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Column: Only a game, or is it?

For For the Valley News
Published: 7/11/2020 10:20:11 PM
Modified: 7/11/2020 10:20:09 PM

I entered class that day with a bounce in my gait. My exit was less buoyant. I was about to be rudely awakened to the concept of privilege.

In the summer of 1973, I was a doctoral student at Rutgers University. One of my courses that summer was called “Simulations in Teaching.” A new instructional strategy was being presented as an alternative to the more rote approaches that had been common in public schools for a century. The professor was using a simulation game to illustrate its use.

Today’s game was called Star Power. With little fanfare and almost no instruction, the game began. Three helpers with coffee cans containing poker chips appeared and we were each told to reach in without looking and draw out seven chips.

On the board was the key:

White chips = 1 point.

Red chips = 5 points.

Blue chips = 10 points.

Silver chips = 20 points.

Gold chips = 50 points.

We added up our points and were told to divide ourselves into three groups: Those with 100 or more points, those with 50 or more, and those with fewer than 50. I looked at my hand with disappointment. I had pulled only red, white and blue chips. Games, as well as life, had taught me that having more points was going to be better. Resigned already to perhaps losing the game, I headed to my group.

We chatted idly in our circle, not sure exactly what to do. Then Round 2 was announced. New totals were put up on the board, again laying out points needed for each group. The three helpers with the coffee cans came around again and I felt a surge of hope: I was about to get more chips. This time maybe I’d be luckier.

I plunged my hand into the can and drew out my allotment: Red, white and blue. Unlucky again. Comparing my handful with the others, I felt comfort. If I was to remain in the low group, so would they. I casually looked over to the middle group. One player was excitedly getting up to move to the higher group. No one in that upper group moved.

When Round 3 was over, I had an astonishing realization. The contents of the three coffee cans were not the same. Our group was being offered a can with only red, white and blue chips. I surmised that the upper group’s can had only gold and silver. Likely the middle group had a mixture. It became clear that my group would never get enough points to move up. Even more devastating, we saw the rules of the game begin to change.

In Round 4, our group was allowed five more chips, the middle group was allowed seven, and the higher group 10. Round 5, we got five, the middle group got 10, and the rich kids got to look inside and pick out 15. Every last one of them came out with all gold chips.

That got us mad. The game was rigged. We needed a strategy and I suggested one: We could pool our chips and everyone would give me all their blue ones — those being the highest point value we’d been offered. By Round 6, I had enough points to move to the middle class. I would bring with me my knowledge of the unfairness of the game. Then things would change.

But no. Although these were my classmates, I was not welcomed into my new group. They looked at me with suspicion, turned, and continued on with their prior discussions. Yet I persisted. I had come with a mission and I was determined to see it through. I told them about the differing contents of the three cans and at first, they didn’t believe me. Their group had been offered the can with mixed colored chips, so it seemed paranoid to them that I was blaming my low score on anything other than bad luck. It was only at the start of the next round that they paid me heed.

Round 7 started with new rules again. But this time there was a nefarious twist: all previous rules were discontinued. The upper group would make up the rules for this and all future rounds. In a matter of moments, our “friends” declared the passing of all coffee cans discontinued — except for their group. And on the last round, these “elites” made one final rule: anyone with a gold chip had to surrender it to them. My middle class cohort looked at me with horror. I had been right, but it was too late for them to do anything about it. Sadly, I glanced over to my old compatriots in the lower group. What were they doing?

They had turned on each other. They were yelling. Their frustration was palpable. What I saw gave me a sick feeling. We had been set up — all of us. The lower group had become disorganized, unable to rise above the limitations placed on it from the outset. The middle group had turned complacent — aspiring to move up but careful not to upset the delicate balance that preserved their relatively comfortable status. The upper group had grown greedy, changing the rules each time to better advantage their group and — this was the kicker — to disadvantage the others.

Our initial assignments had been random. But once determined, our fates were sealed.

This experience was designed to make us feel the way people in the lower, middle, and upper classes feel. But we are not living in a game. The predetermined paths are real and, while both upward and downward social mobility do exist, many of us remain roughly where we started. Add the immutable trait of race, and the layers of wealth and status become that much more complex.

The depth of racism reaches well beyond bigotry, and privilege is invisible to those who have it. I learned those things from Peggy MacIntosh, who wrote White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack: “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”

Her 1988 article enumerated 50 ways in which she could go about the business of living in America with the relative certainty that her race would not hinder her. The list ranged from the essential — “I can go shopping alone … pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed” — to what might appear to some more trivial — “I can choose … bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin.”

Today, Black Lives Matter teaches us that the list must be expanded to include things we can do without fear of death — call 911 in an emergency, get a routine traffic ticket, go jogging in our own neighborhood. The most shocking lesson from the Star Power exercise was how a random group of otherwise well-meaning people could take their unearned privilege and manipulate the rules of the game to make sure that others could never win.

Letting go of privilege does not come naturally — a powerful lesson that I still need to be reminded of.

Nicole Saginor lives in Cornish.

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