Monday, August 13, 2007

Two Ways to Play the Privilege Game

A friend who works for the NCCJ - now the National Conference for Community and Justice, formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews - told me of an exercise that they run at their summer youth camp, Anytown. All the campers hold hands in a long line, standing side by side. The leader then reads items from a list of privileges and disadvantages. If you grew up in a house with more than 50 books, take a step forward. If your mother is a college graduate, take three steps forward. If you grew up with only one parent, take three steps back. And so on.

Kids at Anytown soon find that it is hard keep holding hands with their friends, with some moving way ahead, while others stay still or even fall back. The ones who move the furthest down the field can see graphically what an advantage their privileges have given them, privileges that most did not realize they had. For kids who choose to go to an NCCJ leadership camp, this experience fills them with a desire to work together to lift everyone for the sake of community and justice.

Another friend was telling me that his daughter had done this exercise as part of orientation at a fancy northeastern prep school. I don't think he said they were holding hands. The leaders, who had been brought in to teach this very privileged group about privilege, had added some options appropriate to that setting. "If your mom is a college graduate" got most of the kids to go three steps forward, though some of the kids on the biggest scholarships did not. But then they started adding some unusual instructions - if there is a building on this campus named for your family, take ten steps forward. The particular child who marched down the field at that instruction was so far ahead of the others that the instructors gave him a chair to sit in on the field.

What was different at the prep school from the justice camp was that many of the students came to see the privilege game as a competition to see how many privileges they could add up. My friend's daughter got the intended point. Many of her classmates, though, looked forward to each new set of privilege steps as a way to catch up to the lucky dog sitting in the chair downfield.

16 comments:

Marty said...

Forgive me if i do not understand how it is a "justice issue" that my mother went to college while yours did not.

Should a rich kid be blamed because his great-grandfather struck oil in the 30's? What does this child "owe" to society, as a matter of "justice"?

Gruntled said...

The point of the game, as I understand it, is not to blame or praise anyone. Rather, it is to show us the privileges that many of us start with that we don't even realize. What you should do with that realization is a different moral task.

Anonymous said...

Maybe there is another point. Trying to catch up rather than wallowing may be a winning trait here in America. I'm just saying.
just axing

Gannet Girl said...

A group of people did this exercise at a Presbytery event here some months ago. Pretty much a middle class mixed race group. The friend who participated told me that it created a dramatic visual by the end: the white men were WAY out front.

Anonymous said...

The exercise is the middle of a disscussion about privilege. It helps the delegates to understand where they fall in the castes of privilege and to better understand what privilege is and where it comes from. It is not to blame anyone for their privilege or lack thereof.

The justice issue comes in with the consequences of privilege. For instance, the upper class white boys don't understand that their friends in the bottom group work not just to have spending money or pay for their education, but to pay the bills in their household. That is a consequence of both individuals privilege and something that must be understood before these two delegates can continue the week of discussion of all other issues.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it is significant that those at the prep school saw this exercise as a competition--those in America who are willing to compete usually win. It sounded as if even those who were further behind at the prep school were eagerly wanting to catch up. I believe that this desire to compete is the point of bifurcation in those with less privilege.

Stuart Gordon said...

In the church I serve, which is one of relative privilege, the message of such exercises is consistently:

"Of those to whom much is given,
much is expected."

Gannet Girl said...

"...those in America who are willing to compete usually win."

The above comment demonstrates the lack of comprehension of privilege in this country that the exercise is designed to illuminate.

The comment is much more true for those already privileged by our society than for those not. There have always been many people more than willing to compete for whom "winning" on the same level as that taken for granted by the privileged is a most unlikely outcome.

Marty said...

Gruntled, yes I agree that all children should be made aware of -- and be eternally grateful for -- the advantages bestowed on them by their family, their forefathers, and their God.

It's those at the back of the line I'm concerned about (being pretty sure those at the front already know how priveledged they are). I think this exercise only teaches them to envy those ahead of them, and to feel like victims in "life's lottery".

Maybe I'm wrong...

Gruntled said...

Actually, as I understand it, the main effect of the game is to teach those at the front of the line that they are privileged -- something they have usually never thought about before, nor grasped the full extent of.

Anonymous said...

And how is the "awareness" supposed to change those at or near the front?
Chris

Gruntled said...

It is easy for people who are doing well to think they got there by their own efforts -- and therefore everyone else can too. Right now. Without help or generations to build up assets, skills, connections, etc.

Marty said...

I don't buy it. ;)

I think the BMW-driving freshmen at Princeton know just how fortunate they really are.

Michael Brazier said...

I never went through one of these exercises, and I'm grateful for it; for I know I would end up near the front, and I strongly resent being forced to enact a part in someone else's morality play.

After all, the person giving the instructions to step forward and backward isn't also following them; he stands, like God, outside the crowd, and moves them all according to his will. Not having to play the game is the greatest privilege of all.

Gruntled said...

Which suggests an interesting variant on the game. I can see no reason in principle why the caller should not also be following the instructions. A megaphone would solve the problem. (There is a Christian metaphor here).

paul said...

The undertones of class warfare are all over these reactions (and I am referring to my own reaction as well).

The stereotypes (from the opposite classes) are that the higher classes are unappreciative and the lower classes are lazy and unproductive. Both are false, but certainly have some element of truth to them. How can someone who knows nothing of want really appreciate what they have? Does it make them bad that they have no example to compare their blessings against? On the other hand, if you have nothing to start off with, it certainly makes being productive a bit tougher than it would be otherwise. Does that make them bad that they are not as productive as those in a more fortunate position?