When I was fourteen, I attended a summer camp. In between swatting mosquitos and eating bland food and sleeping on lumpy mattresses, we played games meant to teach us something about the complexities of the adult world we would all soon face. One game in particular has always stuck with me, and its lesson in self-awareness seems all the more critical in today’s divisive social environment.
The game worked like this: At the beginning of each round players reached into a large pouch and pulled a random packet of different colored tokens. Players then negotiated trades of tokens. At the end of the round, points were awarded for putting together sets of four of a single color. Some colors were more valuable than others, so player X might trade three green for one gold from player Y, if that gave X a complete gold set.
I don’t remember how many rounds we played, perhaps four or five. Each time, players drew a new packet from the pouch and began another round of negotiation. At the conclusion of the final round, the points from each round were totaled and the group was divided into “winners” and “losers.” First one group then the other was asked to describe their experiences.
Members of the losing group generally lamented realizing they weren’t very good at negotiation, or mumbled something to the effect of not being able to catch a break. More telling, every single one of the “winners” proceeded to describe how their superior negotiating tactics had given them the edge over the others.
It wasn’t until after everyone had spoken that the leaders of the exercise revealed a little secret; only the first round was fair. Starting in the second round, the pouch from which players pulled their “random” packets actually had two compartments separated by a divider. Packets of tokens on one side were rich in high-valued tokens, while those on the other side were not. Players who had done well in the first round were from there on out reaching into the rich side, while everyone else pulled from the poor side.
The point wasn’t to prove that games can be rigged. Everyone knows that. The real point was that no one who had done well realized the game was stacked in their favor. Even after being confronted with the truth, a number of them balked at accepting the idea that they weren’t as superior as they had thought.
The world will never be completely fair or equal. People vary in inherent ability and commitment and aspirations. At any level of opportunity, people who work harder will tend to do better, but it’s time for everyone to own up to the fact that we still live in a society where some people consistently get to pull from the good packets, and others don’t. Until we fix that, those that get the good packets need to own up to their responsibility to help out those who don’t.
Just recently, a further insight came to me. Something I probably should have realized a long time ago.
It's no doubt hard enough for someone who's done rather well to try to accept that maybe not all of that success was solely their doing. They can convince themselves they would have been fine without any help (or console themselves with a Caribbean cruise). I have to imagine it's much more difficult for someone who's struggling, who's never managed to succeed, to accept that their disappointment is despite the fact that they might have had a leg up on others who are struggling--people they may have looked down on, perhaps even convinced themselves are being handed numerous advantages they aren't.
There are many ingrained, institutionalized, biases that favor some groups of people over others--whether by race, economic status, or beliefs. That's not fair and needs to be addressed. But it's downright shameful when those in power direct the frustrations of struggling people toward specific ethnic or religious groups in order deflect from their own culpability in perpetuating that inequality from which they benefit so much.
When I was ten, I had my first and only serious encounter with the police. (Not that others wouldn’t have been justified. I just got smarter.) Long story short, in an effort to stave off the boredom of a hot summer between fifth and sixth grades, my friends and I began to experiment with Molotov cocktails. One friend and I had tested one along the railroad tracks on the north side of town, and when we stupidly returned to the same site for a repeat, we were confronted by someone who lived close by. I managed to convince the man my name was Bob Smith, but when asked for his name, in an act of spite my partner in crime gave the man the name of another of our group that he was mad at. The man let us go, and I thought perhaps the situation was behind me. It wasn’t.
A week or so later, I was in my bedroom one afternoon when my sister came in and told me there was a juvenile officer downstairs who wanted to talk to me. Turns out, the man who caught us by the railroad tracks had gone to the police and given them our “names.” No surprise, Bob Smith hadn’t panned out, but the other name had. And that led the officer to my house.
So, we sat down in my living room, with my father on the couch next to me, while the juvenile officer reviewed the facts as he knew them and asked me a lot of questions. Forty-five minutes later, he closed his notebook and looked at my father. I don’t remember exactly what he said. Something to the effect that he was satisfied I wasn’t a junior member of the Weather Underground (this was 1970 after all). He told my father he didn’t feel the need to pursue the matter any further, no doubt trusting my dad to handle the discipline.
When the officer had left, my father turned to me. Instead of yelling at me, or telling me how stupid I was, he instead gave me my first profound lesson in social justice. What he said was basically this: “Consider yourself lucky that you live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. If we were poor, or black, this conversation would likely have gone very differently. Don’t ever be ashamed of who you are, or where you come from, but don’t for a minute think that everyone in life is going to be treated as well as you will be."
That, and I was grounded for two weeks.