Notes on Selina Thompson’s Race Cards (2014)

This essay was first written in preparation of a lecture on ‘Reading the Stage’, a first-year course on the Theatre Studies programme at the University of Glasgow. 

As part of a body of work exploring Black British identity titled As Wide And As Deep As The Sea which includes Dark and Lovely (2014-5) and salt. (2016-), Selina Thompson’s Race Cards (2014- ) asks its audience to consider how and when we able or willing to talk about race. Originally commissioned by the Camden People’s Theatre and developed with BUZZCUT and the Forest Fringe, it has been (re)staged in a number of different contexts and forms around the UK: as part of the Birmingham’s FIERCE festival, at London’s Toynbee Studios as part of A Nation’s Theatre Festival of work from around the UK (curated by the Battersea Arts Centre), and at Leeds Central Library during Yorkshire Festival. It started life as a theatre performance before becoming a durational work and a travelling installation; it’s currently (in winter 2019) installed at BAM in Brooklyn, New York.

At the centre of the work is an act of performance writing: Thompson writes one thousand questions about race and presents to them an audience for answers. Here is an excerpt from the first sequence of Race Cards questions as reproduced in Forest Fringe: The First Ten Years (2016):

  1. Do you think there is white supremacy in liberal arts spaces?
  2. If there is, what does it mean for me to be here?
  3. And what does it mean for you to be here too?
  4. How do I negotiate your gaze?
  5. What has shaped your gaze?
  6. Who sees through the white gaze?
  7. What is the opposite of the white gaze?

In the version which I saw during BUZZCUT in 2016, it was installed as a durational piece in the vestibule of the Pearce Institute’s Macleod Hall, an intimate, wood-paneled space from which audience members were free to come and go. Thompson sat at a desk writing questions on plain white index cards, opposite an empty chair where participants could sit to write an answer. I can remember that the table had a pitcher of milk and a bowl of blackberries, both seemingly untouched. This space had the air of a Victorian museum where Thompson and the cards were exhibited, as well as a more intimate salon: a private space into which Thompson had allowed us entry as she worked while simultaneously subjecting herself to the audience’s gaze. Thompson’s questions – black ink on plain white index cards – filled the space, broken up by a smaller number of answers in red ink contributed by audience members, written on the reverse side of the cards.

[For another first person account of the work, see Kate Wyver’s review of the work at the Arnolfini, Bristol, for Exeunt Magazine: http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/review-race-cards-arnolfini-bristol/]

In the version staged later that year as part of the BUZZCUT ‘Out of the Woods Weekender’ programme during the 2016 Forest Fringe, Thompson reframed the work as a durational performance lasting eighteen hours over three days, with the question cards again presented on the walls of a windowless, darkened space in which she sat writing. At the time, she described it like this:

Inside this room, I am writing 1000 questions about race. I’m writing them on little white cards. I am writing questions so that they don’t live in my body quite the same way any more. (Thompson 2016: 164)

Entry to the work was conditional on participation in a two-part exchange: first by choosing a ‘difficult’ question from the wall and answering it, leaving it behind as a ‘a gift’ for Thompson, and then in choosing a second question that the participant was unable to answer before copying it out onto a second card to take away with them. 

In the following iteration of Race Cards presented at FIERCE festival, that exchange took place in Thompson’s absence, with 996 questions generated over the hours of the Forest Fringe residency re-written in white text on black cards. As in Edinburgh, audience members were given access to the space one at a time, for as long as needed or desired to read the cards and contribute an answer (as well as to generate a question of one’s own to take away afterwards).

What does it mean to ‘play the race card’? Or to be accused of ‘playing the race card’? In its most commonplace use, it’s an assertion which alleges that race is irrelevant to the matter at hand. It charges the player of the card with unethical behavior which unfairly forecloses further discussion: race is a ‘trump card’ (no pun intended) which shuts down debate. As Thompson put it in 2017,

It’s a term, typically deployed by white people or POC who are deploying respectability politics to put dissenting people of colour ‘back in their place’ to infer that race has no real effect in the world that we live in.

And more recently

In an interrogation, the person that asks the questions frames the conversation and holds the power. This is traditionally the place of whiteness. I wanted to occupy that space – and this is what the work seeks to do.

Like the tropes of the humourless feminist or angry black woman, it’s a rhetorical strategy which functions to delegitimize a person’s argument ‘even before the argument begins’ (Tomlinson 2010: 1–2) by framing complaint as irrational, impulsive, excessive and illiberal.

Through this dynamic, Sara Ahmed observes, the person making the complaint about a problem becomes the problem: she is at fault for speaking up and

always assumed to be bringing others down, for example, by pointing out sexism or racism in other people’s talk […] The angry Black woman can be described as a killjoy; she may even kill feminist joy, for example, by pointing out forms of racism within feminist politics’ (2009: 48-9)

The point is not merely that someone’s complaints are being turned against them but that this reversal serves to reinforce an existing social hierarchy. That reversal is punitive:

In an instant, a Black woman who pushes back against her marginalization gets transformed by society into the “Angry Black Woman”. Loud. Erratic. Uncontrollable. Full of attitude. The problem becomes the Black woman as opposed to the conditions to which she is responding. (Jones and Norwood 2017: 2044)

Race card accusations, then, can be understood as self-fulfilling prophecies in which

reasonable thoughtful arguments are dismissed as anger (which of course empties anger of its own reason), which makes you angry, such that your response becomes read as the confirmation of the evidence that you are not only angry but also unreasonable! (Ahmed 2009: 49)

Ahmed notes that the accusation of being a killjoy can turn on one’s failure or refusal to show public signs of happiness; here, anger is not only a sign of a failure to be happy but an inability to moderate one’s emotions so as not to disturb the general peace assumed to be enjoyed by all (regardless of evidence to the contrary).

The peculiar and perverse thing about race card accusations, though, is that they may not work simply by dismissing race-based complaints in their entirety in quite that same way that gender-based complaints, for example, are dismissed through the notion that we are ‘all’ equal now and that feminism has is unneeded. 

Despite the race card’s refusal of the significance of race, Elaine Vautier suggests that race card rhetoric involves the commonplace assumption that race is a divisive issue. Indeed, it is only through the belief that ‘white racist anxiety and racisms remain at the ready to be cultivated and mobilized’ (Vautier 2009: 139) that race becomes framed as a charged and even forbidden topic. In other words, it involves a paradoxical acknowledgement of the significance of race that simultaneously claims that references to race are inappropriate or irresponsible.

This move privileges the possibility of debate – playing the card game fairly – and its civil comportment – playing the game politely – over the work of actively confronting systemic discrimination. It privileges and sustains a liberal fantasy of good faith debate through what Nancy Fraser describes as the ‘bracketing’ of differences in an imagined space of equal exchange, regardless of how those differences might impact upon one’s ability to speak and be heard in the first place.

This is the bad faith ritual of white liberalism: recognizing sexism, racism, homophobia, disablism, class and other structures of inequality and violence and then proceeding in exactly the same way as before by assuming that these concerns can be set aside through sheer effort of will or through the simple exercise of being nice.

So where does Selina Thompson’s Race Cards sit in relation to these concerns? How might we begin to think about its form?

The first thing to recognize is how Race Cards reclaims race card rhetoric as a site of deliberately extended (even excessive) interrogation – not playing the race card once as a ‘trump card’ to finish the game but by engaging in the proliferation of questions about race. One of Thompson’s strategies to this end is repetition – note the sequence that begins ‘What is an appropriate response..?’

At one level, this form enacts a refusal to agree with the premise that race is unspeakable and a refusal to allow the charge of the race card to silence the speaker. Here, the prolonged and methodological nature of Thompson’s question writing – and her persistent presence in the installation version of the work – also defuses the notion that the race card is an irrational, knee-jerk reaction. It’s important to note that this reading doesn’t involve a disavowal of anger but quite the reverse: the work performs a resistance of the idea that anger is disqualifying or that anger is an inappropriate response to racism. It puts anger to work, and without pleading justification.

[Thompson – and Ahmed, referenced above – points towards Audre Lorde’s work on anger. See ‘The Uses of Anger’, delivered as a keynote to the National Women’s Studies Association in 1981: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/speeches-african-american-history/1981-audre-lorde-uses-anger-women-responding-racism/. 

We can also draw parallels here to how comedian Bridget Christie disarms the sexist trope of the humourless feminist by repeatedly identifying herself as a feminist, and an unfunny one at that – while simultaneously questioning why feminists should be expected to be funny at all. This is in my book – sorry for the plug but it’s in the library – Queer exceptions: solo performance in neoliberal times.]

Race Cards’ sequences of questions also work to put different kinds of racism into context with each other, prompting recognition of how structural racism isn’t simply constituted by racist acts (though there are plenty of examples of these) but through unmarked, explored and everyday assumptions about race that tend to vanish whiteness from being an object of discussion. Thompson asks:

  1. At what age do children realise they are black (if they are, of course)?
  2. At what age do children realise they are white?
  3. How do they deal with realizing it?
  4. When was the last time you were aware of your race?

In her book Why I am No Longer Talking to White People about Race, Reni Oddo-Lodge makes the case that ‘colour-blindness’ is another way of refusing to talk about race by pretending that we live in a meritocratic culture where a history of white racial dominance has left no mark. She writes:

White children are taught not to ‘see’ race, whereas children of colour are taught – often with no explanation – that we must work twice as hard as our white counterparts if we wish to succeed.

How does Race Cards asks us to ‘see’ race?

In trying to respond, you might consider how the question and answer structure of the work implicates its (frequently majority-white) audience and reverses the expectation that people of colour should be experts – and therefore educators of white people – on matters of race. As artist Harold Offeh offers of his own encounter with the work, the quality of self-reflection inherent to the text ‘means as a reader you have nowhere to hide; you’re in the full glare of the work’s startling rhetoric’ (Offeh 2015).

The nature of that reflection turns on your own identity – not just whether you are white, Black or a member of another ethnic minority, but where you locate yourself in terms of class, whether you are seen or identify as a woman, in relation to the spaces and places of the (still astonishingly white) arts sector and – in a way that might bring these threads together – whether you think of yourself as ‘liberal’. 

In one question, Thompson asks: ‘Who is more problematic – famous racist Nigel Farage, or the liberal journalist politely asking him questions?’

Though the work is structured around questions – and despite what I’ve suggested above – it’s not oriented on the pursuit of singularly definitive answers. You might notice the difference between the scale of a question about institutional racism in the arts and the available space on the back of an index card in which to respond.

In other words, if we’re serious about addressing any of the questions raised in the work, we have to go beyond its frame. Remember the exchange offered in the staging of Race Cards in Edinburgh: a question to take away with you.

Here’s a great long-read interview with Thompson by Sarah Gorman: https://readingasawoman.wordpress.com/2017/08/15/you-can-say-much-more-interesting-things-about-a-scar-than-you-can-about-a-wound-interview-with-selina-thompson/

And here’s conference paper on Thompson’s show salt. given by Gorman in 2019 – check her references for further reading: https://readingasawoman.wordpress.com/2019/08/16/you-can-say-much-more-interesting-things-about-a-scar-than-you-can-about-a-wound-selina-thompsons-salt-as-an-act-of-radical-softness/