Last week, the 2008 election brought us a far cry from headlines worthy of a presidential race – say, proposed policy initiatives tackling the escalating deaths in Afghanistan or our rapidly declining economy – and brought us instead to a shameful low: a thoughtless and disrespectful narrative on race. Amidst the usual campaign bickering and mud-throwing that campaigns inevitably (and unfortunately) fall prey to, this particular turn has gone too far, creating a political discourse on race that reduces people’s lives and legacies – often very painful ones – to the strategic playing of a card game.
The old saying about how we need to “play the hand we are dealt” was coined to encourage us to accept the realities of our birth, to acknowledge that there are things in our lives we can’t change, and to make the best of who we are. It’s good advice, and is deeply incorporated into the popular AA injunction to change the things we can, accept what we cannot, and wisely sort out the difference.
But to extend this “card playing” analogy to our public discourse around race or gender – two of the things that we can’t change and both of which come with long legacies of oppression that include slavery, lynching, scientific experimentation, rape, poverty, domestic violence, disempowerment, and political under-representation–is callous. To accuse the bearer of these subject positions of dealing in “cards” – and of “playing” with them, no less – mocks both our history and the sexism and racism that remains alive and well. Allowing such narratives to take root and thrive – most recently against Senator Obama, and previously against Senator Clinton – both trivializes the fact that race and gender continue to be significant markers of discrimination in our society and disgraces those who have experienced and fought against racism and sexism.
The American public should demand better of our media and our candidates. It’s time to ask that they discontinue the “card” narrative, and prevent us from funneling our history of racism and sexism into a storyline of games and strategy.
The fact that people like Senators Obama and Clinton have managed to “thrive” as leaders in a country where only a very small percentage of our leaders are women or people of color, and where racism and sexism is still alive and well, should be celebrated. And along the way, the metaphors with which we craft these narratives should be thoughtfully vetted; they are, in fact, the storylines with which we mark our history, shaping how we see ourselves and each other.