Power, Voice, and the Race Card

I have a tremendous amount of privilege, and I have done very little to deserve any of the privileges that I have.  I was born into a wealth in a white family in a country that is built for wealthy, white people.  I am a (mostly) heterosexual man in a culture that greatly privileges and benefits straight people and men.  My first (and only) language is English, the language that has, unfortunately, become the language of power in this world.  I was raised Christian in a culture that privileges Christians above all others, and as such, I can speak the language of Christianity.  In the words of Louis CK, “How many advantages could one person have!?”

One of the most incredible privileges that comes with my identities is the ability to have my voice valued and heard regardless of what I say.  That’s something that I talk a lot about in my work.  After all, I am a white, straight, male who earns his living as a diversity consultant.  The irony of that, which I make sure I express whenever I speak professionally, is that the things I am saying are said all the time by other people, but we just don’t listen to those voices.  Every single day, women must live the realities of sexism and sexual violence, and they speak out against them all the time, but we often tell them that they are being “overly sensitive.”  People of color point out all the time the ways in which our racially-stratified society hurts and oppresses them, yet when they do, we tell them that they are playing the “race card.”  LGBTQ folks speak all the time of the ways in which the society which is built for straight people and tells Queer folks that they are somehow dirty and wrong affects their lives and their self esteem, but again, they are accused of simply trying to use their experience to advance the “homosexual agenda.”  However, whenever I, in all my privilege, say these things, people often listen.

Now there are a host of problems with someone using their privilege on behalf of those without privilege to try to advance an agenda (which I try to check in with myself regularly to make sure I am not doing), and that can be discussed at a later time.  However, the point is that my voice is valued.  The people who are originally saying the things I say don’t have that privilege.

After all, how many times have you heard a woman express what she is legitimately feeling from a place of concern and then heard her voice written off as, “She must be on the rag”?  There were even supposedly legitimate political criticisms of Hillary Clinton lodged while she was running for president that there may be certain times of the month when she would be too emotional to govern or that menopause would affect her ability to be president.

How many times have you heard a Queer person express hurt at the use of the word “fag” or at the way they are treated in public, only to hear them written off as “too sensitive,” often with some sort of play to the stereotype of gay men being too “girly” or lesbian women being “butch” and “overly-forward”?

How many times have you heard a Jew describe the ways in which they are affected by modern antisemitism only to be told that they could not be feeling or experiencing what they are feeling because “Jews control everything”?

How many times have you heard a person of color express hurt or outrage about overt or covert racism, only to have that legitimate feeling be written off as the person “playing the race card”?

Take, for instance, the video that is titled on Youtube as “Michelle Obama Plays the Race Card” when she describes the legitimate reality of internalized oppression within communities of color:

God forbid that she actually speak with honesty about the ways in which a community can start to internalize the idea that they cannot succeed after being told that they are inadequate.  No.  That is clearly the Race Card!!

The effect, often intended, in these statements is to silence.  The desired outcome for those claiming that a person of color has played the “race card” or the “sexism card” is to say to that person, “Your lived experience is not legitimate.  We will not listen to what you have experienced.  Instead, we will write it off as some pattern of ‘reverse discrimination’ so that we can continue to see the world through the rose-colored, ‘colorblind’ glasses that support our privilege.”

Essentially, “Your voice is not legitimate because of your identity.”

The other side of the coin is that I have the incredible privilege of almost never having my voice questioned in its legitimacy.  Sure, people disagree with me all the time, but there is never a tone of, “You don’t have the right to speak up” or “If you speak up, you’re a self-serving [insert your favorite epithet].”

Perhaps that is one of the greatest benefits of privilege in our culture!  This benefit is so tremendous because it is this very privilege to say what I like that upholds the structures of power in this culture!  It is this very power that leads to the internalized oppression that the First Lady so eloquently describes above.  It is this very power that tells men that we don’t have to listen to the voices of women in ways that far too often lead to sexual violence – they are absolutely connected!  It is this very power that silences too many voices for fear of retributive violence.

In training to be a sexual assault survivor’s advocate, I was told that perhaps the most important thing that I can do for a survivor is simply to listen to a survivor and let her (since about 90% of all survivors are women) know that I believe her.  In his incredible book A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen argues that one of the most important steps in our society overcoming oppression is simply us learning to listen.  We must learn to listen to and accept the lived experiences of those who are affected by the poison of oppression in our culture.  If we listen, actually listen, there is no way for sexual violence to continue, for racism to continue, for Queer bashing to continue, for religious oppression to continue, for ableism to continue.  Only through a silencing of the voices of the oppressed can we uphold a system of oppression.

I’ll leave you with the words of one of my favorite bloggers, Jamilah Lemieux, in her piece, “Race is Not a Card, It’s a Reality.”

“The race card concept implies that the true racial power in this country lies in the hands of minorities, and that as soon as we “cry racism,” we will then be allowed to get away with anything or to unjustly persecute innocent White people. This is so infrequently the case. We holler “race” because so often it IS about race. While racism should not instill in Black folks a sense of paranoia, we must be constantly diligent and aware of how we are being treated. I do not wish to be color-blind. I am glad that I am aware of the racial climate that I live in, so that I may arm myself accordingly for whatever may come my way. We will never end or even lessen racism so long as we are made to be afraid to challenge it. “

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One thought on “Power, Voice, and the Race Card

  1. […] So I have to check myself.  I have to ground myself in the reality that the work I do must be done in concert with activists of Color, with women, with Queer activists, and others.  I must remind myself that women have no choice but to do work to end sexual violence very day, and they don’t get accolades (in fact, they are often called “femi-nazis“).  People of Color must combat racism every day, and they are often rewarded with accusations of “playing the race card.” […]

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