the memory of how certain things felt: the pride when our neighbor, David, let go of the back of my saddle and I cycled on two wheels by myself, feeling the wind brush sharply past my cheeks. The memory is only a split second long, but it is powerful.
I can’t tell you when I first heard the phrase “playing the race card,” or even when I first came to understand its meaning as a black child growing up in a predominantly white area. What I do remember vividly, though, is what it felt like. As an adult, the only comparable feeling is the frustration of being unable to articulate a point or argument because you are up against someone who is more confident—or at least louder—than you are. They aren’t necessarily right, but you have no choice but to back down anyway, because you’ll never be able to convince them to see your side.
In my teens and twenties, I feared speaking out about how I really felt in certain situations, worried about being branded as “playing the race card.” I didn’t want to be seen as difficult or angry—I just wanted to keep my head down and blend in. The problem is, as a black, female, second-generation Muslim growing up in post 9–11 and 7–7 Britain, blending in was never going to be possible. That’s when I really started to notice how the “race card” was being used to silence valid and legitimate voices.
In January this year, the London mayoral battle started to get pretty messy, with Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith accusing Labour’s Sadiq Khan of “playing the race card.” In terms of my personal vote, I’m not gravitating toward either candidate. I’m not even convinced that any one person is enough to be the mayor of London. If it were up to me, there would be a group of at least four people with separate areas of expertise who could each bring something different to the table—like the Power Rangers, or the kids from Captain Planet. That said, the use of the phrase awoke a frustration in me that had remained dormant for many years.
The idea of a “race card” suggests a privilege. The race card is a go-to argument that everyone who considers themselves an ethnic minority is free to pull out of their pocket and play whenever they need—a theoretical free pass to victory.
Doctor: What kind is it?
Midwife: It’s a brown baby girl, doctor. Parents are Muslims.
Doctor: A brown Muslim girl? Oh dear, best give her two race cards then. She’ll need them.
But this isn’t what the phrase has always meant. Historically, “playing the race card” meant to pander politically to racists. The race card was a political trump card that could beat all others.
Following an influx of immigrants into the UK in the 50s and 60s, there was known to be a degree of racist discontent amongst the predominantly white indigenous population [and] there was an informal gentlemen’s agreement not to benefit electorally by pandering to this racist element. Peter Griffiths, the Conservative candidate for the parliamentary seat of Smethwick in the 1964 General Election, was accused of using the slogan, ‘If you want a n****r neighbour – vote Labour’, in an attempt to capitalise on the electorate’s fears of being ‘swamped’ by immigrants. Later, once the phrase ‘play the race card’ had become part of the language in the 80s, commentators wrote pieces suggesting that Griffiths ‘played the race card’ in order to get elected.
So to play the race card means both “to attempt to gain advantage in an election by pandering to the electorate’s racism” and “to attempt to gain advantage by drawing attention to one’s race.” There is reversal suggested here: what used to be the racist’s tool has become the ethnic minority’s asset.
What the two meanings have in common is the idea that the race card trumps all arguments and shuts down debate. Whoever holds the race card wins.
Yet who really wins, in this day and age, when one person accuses another of playing the race card? The person who does so effectively removes the possibility of debate by dismissing and invalidating the other party’s opinion. When we remove the opportunity for debate, we substantially minimize the opportunity for understanding—and when we are unwilling to understand each other, we become separated.
In the past, we’re told, white politicians played the race card, pandering to racism as a way of shutting down their opponents’ arguments. Today we are to understand that people of color hold and play race cards of their own—but in fact it is the accusation, not the “card,” that holds all the power.
My frustration at Zac Goldsmith’s words extends so much further than it being a turn of phrase that irks me. These are not words that can be ignored and brushed off: these are words that are being used every day to ignore and silence people who are attempting to voice their frustrations.
I’m now thirty years old, and I’ve been trying for years to put into words how and why race is such a huge deal to people of color like me. The closest I’ve come is this: being able to exist and not have to think about race issues is a privilege. I always felt that until I could say something helpful, different, and poignant on the subject, I may as well keep quiet. The trouble with this “race card” thing is, I just can’t sit quietly while a prominent public figure perpetuates a term whose use results in people being shut down—people like me, who are people like everyone else, whose thoughts and feelings are equally valid. People like me, who have grown up experiencing first- and second-hand what it actually feels like to exist as a minority in a world where the playing field between those who are white and people of color is not level.
To me, the “race card” is not a card at all. A mere card couldn’t possibly fit all of the reasons I need to challenge and call out racism. My reasons for speaking out span the three continents that form a part of me and hundreds of years of colonialism, immigration, and experience. My race card is not a card: it’s the lives of my ancestors distilled into speckles of my genetic makeup. I’ve accumulated a “race book” full of experience, of bittersweet memories and difficult-to-process feelings, and I stand ready to explain to anyone willing to listen why I will no longer sit down and accept the dismissal embedded in this phrase.
Next time I’m accused of playing the card, I’m throwing down the book.
top photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash