Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Playing the race card and Metro Detroit

I spent the day in suburban Detroit trying to convince White men to sit down and share their views and opinions about race and social opportunity with me in a survey. As you can imagine, it would have been easier for me to learn Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor (and trust me I don't even know how to play an instrument)in between writing dissertation chapters. If nothing else was confirmed to me today, its that most White Michiganders don't want to talk about race and ethnicity, unless it's on their terms. The survey is a lengthy one, so I can understand people being intimidated by length, but I was intrigued by one White man's response. He took the survey, looked it over for about 5 minutes and returned it to me empty and said "I'm not prejudice in any way and I'd rather not take this." So the good social scientist in me says, "Well Dumi, he thought you were trying to get him to answer in a certain way, thus you tainted the experience." But the catch comes in that this same man when I asked him about the city of Detroit a few minutes earlier told me, "It's going no where" and the problem of the city were because "people want to play the race card." He went on to explain some issues with race and how they were too trumped up, etc, etc. His returning of th survey reminded me of 2 things about White dialogues about race: 1) we can talk about race and ethnicity, but only on White folks' terms and 2) the race card is real in White folks' minds.

Now you can say I am unfairly characterizing a group, White men, on this guys response, but trust me, I had a number of guys be not so kind to me after the survey. I don't think it was simply the people who I bumped into today, but this country and Metro Detroit has a serious silence on the dialogue of race. Now Detroit is the most segregated major metro area. Want the evidence of it? I spoke to people who have lived over 10 years in the suburbs of Detroit who admitted to me that they had only been into the city 2 or 3 times. When I informed some people I wanted to get their opinions about Metro Detroit they said things like, "Well I don't know anything about the Detroit area." Ladies and Gentleman, if you live in the same county, less than 8 miles from the city limits, you may be a part of the Metro Detroit area. I didn't make the term up, hell if you watch the news they say it at least 30 times each morning. But somehow, White Metro Detroiters, seem to consider themselves autonomous, and in many ways are. If you live in a completely segregated space, attend segregated work, and socialized in segregated ways, you are autonomous. But if you live in those conditions then why not talk about race?

Well because talking about race means that someone is going to play that dreaded card. That's right, there is always a hold card tucked deep in my hand. It's more powerful then a flush and apparently all Black folks are adept at playing it, it's the race card. I think the term the race card is really interesting in that it immediately trivializes social experience. There is nothing cool or joyous about being pulled over and having police officers approach your car with their gun drawn because you're a young Black man. There is nothing fun about being followed around stores when you're really trying to buy something. There is nothing amusing about living in substandard conditions because you inherit the debits of your family's "misfortune." When I talk about race, I'm not playing shit, I'm telling you my experience. Don't discount my experience because you have lived a different one than me. I don't discount your experiences. What if I said, "Oh he's playing the class card." People don't say that, because folks who are White, Black, Asian, Latin@, Purple know that social class matters. Isn't it peculiar that race and ethnicities, which are just as "socially real" as social class, are part of a game.

There are so many rhetorical tricks around the issue of race in the country that silence the dialogue. If you want some good reading on them check out Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. I think the first step to real dialogue about race and opportunity is realizing that no one here is playing a card or a game. The stakes of segregation, discrimination and deprivation are real. See cause if this was a game, I would be holding chips under the table, because the race card doesn't seem to "win" me much. Ah man, I'll write more later.


Dance_Soul said...

People also have a lot of trouble talking about race with people outside of their own race. Maybe your white RAs will have better results.

Dumi said...

I agree that people have trouble talking about race across races. But the interesting thing was that he approached me and brought up race and began to give me his impressions to my face first. When I asked him to share it on a confidential survey (which was administered by a white ra) he decided not to participate. That's why I think the idea that race talk can occur across races is salient, but this talk had to occur on his terms.

Anonymous said...


At a previous job, one of my white coworkers told me I was too socially conscious!! I said to a previous employer of mine I thought the staff would benefit from diversity/tolerance training. It wasn't until two of my white coworkers a year later said the same thing that they actually did it. Clearly I'm just pulling the RACE CARD!!!! It didn't matter by that point half the staff left that year.

Unknown said...

From where did this phrase evolve? I think you put it perfectly: what game is being played here, such that a card needs to be pulled--there is no game, there is just the one life we're all trying to lead. I think the best way to understand the etiology of this phrase is to survey a bunch of [us] white folk and find out what exactly is meant when it's said. As a bonus, I'd be curious where each person learned it. Flippant use conveys to me that many people think it's a harmless coloquialism; when-in effect-it's anything but harmless and embodies a buried subconscious racial-ethinic conflict had by many in this Country. Thanks for your thoughts--keep the dialogue alive.

Anonymous said...


Very Interesting. What I would like to know is how white folks in view race in the aftermath of Katrina, particulary in the New Orleans area. I have heard, argued, and debated with many colleagues about whether the death and destruction in the wake of Katrina due to the lack of federal government response was a wake up call for white folks. Wake call meaning that Katrina demonstrated what it means to black or brown and POOR in this country. Your experience in Detriot suggests otherwise. But I wonder if white Louisana, Mississipp, and Alabama have a different reaction?

To be continued... well..maybe later

2 and counting...

Dumi said...

Monique- Wonder if you had pulled the card sooner if the office would have still be there at the end?

Bryan- Thanks, I would love to know its etiology as well, maybe a research topic in the future.

Anon- I really doubt that it was a wake up call to White America as a whole. Not that the images weren't powerful, but they weren't sustained. If you want something to resonate with middle of the road White America it has to be repeated, just ask Bush as he keeps giving the same damn speech on homeland security. But White folks in the Delta probably have a different outlook in realizing that "they" are not saved. Though I don't they're having interracial love fests down there ;)

RachelsTavern said...

Ok, so the gossip in me is dying to know who you were doing these surveys for?

But the sociologist in me is reminded of this session this year at ABS. It was about race and methods. The two whites who presented focused on what it was like to be a white researcher studying black and brown folks. Finally, someone brought up the point that always runs through my head--why don't we have a discussion about what it is like for black and brown people to try to interview whites (about race)? Unfortunately, damn near impossible at times as the white guy who wouldn't even fill out the survey reveals.

What I also find funny about those white suburban Detroiters is they they never say they are from Detroit, never. They travel out into the rest of the country and tell people they are from Warren, Rochester, etc. Nobody knows those places!! When I lived in Detroit, everybody and their mama would be like "You live in Detroit!!"
In fact, one time some white guy got lost and ended up at the door of the frat house I stayed in off 6 mile. This white guy in the fraternity, answered the door for the lost man, and this first words out of the guy's mouth were: "Oh thank god your a white guy!" When I remarked on what a racist that guy was; I got the I would have done the same thing remark.

But not to single out Detroit too much because this is a problem everywhere, but Detroit is one of the most racist places I have lived.

Lester Spence said...

Well, it can't be DETROIT that's the most racist place you've lived in...if 80% of the population in it is black. I understand what you mean, but you should be precise here.

There is one occasion where whites say they're from Detroit. When they go out of town and want to show how hardcore they are.

Ben Skutt said...

I live near the Detroit area and i honestly feel uncomfortable going into the inner city. See I'm white, and i DON'T feel uncomfortable because the of the large population of black people there. I feel uncomfortable because I'm the minority. It's as if when I go into the inner city, specifically Cass Park, everyone looks at me and hates me because I'm white and well to do.

Dumi said...

Thanks for the comment. The thing that catches me is your statement, "everyone looks at me and hates me because I'm white and well to do." How could everyone hate you? How could you know? I certainly understand how it feels to walk into a space when I'm the minority, been doing in for nearly 30 years. The discomfort is real, but attributing hatred to folks shouldn't be automatic. Have I been places where folks hate me, yes, is it everytime I enter a space where I'm the minority, hell nawh! Distinguishing between hostile spaces and spaces where there is discomfort is a major and important task, feel me?