'Playing the Race Card' – The Tactics of Distraction

18 January 2016

Looking at the response to accusations of bias in the House of Commons, if there’s one phrase that brings on the red mist it’s ‘playing the race card’. To my mind, it’s a piece of cynical, aggressive fancy-footwork that blames the victim while attempting to brush over the systemic ways in which advantage and disadvantage really operate.

Excuse the crude analogy, but it really is like someone stating the fact that ‘two women die at the hands of their partner or ex-partner every week in the UK’, and the debate then focusing on how women need to simply take responsibility for not dying. It’s a denial, a distraction tactic that avoids the real issue of how violence against women is part of our culture, and one which we are collectively failing to address.

So when I hear someone say ‘playing the race (or any other) card’, what I really hear is ‘How dare you question the status quo? You personally are the problem’.

We hear ‘playing the race card’ whenever someone, usually a BAME person, draws attention to established systems or processes that lead to disadvantage. Whether it’s a challenge around who is and isn’t called on to speak in the Commons, how many BAME football managers there are, the disproportionate amount of BAME people in prison, the tiny numbers of BAME people in senior positions in organisations, the response is often the same: the gist is ‘it’s your fault, you are not good enough, stop moaning’.

Rarely it’s a case of, for example ‘there are patterns here that mean we are merely cloning ourselves, rather than recruiting the best leaders.’ Or, ‘we must examine bias in the prison sentences given and create ways of seeing all kinds of difference as a strength, not a problem’.

Really addressing unconscious bias, rather than simply enjoying the intellectual discussion of the concept, means we all need an awareness of when we benefit from advantage and when others do not. And this includes listening when people draw our attention to unfair patterns. If there’s one thing we can do that would change our aggressive or defensive responses whenever inequalities are highlighted, it’s to pause.

Whatever the ins and out of this or that specific incident, does it tell a story of discrimination that we need to address in our company, or in the wider community? If so, we are missing out on skills and talent – alienating rather than engaging staff or communities – and failing to leverage the benefits of diversity as a result.

We can’t afford to do this, on so many levels.