Communication Currents

The Writing on the Wall: (New) Racism in U.S. Public Conversations about Race

December 1, 2015
Critical and Cultural Studies

In everyday talk when individuals are accused of “playing the race card" it is often seen as an underhanded effort to give those who (can) use it an unfair advantage, closing down conversations about race. In 2010, journalist Michele Norris attempted to revive a conversation about people’s experiences with race in her Race Card Project (RCP), an online forum for collecting and sharing six-word narratives from across the United States about people’s experiences with race. Her efforts, alongside those of thousands of contributors, earned the site a George Foster Peabody Award for “turning a pejorative phrase into a productive and far-reaching dialogue on a difficult topic.” Recent episodes of racial violence, protests, and tensions in FergusonBaltimoreCharleston, and Texas, remind us of the crucial nature and hopeful potential of dialogues such as the Race Card Project.

Because anyone can write, submit, and have their race card narrative published on the RCP’s digital “wall,” we examine how the experiences and comments captured on this site serve as a snapshot of broad U.S. attitudes about race. We looked at the stories people chose to tell, how they told them, and even what key-word tags were attached to each six-word race card to better understand people’s understanding of and experiences with race. We found that while many people attempted to challenge narrow conceptions of racial boundaries and the stereotypes associated with them, their narratives reiterated social ideals of colorblindness that dismissed the value and significance of racial identities in everyday interactions. Repeatedly, RCP participants composed (and played) race cards that we found to be complicit with strains of“new racism” that often circulate in broader national discussions touting the merits of post-racismmulticulturalism, and colorblindness. Ultimately, we identify these practices to be antiracialist as opposed to antiracist.

To many, the terms antiracist and antiracial are confusingly similar, however, they represent different attitudes about race and race relations in the United States. While Jim Crow-era racism spawned important antiracist efforts that opposed practices and institutions protecting white superiority (such as segregation and voter disenfranchisement policies), in recent decades, movements for social change have given way to antiracialism––a less progressive alternative that obscures the role of race in U.S. systems and institutions. Antiracialism participates in and perpetuates racism, and is characterized by a series of interlocking discourses that call into question the prevalence of differing racial experiences organizing contemporary U.S. life. 

On the RCP wall, we saw that even people who expressed frustration with racial categories and a desire to transcend them relied on antiracial strategies––strategies that fell short of challenging the inequitable racial hierarchy in the United States in a meaningful way.  Exploring over 200 Race Cards, we found that participants used antiracial discourses in three primary ways: as 1) narratives communicating their desire to manage and transcend racial categories, 2) explanations relying on mathematics and science to undermine the lived reality of racial identities, and 3) discourses of heteronormativity to reinforce the relationship between race and heredity. Using antiracial talk to explain their experiences with racism in the United States, this “writing on the wall” of the RCP website overlooked race-based social inequalities, typically leaving racist logics intact.

First, RCP participants expressed their desire to manage or transcend racial categories by utilizing metaphors that communicated their need to straddle,mediate,and/or bridge conflicting racial aspects of their identity.  In these examples, writers offered an ethereal account of their identity, suggesting that their sense of self was not easily defined by sedimented racial categories. When people make claims such at this, even when they desire to challenge racist practices, they devalue the role of categories and thereby devalue the role of race in shaping people’s experiences.

Second, many RCP participants told stories that used chemistry and equations to trouble the integrity of racial borders and categories.  Historically, the relationship between science and race––usually seen in discourses of blood quantum and heredity––has created and reinforced racial hierarchies. Many RCP narratives highlighted individuals’ diverse racial backgrounds and the ways these parts of them mixed, blended, and mingled to create a sense of self. Using percentages and relying on genetics, RCP participants regularly identified as a blend of categorizations whose constituent racial measurements could not be separated, implying that the bounds of these categories can and should be blurred and discounting the significance of discrete racial identities.

Finally, RCP participants relied on heteronormativity in their stories, foregrounding heterosexuality, monogamy, and reproduction to trouble the composition of racial categories and to highlight the arbitrary ways that race is often used in U.S. culture to distinguish people. The perceived connection between heredity and phenotypical likeness is such an ingrained part of U.S. cultural discourses about identity that RCP participants regularly reported instances of public critique and ridicule when their identity elements do not appear to align. These examples of antiracial discourses challenge the reliability of racial categories for correctly organizing people’s bodies and experiences, and instead depend on the taken-for-granted-ness of heteronormativity as evidence of social “mistakes” with racial identities.

Reflecting on the narratives these participants shared, let us consider how their “writing on the (Race Card) wall” signals our current troubled state of affairs while also (re-)constructing possibilities for people’s lives and the categories and hierarchies that organize U.S. social life. In popular culture, “playing the race card” rarely denotes moments of speaking truth, but rather of shutting down conversations by unfairly referencing race. Such claims may cause the public to dismiss race as no longer relevant or consequential; however, what if we attended to the ways that “playing the race card” makes race and racial categories not only visible within U.S. public discourse, but consequently available for renegotiation and revision? Sadly, the RCP reveals the insidious ways that racism is propelled in everyday speak through antiracialism, however, we applaud the project for providing a valuable forum for people to communicate their experiences and attitudes about race in a society that often advocates we overlook it. 

About the author (s)

Megan E. Morrissey

University of North Texas

Assistant Professor

Christy-Dale Sims

University of Denver