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Soon after the 2016 election, I was in a discussion with a friend of opposite political persuasion. I asserted that some, perhaps small, portion of the opposition faced by Barack Obama was based on unconscious racial bias and some portion of those opposed to Hillary Clinton had some unconscious gender bias. While I asserted that bias causes obstacles for the object of the bias, he asserted that some people hold back from criticism because they feared being (wrongly) accused of bias. He said that “playing the race card” can protect people of color from criticism.

I think what some people say and do is a result of bias – and what some do not say or do may be to avoid the accusation of bias. I don’t think we can prove how many are on either side of this – or which is more common. But my friend’s comment about the “race card” got me thinking.

We use the term “race card” when a person of color suggests race is an issue. We call it the “gender card” when a female suggests gender is holding her back. Clearly some women and people of color have whined and blamed lack of success (e.g., a promotion) on their gender or race. And surely in some of these cases the blame goes to their lack of qualification or competence at a particular skill. It can be off-putting if someone expects special treatment, or expects to avoid fair criticism, because of race or gender. Only these instances of whining and blaming are legitimately called playing a “card.” Unfortunately the accusation is used far more broadly.

How easy it is to use the “card” as an accusation – to shut down people of color or women. If those who aren’t white males can’t speak of possible bias without fear of being accused of raising a “card,” then we are muzzled. Accusing one of playing the race or gender card makes it impossible to point out actual bias. It is a good way to silence those who are not white and male.

How do you respond when someone claims to see the race card or gender card?