The first college course I taught was a section on General Psychology in Charleston, SC. The demographics of my class was about half white kids and half black kids. We were covering the chapter on Abnormal Psychology, so I gave what I thought would be a fun weekend assignment. Over the weekend, each student was to engage in an "abnormal" behavior in a public place, then record peoples' responses. Students were given safety instructions NOT to break any laws or institutional rules (example: talking in the library) and they were NOT to engage in any behaviors that might be considered threatening to people or dangerous in any way. I gave a few examples of "safe" abnormal behaviors like talking to self, standing backward in an elevator, invading personal space in conversation, etc..
Monday morning I was shocked at the outcome of this assignment. Despite following my safety instructions, almost all of the black kids got into trouble with law enforcement, store managers, and other authority figures in the community. Apparently, if you are a black kid in Charleston, behaving abnormally results in trouble. Conversely, white kids who behaved abnormally received the expected responses of laughing, pointing, ignoring, gossiping and avoiding.
Later when I recounted this story to subsequent classes, white students were typically surprised (as I was) at the differences in public responses to black versus white kids. However, black students hearing the story for the first time knew what the outcome would be before I ever said it. One middle aged, African American student who had children of her own, reported that she raised her kids to keep their hands in full view at all times whenever they were in a store or mall. As a white parent of white children, having my kids keep their hands in full view is something that never would have crossed my mind.
A few years later, an African-American colleague of mine, Anna, requested my help with her son who had recently gotten into trouble at school. Her son, John, was an honor roll high school student with no history of school behavior problems. However, he got into a conflict with another student and became defiant when the principal intervened. His punishment for defiance was expulsion for the remainder of the year. John subsequently apologized to the principal for talking back, but a hearing was set to confirm expulsion.
Anna had me and several other professionals who were familiar with John to speak on his behalf at the hearing. The Discipline Board consisted of three white, male, principals and one white, female principal. I felt the hearing went very much in John's favor, so I was shocked when the panel ruled to go through with the expulsion. I approached the Chair of the Discipline Board and made the comment that an all white, all principal, and nearly all male panel was inappropriate. The Chair dramatically raised both hands in the air and yelled out, "I knew it! I knew someone just had to play the race card!" Anna was embarrassed that I brought it up. It is very bad form for victims of racism to complain about their mistreatment.
Three months later, I was back before the same Discipline Board in support of another high school kid. On this occasion another honor roll student with no history of behavior problems had gotten in big trouble. This second troublemaker was Suzie, a cute, white, female who broke federal law by distributing marijuana brownies to her classmates. The legal penalty for this act is up to 5 years in prison and up to $250,000 fine. Again, the hearing seemed to go well for the student. The ruling? She was told never to do that again and was allowed to return to school the next day.
The Race Card: A term invented by bigots used to quiet victims of bigotry.