Playing the Race Card Has No Value
We’ve been conditioned not to call out racists, even when our lives depend on it
When I was nine years old, my teacher just didn’t like Black students. No, that’s not quite right — she had disdain for us. While she displayed overt favoritism for White and Asian students, she made it clear she expected the Black children in her class to fail. When I managed to do well on tests and write a compelling story, her reaction was to ask whether I was adopted or mixed.
But from a very young age, I couldn’t call her out. No one had ever told me this, but I somehow knew: Don’t bring up their own racism. Or, in White people terms, don’t “pull the race card.”
At 10, I watched a White police officer in Orlando brutally slam a Black teenage girl on the hood of her car — for the brazen, life-threatening offense of “having a smart mouth.” The cop then turned to her partner and casually remarked: “They grow big fast, and can’t be treated like children. I wonder what they’re feeding them?” The two of them laughed.
That teenage girl knew not to pull the race card.
At 15, two of my close friends were Lakshmi, a Black girl, and Cassandra, who was White. We frequently hung out at Cassandra’s house after school. I met her parents and often had conversations with her father. We were, genuinely, on friendly terms. One rainy afternoon, the three of us were watching the then-new Bone Thugs-N-Harmony music video, “Crossroads.”
Angered by the music, and seeing only his daughter seated in the armchair, he irritably yelled from the kitchen, “Hey! Turn that off. I told you I don’t want you listening to that street thug nigger shit.” Cassandra turned off the television and stared at the floor, mortified. When her father entered the front room, he froze. We didn’t bother listening to his apology; we picked up our backpacks and left.
That same year, I walked with a friend and my cousin to a local pizza parlor. We wanted to check out the new Street Fighter Alpha machine and have pizza with some other friends. A motorcycle cop, without warning or provocation, made an abrupt U-turn — during rush hour — pulled over, drew his firearm, and demanded we all get on the ground. We were forced to lie there, on the hot summer sidewalk, for nearly half an hour before he nonchalantly dismissed us without as much as an apology. We went home instead; none of us were in the mood for pizza or Hadoukens after that.
We didn’t pull the race card.
To this day, I still have no clear understanding of what crime I was accused of.
At 16, I was on my way to visit a girl who I’d met in creative writing class. We routinely exchanged short stories; also, I had a giant crush on her. We had agreed to meet at the park, and I was almost there when I suddenly found myself surrounded by a handful of cops, all brandishing guns. They demanded I keep my hands where they could be seen. I was confused and startled, but complied. After being roughly slammed on the ground and handcuffed, I learned that I had been positively identified as someone who vandalized or stole something. Vandalized or stole. To this day, I still have no clear understanding of what crime I was accused of. All it required was the word of an old White woman, who claimed a Black boy wearing a coat did something. I was a Black boy. I was wearing a coat. That was all it took.
When I tried explaining that I had no idea what everyone was talking about, no one listened. Instead, I was arrested, booked, and tossed to a public defender who did not care about me.
It’s terrifying to find yourself, without warning, at the mercy of a system where no one believes anything you say, where there’s zero concern about what will happen to you. The public defender insisted I take a plea bargain, or my mother would be forced to pay for the damages. We never had much money, and I didn’t want my mom bearing the burden. I accepted the plea bargain in complete humiliation, then was talked down to for several minutes by a judge, who told me how lucky I was that the courts were going easy on me — for a thing I didn’t even do.
Even though my actual life depended on it — even though the repercussions of that plea bargain could have affected me ever after — I couldn’t pull the race card.
At 19, I was desperately searching for work to support my daughter. After what felt like countless applications and calls, I finally received a response. I was incredibly excited by this prospect, and when I had a lengthy phone conversation with the manager, she seemed friendly, courteous, and professional. We laughed, made small talk, and by the end of the conversation, she strongly encouraged me to come in for an in-person interview because she had “a strong feeling” I would be “perfect for the job.”
I arrived early on the appointed day and time. After a short wait, I went into the manager’s office and found an older White woman sitting behind the desk. I introduced myself — and her smile instantly faded. Our conversation barely lasted a single cold minute before she abruptly explained that the position was already filled. The disappointment must have been visible on my face when I headed toward the door, because an older White man pulled me aside, and gave me some business cards for places elsewhere with open positions. “She’s not a bad person,” he began apologetically. “She’s just really old-fashioned about some things. She must have thought you were something else when you spoke on the phone because of how you sounded. You know what I mean? Try not to take it personally.”
I walked out, defeated. I didn’t pull the race card.
At 21, I enrolled in a community college. One of the classes I fell in love with was the Tragedies of Shakespeare. I was the only Black student in the class but didn’t think anything of it — until the instructor asked me if I’d chosen the right course. I was confused; did he think there was an issue with my schedule and I’d been misregistered? No, he explained, he wanted to make sure I knew I was in the right class. I asked if he thought this line of questioning was appropriate, and he apologized.
The matter seemed settled until later that week. While discussing Othello, he referred to me as a Moor several times. Some students audibly gasped, others appeared uncomfortable. Afterward, we approached the dean to tell him what had happened. Yet, the next year, I was asked again, on the same college campus, by two separate instructors, if I was in the right class. Again, I was their only Black student. I considered dropping both classes, but decided that it would only confirm their beliefs — so I stayed.
At 24, toward the end of a semester, the instructor in one of my favorite classes asked if we could speak in her office later — at which point she explained that she wanted to apologize, and to thank me. She initially believed I would fail her class; I inadvertently helped her realize she held racial biases.
While being openly gaslighted, I didn’t pull the race card.
That was 15 years ago. I’m now 39 — and could keep listing real-life examples until Medium runs out of server space.
When White people speak of their privilege, they often forget to acknowledge that the world is their well-prepared oyster. The privilege of holding a White card is in the simple act of existing. It is being able to take for granted how good it feels just to exist, take a class just because it interests you, walk with your friends to a pizza parlor or meet a girl you like at a park without fear of harassment, condemnation, or reprisal. It is living without constant vigilance and suspicion dogging your day-to-day life.
People of color are constantly told time and time again not to “pull the race card,” even when provoked in openly racist encounters. We’re groomed to believe the race card is some hat trick — but in reality, the White card is the all-access pass. It’s the ineffectual race card that is forced upon us in a stacked deck, held in a rigged game, all hosted by a corrupt casino.