Star Power

by | Sep 15, 2021 | Outlook

It’s Only a Game

I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness,
not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.

Peggy MacIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, 1988

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 graduate student at Rutgers University in the second year of a doctoral program in education. One of my courses that summer was called Simulations in Teaching. A new instructional strategy – the use of simulation games – was being presented as an alternative to the more pedantic and rote approaches that had been common in public schools for a century. The professor, in appropriate fashion, was using a simulation game to exemplify their use.

Today’s game was called, Star Power. With little fanfare and almost no instruction, the game began with three helpers carrying coffee cans containing colored poker chips. We were each told to reach in without looking and draw out 7 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 the points we had in our hands and were told to divide ourselves into three groups: Those that had 100 or more points, those that had 50 or more, and those that had 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. It was the largest of the three groups. I felt a bit better.

We chatted in our group, not sure exactly what to do or say; instructions were sparse. Then round 2 was announced. New totals were put up on the board, again laying out the points needed for each group. The three helpers came around with the coffee cans again and I felt a surge of hope: I was about to get more chips. This time, maybe, I would be more lucky. I plunged my hand into the can, sifted through the chips and drew out my allotment. Then, disappointment: red, white, and blue. I had been unlucky again. Comparing my handful with the take of the others in my group, I felt comfort in seeing that if I was to remain in the low group, so would all of them. I casually looked over to the middle group. One of their players was excitedly getting up to move to the higher group. No one in the upper group moved.

When round 3 was over, I had an astonishing realization. The three coffee cans were not the same. Our group was being offered a can containing only red, white, and blue chips. I surmised that the upper group’s can only had gold and silver. Likely the middle group had a mixture. As the point totals needed to move into each group rose, two things occurred: First, it became clear that my group would never be able to get enough points to gain a higher status. But next, and more devastating to us, the rules of the game began to change.

On round 4, our group was allowed 5 more chips, the middle group 7, and the higher group 10. Round 5, we were offered 5 more, the middle class got 10, and the rich kids got to look inside their can and pick out 15. Every last one of them came out with all gold chips.

That finally got us mad. The game was rigged. We needed a group strategy and I suggested one: We could pool our chips and everyone would give me all their blue ones – those being of the highest point value we were being offered. By Round 6, I had enough points to move up to the middle class. I would bring my knowledge of the unfairness of the game and hope to spread the strategy to advance some enlightened members into the upper class. Then things would change.

But it was not to be. The first obstacle was that I was not particularly welcomed into my new group. These were my former classmates – friends, some of them. But they looked at me with suspicion and continued on with whatever their discussions had been up to that time. Not knowing what they were talking about, I was out of my depth. 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. I told them of the strategy that had gotten me into their midst, but it was only at the start of the next round that they paid me heed.

Round 7, as had the other rounds, started with new rules. But this time there was a nefarious twist. The upper class group was given this instruction: “All previous rules are discontinued; you make up the rules for this and all future rounds.” In a matter of moments, our upper class friends declared that the passing around of all coffee cans was discontinued – except for their group. And on the last round of the game, these “elites” made one final rule: anyone with a gold chip had to surrender it to them. My middle class group 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 original lower class group. What were they doing?

They had turned on each other. They were yelling. Their frustration was palpable.
What I saw sent a sick feeling of realization through me. We had been set up – all of us. The lower group had become disorganized, unable to rise above the limitations placed upon them 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 – and this was the kicker – to disadvantage the others. Our initial assignment to groups 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, most 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.

Privilege is invisible to those who have it and letting go of privilege does not come naturally. The most shocking lesson from the Star Power episode for me was the degree to which 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 can never have the resources to challenge their status. This was only a game. Or was it?