Playing Trump Cards

by admin on February 16, 2012

Many many years ago when I was in college, I was one of four girls who shared an on-campus apartment.  Of the four, I was the only student of entirely Caucasian heritage.  Very unfortunately, this bit of information does matter.

One of the girls I had lived with the year before, and we got along wonderfully.  The third I had just met, but was a lovely person.  The fourth happened to be African-American, whose parents emigrated to the US in or around the 1980’s from an African state (this is also important).  This fourth girl, whom I’ll call Emily, was initially a great roommate, though she did have us all sit down to discuss racial issues when we first moved in, which should have been a red flag to me.

As the semester progressed, Emily began to display a number of disturbing habits.  She claimed that due to her ethnic type hairstyle that she was unable to wash her hair.  At all.  Ever.  As a result you could literally smell her arriving most days.  She did not wash her bedclothes for months at a time, and we felt terrible for the girl sharing a room with her, as the air in that room became incredibly oppressive.  Despite the reports of a rapist targeting girls in campus housing we could not get her to lock the apartment.  Eventually it appeared that she was leaving the apartment door not only unlocked, but standing open, out of sheer spite.  She also left her much older boyfriend, whom we did not know, on our couch for practically days at a time while she went and hung out with other friends.  The majority of the time he reported that though she had invited him over, he didn’t even know where she was.

Things came to a head over the dishes, however.  She never washed dishes, and after some time we stopped washing hers for her.  At which point she began using our dishes and not washing them either.  We all removed our dishes to our rooms, and stopped washing hers.  Eventually the filthy dishes attracted flies, which turned into maggots, and was generally horrific.

As I was the least shy of our roommates I was the one who ended up having a conversation with Emily about the state of things.  I tried to be as gracious as possible, but she immediately flew into a tirade about how I was oppressing her, and how I should do this work for her to make up for the years of slavery “her people” had endured.  I found this ironic, as her family as stated before, moved here in the 1980s, and mine in the 1890’s, thus neither of us had ancestors that were either American slaves or slaveholders.  Of course, my reasoning approach did nothing but fan the flames.

Eventually, when she physically threatened me when I asked her to please not loudly play her music in the bathroom adjoining my bedroom before 6am or so, I went to the housing administration to ask for a transfer.  I found on discussing the issue with a counselor, that she had gotten there first, and reported that I was a horrible racist bigot, a comment that would permanently be part of my school record.  I was both crushed and horrified, as I was raised that to be prejudiced against someone over skin color would pretty condemn one to the circle of hell where you’re buried up to your neck in garbage and demons use your head as a croquette ball.

So I ended up moving out to live with my mother the rest of the year, which was calm and quiet.   I heard that Emily continued to have problems with everyone and everything, and ended up getting removed from a prestigious internship for yelling in anger at the middle school aged participants.  It’s clear that this girl had some serious issues, and though she made my life hell for quite a while, I do hope these many years later that she received some help and is having an anger-free life.     1001-11

This topic has the potential to be very explosive and combative so I am warning readers now that inflammatory comments will not be approved.    There does need to be discussion on how people can play various “trump cards” to “win” the hand.

trump card  n.

1. Games A card in the trump suit, held in reserve for winning a trick.
2. A key resource to be used at an opportune moment; a trump:

The race “card” is but one of many “trump cards” people can play to avoid the consequences of their actions or justify their actions or get others to cease holding them accountable to behave civilly or to win the discussion/conflict.  A few of the cards people are the handicapped card, the “I’m a weak woman” card, the “pity me” card, or my personal favorite to dislike, the “God told me this” card.   All are trump cards which no one can “beat” with anything better themselves and it effectively stops all conversation.

In my own experiences, the trump card I see used most often is the “God told me….” card.  It is often used when confronting someone about an action or behavior, as if God has given them the seal of approval on doing something others find inappropriate or ill timed or just plain wrong.  Geez, how can you trump Jesus?   Pastor Kevin DeYoung gave a sermon last May at a NEXT conference which included a snippet of how often young ladies have played the “Jesus wants me to only date Him” card as an excuse to end a dating relationship.  DeYoung had a hilarious response to that….”How many girlfriends does Jesus need?  Save some for the brothers!”   That isn’t to say that one cannot possibly hear from God to do or not do X but to use it to achieve certain results from other people is usually a manipulative avenue to ending all discussion on the matter in order to get one’s way.

In the OP’s story, nothing the roommates or the OP does comes off as racist yet Emily plays her race card immediately when confronted with the need to change her habits.   Emily has probably learned over the years that this is a powerful trump card that will stop adversaries in their tracks, frozen into fear of being labeled “racist”.   I think this is an unfortunate misuse of a legitimate resource.  There are times and places to use a “key resource at an opportune moment” when the issue really is about race differences or bigotry.   But using it when it is not the crux of the matter diminishes the impact, or “trump power” that card can have in legitimate applications.    The net result of this experience is that the OP, and probably her roommates, in the future are not likely to give a lot credence to charges of bigotry when used in a similar manner as Emily did.   And perhaps this is a good thing as they analyze for themselves whether someone really is racist as opposed to having a kneejerk reaction of believing the trump card without question.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

acr February 17, 2012 at 10:00 am

I have to fault the OP’s roommates for not supporting her. Also, I think the school should have made SOME kind of effort to investigate Emily’s claims before putting something so horrible as “racist” in the OP’s school record. That could very well have affected her academically, cost her internships, scholarships, etf.


Phoebe161 February 17, 2012 at 10:32 am

Two other “trump cards”: sexual harassment & bullying.

A man I know use to be the manager of a the local charitable social help agency. He told me that many times people would accuse he & the agency as being racist because they were denied aid. People would yell at him that if they were black person/white person (depending on their ethnic background), the agency would give them aid. (They were denied because they did not meet the criteria, which was not racially-biased.)


Palmanic February 17, 2012 at 11:59 am

The trump card that I hate the most is, “You are not a parent, so you could not possibly understand.”

I work with kids with disabilities and their families. While technically true — I am not a parent, so I do not completely understand the parents’ perspectives — I find that this is a quick and easy way for parents to write off any suggestions, ideas, or concerns that I have. Just because I have not given birth or raised children does not mean that I am totally bereft of any insight into your child’s emotions or behaviors, particularly since I have more than 10 years of experience working with children and families and an advanced degree in the subject.


livvy17 February 17, 2012 at 1:12 pm

To me, the OP should have fought the negative comment on her record. The “power” of a trump card is usually born from the fear of the person it is being used against. Men are afraid of “women’s problems,” whites are afraid of being labelled racist, etc. If we push back, and stress normal standards of behaviour for everyone, those cards lose their power, and further, lessen the divides that they promote in the first place. For example: women who report to me know better than to use the “PMS card.” I don’t care WHY you’re cranky – I expect you to act professionally. Usually anyone who tries it is also treated to a lecture of why that kind of behaviour hurts all women, making men think that we are unreliable and inferior to men. If someone plays the race card, same thing as LadyK’s brilliant mom. “I’m not upset with you because you’re black, I’m upset with you because you’re doing x, y and z.”


Anon this time February 17, 2012 at 2:11 pm

I had a co-worker who liked to play ‘trump cards’. The first time it happened, she had had her work criticized, by someone whose job it was to review her work. She had a very high opinion of herself that was not really supported by reality. She made frequent, sloppy mistakes, and the person who called her out was maybe not as nice as they could have been: not insulting, or degrading, just used a harsh tone and referenced the fact that she was not nearly as perfect as she believed herself to be. She filed a formal complaint with HR, saying she was discriminated against because of her disability (which no one in the office knew she had and never learned the nature of) and her religion (Jewish, which none of us knew either).

The second time, it was her boss doing the review. He called her out on the same sorts of sloppy errors. Later that day, several people overheard her on the phone saying that she was transgender (again, no one knew that!) and that her boss had reviewed her work and it made her feel threatened. It was just the strangest thing. But at this point, she was doing poor-quality work, was refusing to change it, was blaming everyone else in sight for everything, and was definitely creating a distraction. So they fired her. Everyone fully expected her to sue, but as far as we know, that hasn’t happened yet and this was several months ago.

She seemed to have serious mental health issues. There is more, much more, about this woman, but I think her tossing these ‘trump cards’ around was what ultimately made them decide that they couldn’t work with her to help her improve, and that they had to let her go.


Amanda H. February 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm

I’m always sad when I hear about people like this who seem to translate “racism” as “not being allowed to do whatever I please and not being given whatever I want.” That’s not how it works!

I’m also eternally boggled by tales from friends of mine in retail who have been yelled at by someone of the same race as them (regardless of what that race is; it’s happened to all kinds) as being racist, and also of the occasional customer who is clearly Caucasian who yells “it’s because I’m black, isn’t it?” Some people jump to trump cards far too quickly, without even stopping to think if their card of choice makes any sense in the given situation at all. And as Admin said, it’s most likely because they’ve come to find that those cards work. It’s sad, really.


Cat Whisperer February 18, 2012 at 1:44 am

Palmanic, regarding the “you’re not a parent, so you can’t possibly understand” trump card:

There is a way to pre-empt the playing of this card. And that’s to beat the other party to the punch in playing it.

Example of how this works: you are having a conference with parents about their child. You can see that they are defensive/resistant to what you are telling them. That’s your cue to play the trump card before they pull it out. You state, without any defensiveness or aggressive assertiveness, just as a fact: “I’m not a parent yet myself, and I’m not going to pretend that I have the depth of emotional involvement in your child that you do. That would trivialize the way I know you must feel about your child. But I have a decade of experience working with parents and children on these issues, I dedicated my education to learning how to work with parents and children who are facing the problems you’re dealing with, and I believe that we both want the best we can do for your child. ”

If you hit ’em with the trump card first, you’ve neutralized the power it has: yes, you’re right, I’m not a parent, and I’m not going to insult you by pretending that isn’t an issue for you. But we both want the same thing, to help your child, and there are things I can bring to solving the problem that you can’t.

You can use this approach to neutralize almost any trump card someone can play: I’m not a person with the issue that constitutes the “trump card”: minority race, sexual orientation, disability, gender, age, socio-economic status, whatever. So I don’t know how that feels, you’re right. And I won’t trivialize the issue by giving you any phoney-baloney “I feel your pain” statements or trying to tell you that I really don’t need to have the “trump card” issue to understand it. I acknowledge the correctness and the power of your statement of trump. But I have a real interest in working with you on (whatever the issue is). So now let’s move past that [the trump issue] and see if there’s anything we can do, working together, to actually solve the problem.

One caveat in using this approach: you have to sincerely mean it when you acknowledge that the other party is correct that you don’t have the investment in the issue that they have. This is important, because if you try to sweep that investment aside, you are trivializing the issue and indicating that you really don’t understand.

I got into this issue last October with a vet when my 15-year-old dog had to be euthanized. He went into congestive heart failure, and we had tried a number of different things to try to stabilize his condition and things just weren’t working. The vet made a comment to the effect that with her training and experience, etc., I shouldn’t be questioning her about what treatment was appropriate. I told her that it wasn’t her dog and she got all condescending and patronizing about how that wasn’t as important as her experience and training.

My husband literally had to physically restrain me from going after the vet at that point, because my dog was at that moment lying comatose on the examing table in front of me, and I was watching 15 years of love and companionship and memories coming to an awful termination right before my eyes. I was going to be standing there watching the light go out of my dog’s eyes as she put the lethal needle in him: then she was going to go home to dinner, and I was going to go home to a house where for the first time in 15 years, my dog wasn’t going to be there. And this awful person was trying to tell me that the outcome of this situation was as important to her as it was to me?

That’s kind of where the parents are coming from when they try to get across to you that you aren’t a parent and so you don’t understand what it’s like. It’s like the vet with my dog: the sum total of the difference was that to her, my dog was just a part of her job. To me he was family. When he was euthanized, she might think about him occasionally in a professional capacity, about the medical aspects of the case, and she might even lose some sleep second-guessing herself about her decisions. But it doesn’t tear a hole in her life that he’s gone, because when push comes to shove, he’s just a part of her job and not a part of her family.

And that, I think, is what the parents who throw the “you’re not a parent” trump card are trying to tell you. JMO.


Angel February 18, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Unfortunately it’s a sad reality of life that people will use any and all excuses to avoid having to do any work–and that includes being a contributing member of a household. If it wasn’t a race card, it would have been something else. A lot of this mess could have been avoided if all the room mates would have gone to housing together, presenting a united front and got this pyschopath removed from your room BEFORE things got really bad. If enough people complain, surely this nut does not have a leg to stand on.

The fact that this crazy person actually got housing to listen to her is really what is the most disturbing thing. If I were the OP I would have fought the allegation that she is “racist” tooth and nail. There is absolutely no basis in fact for that claim and for this nut to make her claims and have it put on your permanent record is simply deplorable. What is even worse is that the housing department listened to her. Disgusting.

I am sorry for what you went through, OP, however, if more people would stand up for themselves and present a united front, there wouldn’t be nearly as many nuts in the world because they would then know they cannot get away with acting like a nut. Because they will not get their way.


Etta Kett February 18, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Someone commented playing the race card is often a racist move itself, I must agree. If you blame your race for your bad behaviour, you are slandering every person who shares your heritage, and in fact, feeding into negative stereotypes that xenophobes carry.

Card-players, you can blame yourselves for keeping the hate alive.


Enna February 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm

When I was at sixth form one student worked at a restuant and she said she had got a record for being racist to a customer: a vegetarian complaiened that there was some meat on her pizza, the student offered to get the manager so customer could discuss it. I thought that was unfair as this student wasn’t a racist. And she wasn’t the kind of person who would be rude to someone like that. The saying “the customer is always right” is incorrect.


MjayE February 19, 2012 at 9:01 pm

I used to work part-time at a 7-Eleven. This “gentlemen” came in with a 100 bill for a gallon of milk. We are not allowed to except that large of a bill for a three dollar item. I told him and he yelled at me for being a racist. We are both white, I just burst out laughing.


June February 20, 2012 at 1:13 pm

@Palmanic– Yes! And, “You can’t possibly know what love is until you have children.” What?


Caroline February 22, 2012 at 2:55 pm

I have a family member that when pregnant would laugh and say that she could play the pregnancy card. She used this often to get “her way”. As in we cannot have chicken for dinner as just the thought of it made her ill. Or she could not vacuum because she was pregnant. Or when she forgot someone’s special day it was because her pregnancy was sucking up all of her brain cells.


Mabel February 22, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Emily sounds very selfish and immature. It sounds like people cottoned on to her later on, though. That’s a good thing.

I’ve had the “you’re not a parent” card played on me. It was during a discussion about kids that I contributed to by relating an anecdote about how I was anxious about my former stepdaughter’s first day at kindergarten (hoping she liked it, etc.). I was told “You didn’t give birth to her, so you can’t possibly understand what it’s like.” I was stunned and speechless and after they went on talking, I slipped away from the conversation.

Now I wish I would have said in reply, “You know, in one sentence you’ve just insulted not only stepparents, but every single adoptive parent, foster parents, guardians, etc. My feelings are just as valid as yours whether I gave birth to her or not.” I plan to use that reply if I ever get that card thrown in my face in the future.


Patty February 23, 2012 at 11:45 am

Sooner or later we all have to deal with such trump cards, it doesn’t matter which race, religion, sex, age we are – like many pointed out, there are quite a few trump cards to be used. It’s always hard to react properly, as quite often it would just stir a worse controversy. When it happened to me (race card, for something very stupid, an altercation on the street), I chose to stay calm and walked away, because insisting on the point would have only given my “opponente” more fuel for his cause. More often than not, people who resort to trump cards are quite aware of what they’re doing, so there’s no point in discussing or reason with them. In this case an institution (school) was involved, so it is of course a much bigger deal, especially if a written statement was presented. In the end she went away living with her mother, which could sound like giving up, but probably was the only reasonable thing to do. Often bureaucracy is equally deaf to reason.


Angela June 14, 2012 at 1:38 am

I’ve had about every trump card tried on me as a high school teacher. The race card has been played quite a few times. I just ignore it and get back to the original dispute. But yes, it is hard.

I don’t think there is a need to say, “I’m not a racist.” or anything showing you’re being defensive. I don’t believe you should have to defend yourself against idiots. They pop up in ALL cultures and ethnicity.

That is unfortunate that the housing counselor noted down the part about being a bigot in your college record. If I were you I would break into the housing office and destroy that record.


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