That statement stunned me as I was standing just outside the Teranga Hotel smack in the middle of downtown Dakar, Senegal in the summer of 1984. I was in West Africa to do a shoot for World Vision, my employer at the time.
The Senegalese who leveled that loaded question at me was playing The Race Card just to get a rise out of me. He was a Waloof street hustler working the old city square trying to sell me something. What, I don’t remember, probably a trinket. But he and his posse of pickpockets and slick charmers were besieging every white Westerner who walked out of the hotel. (Waloofs are noted for being aggressive, almost merciless, in dealing out on the street and in the busy markets. Negotiating is almost like a bloodsport to them.)
I remember telling the peddler, “sorry, I’m not interested in your wares.” He persisted. Again, I told him to “stop, please go away.” He wouldn’t, for he wasn’t taking NO for an answer. Finally, I told him to “Leave Me Alone!”
“What’s wrong – you don’t like Black people?!”, he shot back. (At that seminal moment, it occurred to me that he’d probably used this line before – it was his tactic to shame me into buying from him.)
Looking at him – and, truth be told, I was pretty ticked off by that point – I strongly said, “I LOVE Black people. All kinds of people. I just don’t like YOU. Go away!!!”
That certainly stopped him in his tracks. So, I kept moving down the street (always good advice when being pursued), and he, thankfully, walked off to pester some other potential target.
Let’s get something straight upfront: there is not a prejudiced bone in my body. I’ve spent about 4 years of my life living overseas, a year of it in Africa. Traveling the world has truly deepened my life and expanded my understanding of diverse peoples, nationalities and cultures. When you are a foreigner in someone else’s country, you learn pretty fast to be flexible, to adapt, and to drop your preconceived notions. Otherwise, you will be humbled quickly.
When I was single, I dated women of Jamaican, Danish, Mexican, Scottish, Chinese and Argentine heritage. I am married (and will be till my last dying breath) to a sultry Latina, Rebecca, whose family is straight from Nicaragua (mom) and Puerto Rico (dad). (Besides energetic music, great conversation and wonderful laughter, I am very well fed too. Believe me. )
Yes, I like Black people. Along with brown, white and whatever other colors you want. Bring me the United Nations.
But at the very moment I write this, The Race Card – knowingly or unwittingly – has recently been played in two venues here in the USA: within a hallowed Senate committee room…and on the porch of a yellow Cambridge, MA house belonging to a distinguished African-American professor.
To my mind, The Race Card these days can either be real or a useful, intimidating device to skirt skillfully around whatever may be the true issues at hand. Sort of like the beleaguered serf (Michael Palin) in the classic film, Monty Python and The Holy Grail, who shouts as the knights are taking him away, “I’m being oppressed!”
So, I don’t know what Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) was thinking (if at all) when she read an NAACP letter during a recent Cap and Trade meeting involving Harry C. Alford, leader of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. But he was peeved, and rightly so. Boxer was trying to checkmate Alford’s conservative resistance to the famous Obama bill (re: environmental legislation) by citing liberal black support as counterpoint.
Angrily, the black CEO was having none of the NAACP letter being read to him by the lady senator (especially in a condescending manner). Good for him. He was truly offended by Boxer’s antics, and called her on it to her face. The NAACP tactic backfired on the California senator, making her look rather clueless on network news.
Conversely, what will become of the fiasco between Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Sgt. James Crowley in the now infamous Cambridge house arrest is still an unfolding story. It really seems like a He said, He said issue. And the sergeant is not backing down one bit. Neither is the professor. Besides public opinion, we may be heading to the courts, which is a shame – just what we need, more lawsuits.
Did Gates play The Race Card to the police? Yes. Was he right to do so? Hard to tell. Was he making a statement that he believed he was being singled out primarily due to his skin color? Most definitely. Gates certainly knows about the history of African-American oppression, for he teaches about it at Harvard. But the facts are someone saw him breaking into a home, his home. To a passersby, he was a potential burglar. That’s when police showed up.
(I will say this: my grandfather worked for years as a captain in a sheriff’s office and ran the Fresno County jail at one point. Don’t ever bring one’s mother into a rant versus a police officer, which is what Sgt. Crowley alleges Dr. Gates did. No, no, no. Handcuff time.)
Soon there probably will be sharper, clearer details to shed light on this conflict. And, days later since his press conference, the President is certainly backing-off his judgmental use of the derogative term “stupidly” when assessing the performance of the Cambridge Police.
My only BIG observation on these two legitimate racial discourses is: you better make sure you’re absolutely right when you play The Race Card.
Don’t casually toss that inflammatory card out onto the table just because it’s worked well for you before, or remains your reliable ace-in-the-hole when push finally comes to shove…like the Woloof hustler outside the Teranga. Because playing that powerfully charged hand could backfire on you if your ulterior motives are proven to be misguided or manipulative.
Society is wising-up to the misuse of The Race Card pretty fast these days.