Have you ever accused someone or been accused of playing the ‘race card’? What does the ‘race card’ mean and how do you identify it? Snéha Khilay explains the definition and implications of the ‘race card’ and provides a case study as an example.

Flicking a pack of cards, showing Ace.

© Flickr user ccarlstead

Media, political campaigns and organisations have been outraged by the concept of ‘playing the race card’, while the general public has reacted to it with exasperation, disbelief, or sheer indifference.

What does it mean, ‘playing the race card’? Figuratively, the reference is made to the power of play in card games in which a trump card may be used to gain an advantage. Wikipedia defines it as ‘an idiomatic phrase referring to an allegation raised against a person who has brought the issue of race or racism into a debate, perhaps to obfuscate the matter.’

The phrase can be linked to the following four broad contexts:

  • Deliberately and falsely accusing another person of being racist in order to gain some form of advantage. For instance, a manager is aware of a staff member, from a minority ethnic background, of being consistently late. On broaching her about her timekeeping, the staff member responds with the comment – “you are only picking on me because of my race.”
  • Managers getting into the danger of overcompensating for inappropriate behaviour or poor performance, giving more leeway to the individual concerned just in case the staff member brings out the ‘race card’. Fear of being labelled ‘racist’ has become so abhorrent that managers are under tremendous pressure to promote inclusivity. Managers also feel anxious that if they are accused of being racist, others might actually believe this to be true.
  • Used as a tool to exploit prejudice against another race for political or some other disadvantage. This is playing to racist fears. For example, when political campaigners in US ran an advertisement, intended as a criticism of the idea of fulfilling racial quotas, that showed a black man taking a white man’s job, the general public interpreted this as playing to racist fears amongst white voters.
  • The phrase has become a rhetorical devise, used simply to devalue and minimise genuine claims of racism.

Fundamentally the overarching question in any situation where the race card is allegedly being played is ‘did racism actually occur?’ Policies, procedures and changes in legislation have become effective protective measures against spurious or unreasonable claims or assertions. In that sense the policies are an attempt to put into place a set of requirements about appropriate behaviour and standards.

If people with different cultural and historical perspectives are working together, every employee – from front line workers to CEO – should have the ability to reflect on their actions and behaviour to ensure that everyone they interact with is treated fairly and equally. Whatever the performance or the wrong doing of the individual concerned, any assertion of racism must be taken seriously and a decision made on evidence, not just hearsay.

Playing the race card:
Outrage: No
Analysis and reflection of the circumstances: Yes.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s always worth a try…unless, of course, you have sufficient dignity, honesty and integrity to resist the impulse.

Implying ‘playing the race card’ was discrimination: case study

In Royal Bank of Scotland PLC v Morris the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) agreed with a tribunal’s decision that a black employee, who complained about his manager’s conduct, suffered direct discrimination when a senior manager commented without any factual basis that his complaint was about race discrimination. The comment was humiliating and based on a stereotypical assumption, and a white employee complaining about a black colleague would not have been treated in the same way.

Mr Morris is black and of African-Caribbean ethnic origin. He raised a complaint about his manager, Mr Tighe, to Mr Tighe’s manager, Mr Arnett. At a meeting, Mr Arnett, without any foundation said something to the effect that he understood Mr Morris to be alleging that Mr Tighe’s conduct towards him was connected with his race. Mr Morris denied that he had made any such allegation. He resented what he understood to be the suggestion that he was ‘playing the race card’.

Snéha Khilay is a diversity and leadership consultant/trainer. She specialises in supporting organisations in meeting their statutory equality and diversity requirements. Snéha carries out consultancy and training on Diversity and Inclusion, Managing Diversity and the Law, Cultural Competency, Dignity at Work and Conflict Resolution. She conducts independent investigations and mediation for organisations into allegations of bullying and harassment. Snéha has published articles on diversity and leadership in Management Today, Start Your Business, Simply Business, Professional Manager, Change Board, People and People Management. Visit Snéha’s website at www.bluetuliptraining.co.uk