Whenever someone accuses a person of disliking Obama because he’s black, or that racism fuels a lot of the debate against him, the accused person automatically becomes exacerbated and criticizes the accuser for stooping so low as to “play the race card.” Obviously they’re not racist, they have black friends! Heck, some of them even voted for Obama, America’s not racist any more! How dare they suggest that!

I never really understood what it meant to “play the race card,” or any card for that matter. Are people trying to say that race has nothing to do with people’s perceptions of others? That in a country where where segregation was legal not even 45 years ago, where immigrants are currently being discriminated against for their inability to learn English, or rather, our inability – nay, unwillingness – to accommodate to new cultural changes in the melting pot that once defined our great nation, where women still don’t have equal pay for equal work, for people to say that there’s no racism or sexism or other forms of discrimination in today’s society is plain ignorant.

No one likes being called a bigot. Our society has changed so that it’s no longer socially acceptable (or in some contexts, legal) to be overtly discriminatory. No one likes having their faults pointed out to them. So for someone to accuse you of being racist, regardless of your actions, you may honestly think that you’re not simply because you want to believe it. Also, some people think that being racist means being a member of the KKK, or actively denouncing integration, or any other public form of extreme racism. But what many people don’t realize is that discriminatory behaviors can be subtle, even subconscious. Just because we don’t recognize it or admit it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I watched a clip from a South Carolina news station today about civility in discourse, and how it’s disintegrating. One question asked was, “Are we a racist society?” Two of the guests said yes, definitely. The other man said, “We’re a racialized society where race matters profoundly.” What the hell does that mean? For one, I think he made that word up. Is he saying that it’s possible to be un-racialized? De-racialized? That it’s possible to strip people of fundamental parts of their identities and not see their race? If it were simply that race matters, fine, it matters but all races are treated equally, but that is not the case in America. Racial minorities are discriminated against in so many ways I won’t even get into, so yes, we are racist, not just racial or racialized. Why are people so unwilling to admit that? Because we don’t want to own up to our own shortcomings?

As for people supposedly not caring that our president is black, let me reiterate that racism can be unconscious. Having black friends or having voted for Obama is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for being racist (a phrase I’ve borrowed from one of my favorite writers, Tim Wise). I certainly do not mean to say that everyone who criticizes Obama is automatically racist, or doing so out of racist motivations. That’s ridiculous. That’s like saying everyone who hates George H.W. Bush does so because they hate Texas. I’m saying instead that everyone who claims they’re not racist for criticizing Obama isn’t necessarily right… some are, but not all. Maybe racism isn’t the only factor. Maybe they disagree with his policies, but the fact that he’s black makes them that little bit angrier; it’s the difference between going to an Obama protest and going to an Obama protest with a poster of him dressed as witch-doctor.

As for Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC), the one who everyone’s been defending lately: he didn’t just blatantly disrespect the President in a joint session of Congress. He didn’t just state his opinion (and the opinion of many other Americans) in an inappropriate manner. He called the President a liar.

If two men walk into a department store, one black and one white, who is the salesperson most likely to follow to make sure he doesn’t steal? The black man. If two men are walking down the street in jeans and a T-shirt, one black man and one white man, which man is the one that will unconsciously be perceived as the criminal, the one who will be shied away from in passing? The black man. White people are always given the benefit of the doubt and assumed to be honest people. (No one called Bush a liar for a few years, even though by the end of his terms there was enough evidence against him for Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) to impeach him, yet it’s not even a full year for Obama and people think he’s dishonest despite lack of solid evidence.) No one knows what Wilson was thinking or why he said what he did. My guess though, is that at least part of his motivation to so blatantly disrespect the President was due to the fact that he thinks black men are inherently dishonest. I’m sure many other Americans feel the same way, but of course would never admit it or even acknowledge it.

Am I “pulling the race card”? Am I being so ridiculous as to assume that subtle, unconscious racism fuels some (if not most) of today’s political debates? Why is it that I’m the one chastised and criticized for pointing out racism when I see it, when those acting racist are protected by this invisible, evil “race card”?

Fine,  maybe I can’t fully understand because I don’t experience racism first hand because I’m white (and no, I don’t think there’s such a thing as reverse-discrimination). But I do experience sexism first hand, and I have people tell me I’m just overreacting, I’m just a crazy, angry feminist who over-analyzes everything. I am thoroughly, genuinely offended by certain actions, and I’m told that my concerns are unwarranted, that I’m being an “irrational” female (and then furthering my disgust at sexism in society).

Example: I was walking down the street in Morristown the other weekend with two female friends, heading to a local bar. A man outside a coffee shop calls out to us, “Oh look, it’s Charlie’s Angels! Are you an angel?” I just say, “No,” as I walk by. He screams to our backs, “That was a fucking compliment!” Oops, my bad. How silly of me to not realize that some random man calling out to me on the street was trying to be a gentleman! I say this is sexism, I pull “the sexism card,” or “the feminist card.” I was offended. He would not have called out to me if I were a man. But because he has the authority of being a man, if he says it’s a compliment, then it is a compliment with 100% pure intentions. Just like if a white person says they didn’t act racist, then it must be true. Right?

Wrong!

My message is this: next time you’re about to accuse someone of “pulling a card,” stop for a moment and analyze your actions. Is it possible that perhaps your actions can be perceived as having discriminatory implications even if you didn’t intend to do so? Is it possible that due to social perceptions of minorities, you might act subtly racist even if you don’t realize it? It’s not a definite, but it’s a maybe.

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