Playing the Game of Race: Hunter Cutting Tries out a New Metaphor for Understanding the Rules and Systems of Racial Inequality

By Cutting, Hunter | Colorlines Magazine, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview
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Playing the Game of Race: Hunter Cutting Tries out a New Metaphor for Understanding the Rules and Systems of Racial Inequality


Cutting, Hunter, Colorlines Magazine


The definition of race and racism is a hot point in media debate, and for good reason. Establishing the definition is key to controlling the terms of debate. At the same time, placing race and racism into a clear context for public consumption is no easy task. The role of race is often invisible in public debate, the meaning of racial equality is distorted, and racism is usually understood as a matter of individual attitudes, not a system of rules. When race is spotlighted, it is often confused with ethnicity (religion, cultural traditions, language, country of origin, etc.) as well as with phenotype (skin color, facial features, hair texture, etc.).

Clearly defining race and racism is a necessary communications task for racial justice advocates. It requires both a thorough understanding of the nature of race and an elegant script for talking about it.

Many people see race as something you inherit--it's in your genes. From this perspective, race is a matter of biology, even if it is only skin-deep. The race-is-biology perspective dominates media debate. Even racial justice advocates with a different perspective speak about race as if it were biological, using common terms such as "mixed race" and "descendants." Of course, some of this framework is grounded in an understanding of the positives associated with shared culture, history and geography and the ways that this shared "experience" as well as oppression have forged common ties.

A New Metaphor

Rather than understanding or speaking about race only as biology, it is useful for advocates also to talk about race as a label, a description that gets assigned to someone after they are born (when the world can see them), not when they are conceived.

This can be a tough transition to make. For most people, the label they have been assigned is nearly permanent, and it determines much of their fate in the world. In the U.S., for example, the odds of getting ahead are a lot better if you are labeled white. When your racial label limits or cripples your reach in the world, your racial identity can seem to define who you are as much as your genes.

To cross this bridge, racial justice advocates should consider discarding the race-is-biology metaphor and develop new metaphors for understanding and debating racism. For example, it can be powerful to use the metaphors "life is a game" and "race is a label."

Players in the game of life can play the game as if life were a puzzle to be solved by searching together for all the missing pieces. Much more commonly, however, players play the game as if life were a contest, a board game with winners and losers.

In the board game version, when each player arrives at the table he or she is assigned a different racial label (such as white or black). Labels are assigned on the basis of skin color, ethnicity, hair type, facial features, language, accent, and more.

Racial labels are assigned according to different rules in different countries. Most countries generally use the same set of criteria: skin color, accent, etc., but in each country these criteria are applied in different ways. |n the U.S., for example, if you have one recent African ancestor it does not matter how many of your recent ancestors were Caucasian; you are almost always assigned the label "black," according to the infamous one-drop rule. Meanwhile, a player with a Spanish accent who is assigned the Latino label in the U.S. might be considered white in South America because of the color of her skin and her European ancestry.

Different countries even have different and unique racial categories that don't exist in other countries (e.g., mestizo in South America, criollo in Mexico). However, just as music and movies from the U.S. have taken over much of the world, so too have U.S. racial categories, which are increasingly adopted overseas.

Racist Rules

In the racism game, racism takes on several forms.

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Playing the Game of Race: Hunter Cutting Tries out a New Metaphor for Understanding the Rules and Systems of Racial Inequality
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