Racist? We’re not really sure, are we?

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Dr. Claudette Gay (Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer)

It came as no surprise that before the ink was dry on my recent piece, “Race Obsession vs Race Consciousness,” that the issue of race would find itself back in the news with this headline in The Washington Post: “In push against Harvard leader, some see racism.”  This time the alleged “victim” of racism is Dr. Claudette Gay, African American president of Harvard University. (Although it may not be relevant here, I’ll point out anyway that Dr. Gay is the daughter of immigrants from Haiti, a nation once called a “shithole country” by an ex-president).

You see, unlike the presidents of MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, both white women, suddenly Gay’s qualifications – including her PhD from Harvard – mean nothing since she obtained the Harvard position, okay here we go again, because of the university’s emphasis on diversity. In other words, she likely would not have obtained the position were it not “for a fat finger on the diversity scale,” whined one of her harshest critics, himself a Harvard graduate and today a billionaire hedge fund manager.

Now what started out as a public hearing on what these institutions were doing to combat growing antisemitism on their campuses, in a matter of days morphed into a partisan critique of Gay’s race and qualifications, criticism faced by neither of the presidents of MIT, Sally Kornbluth, nor the University of Pennsylvania, Liz Magill. While the names of Magill and Kornbluth disappeared from the news, Gay’s fiercest critics smelled “blood in the water” with her alleged plagilarized academic papers. And the feeding frenzy continues to this day.

This takes us to a deeper dive into the lingering emotional effects of race in America, this time to the debilitating power of words, code words and idioms.

In “Race Obsession vs Race Consciousness,” you’ll recall that “Karen” played the proverbial “race card” by unfairly calling me a racist, then slammed the door on further dialogue. Now although I’ve been called the “N-Word” a few times in my life, I don’t recall ever having been called  a “racist.”

Said my friend “Andy,” a white guy, “Terry, realize that like being called the “N-Word,” being called a racist is just as paralyzing and hurtful. I was unfairly called a racist many years ago and have not been able to put that behind me even although the person who did that to me later apologized.”

“Playing the race card”? What are we talking about here folks?

Well, “playing the race card” is an idiomatic phrase that refers to the exploitation by someone to gain an advantage to dodge personal accountability or shut down a conversation. It attempts to belittle the person or persons raising concerns regarding attitudes and/or behaviors. Like accusations of “political correctness” or “wokeness,” playing the race card is an attempt to delegitimize a person or an issue he/she raises.

In his book, Playing the Race Card, George Dei argues that the term itself is a rhetorical device used in an effort to devalue and minimize claims of racism. It is important to point out that employing dog whistles and code words – i.e., “those people,” “inner city,” “illegals,” etc. – are contemporary examples of playing race cards to stoke fears and resentment.

Now the truth is that playing the race card can swing both ways racially. For example, some ultraconservative African Americans played the race card in response to those who referred to them as “sellouts” to their communities. Examples include “high tech lynching” (Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) and “I don’t fit the traditional narrative” (Senator Tim Scott). The point is that no one holds exclusive rights to the use of the idiom and won’t hesitate to use it for self protection or to silence others.

Unfortunately, success at even the most prestigious institutions does not immune deserving individuals from questions about their achievements. For example, not long after he became the second African American to be selected by NASA, the late Challenger astronaut, Dr. Ronald E. McNair was amused when sharing that some sniped that he got into the shuttle program to fill a racial quota. Mind you that Dr. McNair earned a PhD in Laser Physics from MIT. Yep, you read that right readers.

In the end, as much as the “N-Word” yelled at Black people stings and can pain them for years, even decades, getting called racist too can have a long lasting effect.

“As much as I write about race and racism, I’m generally very slow to accuse someone of being racist,” wrote William Spivey. “If I’ve said it, you can be certain I can document my reasons for believing it. I’m equally hesitant to say something isn’t racist because I may not know that either. Much, if not most of the time, I’m just not sure.”

We’re just not sure, are we?

© Terry Howard is an award-winning trainer, writer, and storyteller. He is a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, Blackmarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, and third place winner of the 2022 Georgia Press Award.