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The Myth of the “Race Card”

Solange Knowles, Zendaya Coleman, and the perils of being a black woman who speaks up.

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Two essential quotes come up often among the black women in my professional cohort. The first is one that we attribute to Zora Neale Hurston: “If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.” The other is from Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals: “Your silence will not protect you.” We trade these quotes to nudge one another toward self-advocacy in situations when speaking up for ourselves might be difficult—such as in work or social settings where we are in a minority as women of color and our experiences of sexism or racism may be minimized or disbelieved, if we are vocal about them.

Even with Hurston or Lorde to embolden us, lodging a public complaint as a black woman can still be a vulnerable undertaking—especially when we’re asked to justify why we’re offended or to explain how we can be so sure that the offense we felt had discriminatory underpinnings. So I wasn’t surprised that when singer Solange Knowles live-tweeted about an incident she described as racist at a Kraftwerk concert last week, commenters inundated her Twitter account with allegations that her description of events was racist.

“Let me tell you about why black girls / women are so angry,” Knowles began, and recounted being told by four older white women behind her, “You need to sit down,” as she danced with her family. When she didn’t oblige, “They proceeded to throw something at my back.” She ended her account with, “But in this moment, I’m just going to share my experience… So that maybe someone will understand, why many of us don’t feel safe in white spaces. We don’t ‘bring the drama....’ Fix yourself.”

Knowles later posted an essay, “And Do You Belong? I Do,” on her website that explores the insidious nature of confrontations with white people, in which the tone of voice they’re using feels as contentious—or more so—than the words they’re using, and how difficult it is to parse their actions and racial motivations:

You don’t feel that most of the people in these incidents do not like black people, but simply are a product of their white supremacy and are exercising it on you without caution, care, or thought. Many times the tone just simply says, “I do not feel you belong here.”

Knowles’s critics were myriad. Some suggested Knowles avoid predominantly white environments, while others lobbed racist insults.

Many others accused her of “playing the race card,” implying that they remained unconvinced of racist intent in the Kraftwerk incident. The term “race card” is always evoked as an accusation, implying that black people are playing a game when we mention race in conversation. As the metaphor goes, the race card is a supposed trump card that’s used to shut down a conversation, to win some sort of rhetorical victory. But when you’re black in America, race is not just one card in a hand that can be played or not; it’s an integral part of our identity, as inextricable as our nationality, if not more so. So when a white person antagonizes us, we cannot ignore the fact of our skin color or the way our country has treated people of that skin color since its inception.

When a black person believes her experience—a white person yelling and throwing things at them, or using a derisive tone—has racist implications, she shouldn’t have to convince others of this. If there is any convincing to be done, the onus should be on the attacker, not the assaulted. By accusing Knowles of racism, or of “pulling the race card,” critics are not only erasing the original offense; they’re attempting to victimize the victim yet again, by accusing her of wrongdoing.

This is often how such incidents unfold—but not always. Another recent conflict shows there’s hope yet for how we talk about race in America.

In a Snapchat video last week, actress Zendaya Coleman also spoke out about an incident she perceived to be racist at a Vons grocery store in Los Angeles. While attempting to buy gift cards with a credit card, a transaction for which the store has a $200 limit, Coleman said the cashier was reluctant to help her and her friend and “threw her wallet at her” after explaining the gift card transaction limit. “I don’t think she was a huge fan of our skin tone,” Coleman mused.

In its response, Von’s begins by explaining its gift card transaction limit. The company could’ve then insisted that the service denial had nothing to do with race. The only accounts of the incident, after all, were Zendaya’s and the cashier’s. It would’ve been easy to fall back on the claim that race didn’t factor into this exchange at all, and that this was simply a matter of store policy. Instead, the company wrote this:

We respect Zendaya’s voice in the community and similarly are committed to diversity and inclusion. Moreover, we understand that race is a sensitive issue in America and view this experience as a reminder that every interaction is an opportunity to treat each customer as we ourselves would like to be treated.

Vons, a California chain, had sound business reasons for responding this way. The company defused the conflict—the negative headlines, that is—and emerged with its reputation intact. But Vons did more than merely save face. It illustrated the most productive approach to discussing racial offense with the offended: acknowledging the validity of Zendaya’s experience, both as as a customer and as a black woman in America. Accepting the word of a slighted black customer may seem like a small start to some, a tentative first step on a long road. But it’s a lot closer to the conversation that America should be having than accusations about a phantom “race card.”