People playing the race card is like me playing the grief card.

For a full year after my sister died, I played what I would term the “grief card.”  Like the “get you out of jail free” card in Monopoly, the grief card will also get you out of things for free.

And some of them are undeniably completely legitimate. Like, when my friend’s mom was driving us to the hospital at 80 mph in a 65 zone so that we could get there before she died — we got pulled over. After some (intense) communicating with the Highway Patrol officer the situation we were in, he let us go. My friend’s mom continued to speed us the rest of the way. We got out of it because the emergency-about-to-become-grief card.

She died on a Sunday, and on Monday, my brother and I didn’t go to school. Our family friends took he and I and their kids on a long, all-day hike instead. “They don’t need to be in school today,” our family friends had told our parents. They were right, we didn’t need to be in school. Our sister had just died. We needed to be with people who loved us and loved her, out in the quietness of nature to process and breathe and get a second away from heart-crushing grief.

That’s what the grief card is for. To get you out of the current circumstances and to get you away, even just slightly, even just for a moment, from heart-crushing grief.

Every year on the anniversary of her death, a friend of mine and I would ditch school (with our parents full knowledge and consent) to do whatever we wanted. Go to the movies. Go on a hike. Get our nails done. Whatever we wanted. Some people start to say this is an abuse of the grief card. I don’t.

But soon into the first year after her death, I realized I could abuse the grief card. I learned which teachers I could go up to and say the magic words: “I just can’t do this today. I’m dealing with too much,” and they’d say “ok,” mark me as having been in class that day, and then let me walk out the door, no questions asked.

Similarly, the school security guard, when he’d find my childhood best friend and I in the back of who knows whose pickup truck in the school parking lot, blatantly ditching, he’d see it was me, and I wouldn’t even have to play my card — he’d play it for me. “How are you girls doing today?” he’d ask.

“Well, you know, not great,” we’d say. And then he’d nod, and say, “Be safe.”

And then he’d continue on his rounds.

I saw quickly that I could get away with anything. At the time I felt like I was taking advantage of the grief system. Like I knew I shouldn’t be preying on people’s sympathies to get what I wanted. But my words were always true: “My sister died.”

As I look back it’s clear to me that this rebellion. This “I can get away with anything” endeavor was clearly an acting out on the pain of my grief. I’d never been one to “take advantage” of situations like that before. But in my grief, in my pain, in my floundering, it was a diversion that let me take a brief break from the heart-crushing truth of the grief card: I was in a sea of loss, and I was drowning in my pain.

Later, as I dealt with my grief in healthy ways and started to push into it, and through it — as I began to heal and emerge not from grief, but with it as an accepted part of my life, I hurt less. I played the grief card less.

But the fact remains. My sister died. And sometimes that still brings great pain to the surface. Sometimes, I still play the grief card. Because the reality is, it’s a card I never wanted to be dealt, it’s a card I wish I never had the opportunity to use. But I do. And instead of monopoly, this is my real life.

I had this realization this week when I read an article about racist things people say on facebook without meaning to be racist. One of them was a critique of people who “always play the race card.”

When life hands you a card that is so hard to hold, it seems like at least a silver lining to get something out of it.

But taking advantage of that card doesn’t lessen the fact that you have been dealt it. Using it and abusing it is actually a sign of you acting out because you were dealt it in the first place. I really believe this.

What is different though is that nobody wants to be handed the grief card.

But being of a non-caucasian race should NOT be a bad card to be dealt.

All peoples and colors should be celebrated and valued.

Unfortunately, because of history and because of present culture and prejudices, the race card, like the grief card, is still too hard to bare sometimes.

And that is a damn shame. People should never have to lament the color they were born. Or the gender they were born. Or the sexual orientation they were born with.

But because our world and country are the way they are, those cards are often still very, very, hard to bare when they are dealt. And if those people play those cards, let it be a sign that our world has still made it a hard card to play.

If you feel like their abusing “the race card” or any other card, you probably don’t get it yet. And when we don’t understand, it’s best to seek understanding, and/or keep your mouth shut.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon