“…But what does this have to do with today?” Discussing Race and Systemic Inequality [Part II]

“We’re the rainbow team!” Marcus announces, two days into our section on racism and structural oppression. I have just split the class up into two table groups based on whether or not they are wearing the color red. We are about to play the card game I created to explore systemic discrimination. Previously, I had been calling the groups the “red team” and the “not-wearing red team.” I guess they don’t like being defined by what they are not.

Grinning, I deal in the teams from their respective decks (the red team is privileged with face cards), and then ask the two teams to each send half of their players to the other team’s table, so that everyone is mixed up. “But remember what team you’re on!”

With a sudden eruption of activity, the students begin playing, and the room fills with laughter and the gleeful or dismayed exclamations of fourteen twelve-year-olds. I can’t help but smile as I watch them play; it’s the most alive I’ve seen them outside of recess.

After about five minutes, I ask them to pause. “Okay, everyone count your cards – without looking at them! Who is winning?” Three out of the four students with vastly more cards than their peers are from the red group. “That’s interesting,” I say, “Why do you think most of them are from the red team?”

Faith immediately suggests that the red team was given better cards at the start of the game. “Maybe,” I reply simply, trying to hide my delight.

“Oh, well they also had that rule where they got a card if they couldn’t get back in! We don’t have that,” adds Marcus, looking supremely disappointed.

“You’re right. Ok, so when we start playing in a second, I am going to remove that rule,” I tell them, “Now everyone will have to knock to get back in; no one gets a card from me.”

I start to ask them to resume playing, but Marcus interrupts me. “No, that still won’t be fair,” he says firmly, “They already had that rule for a long time, now you have to give it to us.” I am thoroughly impressed. I had no idea students would be able to make that connection so quickly.

“Well, that’s not how the game works. The rules have to be the same for everyone now.” He continues to frown, but doesn’t protest any further. “But first, is there anyone from the red team who is currently out?” A brilliant and generally shy Indian boy named Ayjay raises his hand, along with Will and Danielle. “From the red team,” I repeat. Everyone but Ayjay lowers their hand, frowning. “Okay, here’s a card – it’s the last one you’ll get from me,” I tell him, dropping a face card onto the table and ignoring the various cries of “that’s not fair!”   

Soon, students are happily playing again. I watch as Faith and Danielle stare intently at Caleb and Alisha’s card battle, knocking and then scrambling to snatch up the doubles before the winner takes them in. After another five minutes, I stop the game. “Okay everyone, please keep your cards and come sit on the carpet.

“So who won?” I ask, “Go ahead, count your cards.” This time, there are three Big Winners, and two of them are from the red team. All three of them have well over twenty cards each.

“Why is that? I ask again.

A rush of excited and bitter yells suddenly overwhelms me. Though students’ individual responses are at first hard to discern, I hear the word “unfair” again and again. Faith repeats that she thinks the red team was given better cards. I pause, waiting for the commotion to ebb with a placid expression, appreciating how all of the students’ answers focus on the structure of the game, rather than each player’s competence, or lack thereof, at playing it. In the mainstream discourse on those who “make it” economically (or don’t), the last thing people tend to mention is the unequal opportunity structure of this country.

When the din finally fades, I tell them, “Faith is right. I manipulated the decks before we played and gave the red team face cards and only gave the rainbow team number cards.” I sit through another wave of exclamations, smiling this time. “Why else do you think the reds won more?” I ask them a moment later.

“That rule!” Marcus cries.

“Yeah, that rule that kept giving me cards when I got out, “Ayjay adds.

“But why does that matter? I took away that rule during the second round so it would be fair,” I assure them, feigning confusion.

“But we still had our cards from last time!” calls Hakim through a wide grin. He was one of the winners.

“That’s right,” I say, “You all kept your cards, even though you won them with unfair rules.” I ask Marcus to repeat his point about giving the rainbow team the free card rule in order to make it fairer.

“So even though I eventually made the rules the same for everyone,” I sum up, “And that seems like it’s fair, really it’s not, because it ignores the fact that the rules favored one team first.” I pause, allowing a moment for the point to sink in.

Alisha breaks the silence, “Wait, so are you gonna give something to the winners?” she asks hopefully.

“Didn’t we just figure out that the game was rigged? Do you think it would be fair if I awarded the winners?”

Most of the students respond with an unequivocal “No,” and I can’t help but notice the winning students are less emphatic in their reply.

“So if this game were supposed to represent something real in society, what do you think that is?”

Alexis’ hand shoots up. “Racism.”

“Good, why?”

She scrunches her nose. “Because you privileged one group.” Alexis’ vocabulary consistently amazes me. As a class, we expand upon her answer, detailing the privileges of the red group and how the structure of the game mirrors the material privileges and disadvantages of whites and people of color in the US.

However, as I began to make the parallels between the game and real life discrimination explicit, pointing out how blacks were legally barred from well paying jobs, educational institutions, and housing, Alexis strikes a very different tone. “But what does that have to do with today?” she snaps, rolling her eyes. Is she already exhibiting white resentment toward discussing the significance of historic racism?

“Everything,” I tell her, “Those face cards that people started with didn’t go anywhere – the people who won them when the rules were unfair still had them at the end of the game, even after the rules were changed. The new rules didn’t make them give up anything they had gained under the discriminatory rules.” Alexis remains quiet, chewing her bottom lip without looking at me, and I can tell she is thinking hard.

*      *      *

There are only two blue-eyed students in the class; the rest of them have brown. They all stand in a line, and I watch as Naomi takes each of their invisible job applications with a mock-thoughtful expression. “It would be illegal for Ms. Pierre to only allow blue eyed people to apply,” I narrate our simulation, “So instead, she takes all of the job applications, but only seriously considers the ones from blue-eyed people.” It’s the penultimate day of the identity unit, and our last lesson apart from the final writing assignment, which we will do tomorrow.

“Instead of deciding between fourteen people, how many is Ms. Pierre actually choosing between?” I ask the as ‘applicants’ sit back down on the carpet.

“Just two,” offers Stacy.

“That’s right, just Alexis and Sara. All the rest of you weren’t even considered by Ms. Pierre or her company, because they are discriminating against brown-eyed people. So for Alexis and Sara, there really wasn’t that much competition.”

“Well, what’s the problem then? I got the job, didn’t I?” Alexis asks pointedly. Behind her, Jaden nods vigorously.

Naomi and I are appropriately unsettled, but I try and remain composed. “So you think it’s right and it’s fair that you got the job because other people were discriminated against?”

“Well, what good is not taking the job gonna do?” Alexis counters.

“Yeah!” Jaden adds, “If she doesn’t take that job, the next blue-eyed person that applies will.”

“It’s true – if she doesn’t take the job just because she knows the company is racist,” Will jumps in, “Then she’ll be out on the street along with the brown-eyed people that couldn’t get the job, and then some other blue-eyed person will just take it…”

Faith, who had previously been hugging her knees and staring absentmindedly at the carpet, suddenly lights up. “But what if they boycott it?” These simple words trigger more “Ooohs” than I can track, and the students begin to talk over each other with their revelations.

Will works through it aloud. “Oh yeah! So, if every blue-eyed person were to not take that job because it was discriminating…” He trails off, his eyes growing so wide I worry he might strain himself.

“…Then maybe that employer would be forced to stop discriminating,” I finish his thought. The class seems to breathe a collective sigh of comprehension, and I know we’re ready to move on.

For the second part of the lesson, Naomi and I pass out a list of white privileges that I composed to be accessible for sixth graders, drawing largely from Peggy McIntosh’s famous article, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege. We ask students to read over and discuss the list in pairs before exploring it as a group.

“We’re going to go around the circle now, and I want each pair of you to share one item from the list that you found surprising, interesting, confusing, or important,” I tell them about ten minutes later. As we go around, it becomes clear that students are most fixated on the privileges that have apparent exceptions, such as the ability to find foods that fit white cultural traditions.

“I don’t think that’s true,” Jaden states, “At my grocery store, they have lots of food from all over.” Naomi and I tell him that unless he is shopping at the International Foods Market, his grocery store probably has an aisle or two dedicated to culturally diverse foods, but not much more. But Jaden is insistent, so Naomi shares a couple stories about being unable to find Haitian food locally, and having to shop around to even find black beauty products.

“But what about Amherst Chinese?” Alisha asks. “There are lots of Chinese restaurants around.”

“But do you really think that the Chinese food you eat in those restaurants is anything like what Chinese people actually eat in China?” I reply. It is clearly the wrong tactic, as several students nod their heads earnestly.

“Yeah,” Stacy says, “Especially if there are Chinese people working there.” Thankfully, Ms. D is in the room at the time. She tells the class that her son works at a Chinese restaurant and often notices that what the Chinese employees eat on their breaks is nothing like what’s on the menu. While her story ends this debate, it is only the first of many.

Jaden seems to take particular issue with many of the items on the list. As a very light skinned boy of Puerto Rican descent (Naomi and I both read him as white initially), I often wonder how he thinks of himself. “Black people have a lot of these privileges too,” he tells me, “They are in the newspaper, and in sports and music.”

“You’re right,” I concede, “Black people are certainly represented in sports and music – it’s a notable exception. But you know, a lot of that has to do with the fact that white people have a long history of allowing black people to entertain them, so in a way, black representation in those areas makes sense.” This point seems to go over most of their heads, so I add, “But black people are only one group of color, what about Asian representation? Or Native American? Besides, remember the ‘one-hand rule?’ A few exceptions still prove the rule.”

Jaden considers this for a moment, still eyeing the list with skepticism. Eventually, he mumbles a begrudging, “Okay…” and soon, it is his turn to share an item from the list. He mentions the privilege of being able to talk with your mouth full or be late without having people put it down to your race. “I don’t get this one. These things are just rude.”

“Yes, but it’s about those rude things not being attributed to the color of your skin if you’re white,” I reply.

“But no one of any color is supposed to be late!” he cries, “It’s just rude!

Caleb stops poking Marcus in the leg with his pencil long enough to reply, “Yeah, but when white people are late other people don’t say ‘oh, it must be because you’re white.’”

Jaden frowns. “It’s still rude…”

Faith and her partner are up next. They talk about the privilege of being able to purchase “flesh” colored Band-Aids.

Immediately, Alexis, Jaden, and Will cry out in protest. “But those don’t match anyone’s skin tone!” Alexis insists.

“True, but whose do they match more?” I ask, and Will slowly nods in understanding.

Alexis persists, holding out her arm, “But look – I’m white, and they wouldn’t match my skin!”

“But what about mine?” Naomi asks, rolling up a sleeve. “If I have a cut on my arm and want a Band-Aid that blends in because I need to look professional, what am I supposed to do?”

“Get superhero ones.”

“Try the clear ones.”

“Roll down your sleeve.”

“But why should I have to make all these accommodations?” She asks, “Shouldn’t I be able to buy Band-Aids in ‘flesh’ color just like white people?” The class is silent. “That’s always what it comes down to: people of color are considered ‘different’ by society, and have to make accommodations white people don’t, because white people are considered ‘normal.’ Everything is made for them.”

The class remains still, absorbing Naomi’s words. After a moment, I ask students to look at the list and try to find examples of the type of privilege Naomi is talking about – the privilege of being ‘normal.’ It seems a fitting place to end the lesson. To wrap up, I ask the class to picture the “average American.” “What race is the person that you are picturing?” Going one step further, I ask them – regardless of whether or not they believe – to picture Jesus.

“Whoa!” exclaims Will, comprehension dawning, “He’s white too!” The power of normalization is truly astounding, and I think they are beginning to see it.

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