Cards Against Humanity

“Make sexual tension great again. What’s a girl’s best friend? Being marginalized. I drink to forget fat chicks.” These are but a few examples of the card combinations generated by the popular card game Cards Against Humanity. A play on words of the phrase “crimes against humanity”, the goal of the game is to generate shocking word pairs; the most common rule being that within the safe haven of the game, no card is considered too offensive. People combine things like Auschwitz with a joke about parents walking in on someone with a partner or laugh about police brutality as a sex position. This game has been nicknamed as one for horrible people and yet it continues to be popular in a number of progressive social circles.

I will never forget my first experience with Cards Against Humanity. I was a freshman in high school. Excited to be attending my first coed gathering, I dressed to the nines and chatted anxiously about the event with friends all day. Once we arrived, the activities began. After running through the usual sequence of pre-teen party games, Truth or Dare, Would You Rather, Odds Are etcetera, someone suggested we play a game I’d never heard of before: Cards Against Humanity. “It’s just like Apples to Apples,” my friend reassured me.

Huddled together in the basement, we sat cross-legged with seven white cards in front of us and one black in the center. “How did I lose my virginity?” the black card read. I giggled with the kind of innocence only a naive 14-year-old could muster. How cool was I, to be playing this adult game with topics we had only heard discussed in hushed whispers by older kids or in hidden jokes on TV.

Then came the submissions. “Drinking out of the toilet and eating garbage,” “Men,” “David Bowie flying in on a tiger made of lightning.” A chorus of laughter erupted from the group. Such funny and shocking combinations. I couldn’t believe I had the privilege of being in on all the jokes from this decidedly adult game. “The Black side of Barack Obama.” More laughter.

I was confused. How did this fun, silly game take such a turn? When did I become the one who was (tangentially) the butt of the joke? My face got heated and I decided to brush it off. It was just one card, I told myself. Soon followed others about pedophiles, the Holocaust, and the KKK. As the cards continued to appear, it became clear to me that this was no longer just a harmless game.

Cards against Humanity has not always been a game I condemned. I have quite a few memories of laying in the summer sun giggling at cards about sex or in the winter, cuddled for warmth in my PJ’s around a table with friends cringing at the old references. But due to more conversations about microaggressions and the ways in which implicit bias negatively impacts the daily lives of BIPOC, I found myself re-evaluating a lot. And one of the first things on the chopping block was this game I had these few uncomfortable encounters with, passively playing as if the game had no real consequences.

I have typically found myself, as many kids of color do, silent about the little things (the insensitive jokes, the sly comments) in order to preserve the comfort of my peers. It can be really hard to call people out when they make uncomfortable comments and to hold people accountable for their inappropriate behavior. However, with the recent empowerment of BIPOC to speak up against these subtle daily microaggressions, I realize that I no longer have to sacrifice my own comfort in exchange for the “enjoyment” of the group. I continue to be reminded that we need to start having more conversations about the ways in which microaggressions contributed to the race-based stress that many of us BIPOC experience.

And that starts with removing things like these games that perpetuate a culture that allows for and encourages racially insensitive ideologies and validates the biases of people for the purpose of laughs. This “just a joke” culture (a phenomenon in which racist comments are marketed as unintentionally offensive or meant in jest in order to gaslight BIPOC people’s feelings about racist encounters) very much continues to harm marginalized peoples. We do not live in a post-racial society where Black and Brown peoples no longer face the repercussions of living in a culture that overvalues Eurocentric features, customs, and ideas. So having people joke about these things with friends for the purpose of a card game is inappropriate and unacceptable.

In the words of the NYT article “Letter of Complaint: Cards Against Humanity”: “Because the premise of the game is that you play the cards you’re dealt, players get points for creating shocking combinations, but don’t have to take responsibility for them. The genius of “Cards Against Humanity”, as a party game, is that it encourages intimacy by allowing players to violate norms together without worrying about offending one another.”

In the world of the game, people who consider themselves to be progressive can coyly reveal the offensive ideologies they harbor about foreign countries, people of color and womxn while supposedly being able to maintain their identity as an ally outside the walls of the game. This game validates the notion that one can continuously make racist comments and jokes without any repercussions because according to the game, it doesn’t mean anything when meant ironically. However, the behavior within the game and performative allyship it encourages has tangible consequences for the people who most directly experience the detrimental impacts of white supremacy and the patriarchy.

This might seem a little harsh for a card game. It’s hard for some people to understand how jokes about sex or the occasional comment about a marginalized group might contribute to the larger issues of oppression BIPOC face. The vast majority of the cards or combinations from those who play will be forgotten and most will laugh at the cards and leave the game with a warm sunny feeling about bonding closer to their friends through these “inconsequential” and “risky” jokes.

However, those who are at the helm of these jokes, do in fact remember these supposedly silly combinations and will be left to pick up the pieces of how to feel about their friends who laughed at a Black person being shot or a gay person being called a slur. It is important to recognize that these individual acts reinforce and contribute to the culture that continues to negatively impact BIPOC. These racist jokes about people of color or offensive comments about womxn are representative of our biases and contribute to larger issues like how the media portrays these groups on TV or how politicians speak about these groups to their supporters. These small-scale jokes or comments quickly have real-world consequences and allowing them to persist occurs at the detriment of BIPOC.

So, whether “Cards Against Humanity” is your favorite game ever or this is your first time hearing about it, I implore you to consider the ways in which your words and actions contribute to the continued oppression of Black and Brown peoples. Because racism, sexism, and homophobia didn’t start with “Cards Against Humanity” and it won’t end with the game’s removal either. But what brings us closer to a more equitable and inclusive society is our collective evaluation of and active effort towards dismantling these oppressive structures.