Winners and Losers: Understanding Race in America through a Game of Monopoly

Special Note

I have to admit that this idea did not come from my own creative brain.  While attending a series of workshops on race and equality in schools I heard a presenter explain a teacher’s use of Monopoly to help explain privilege in America.  I took that metaphor and extended it to use in a staff development program.  This is the story I created to show my colleagues how race and social justice issues impact the lives of our students.

Monopoly

While rummaging through some old items I found in an apparently deserted storage building (I assume it was abandoned because no one was around to claim it, so I decided to claim it as mine), I found a classic game of Monopoly complete with all the original pieces.  “What an absolute joy!” I thought.  Most modern Monopoly games are themed to cartoon characters or movie franchises.  Finding a classic set was a stroke of good luck!  I took the set home and decided to play.

Of course, my first problem was I had no one with whom to play.  Luckily Amber and Kristine happened by and asked if they could join me.  I was reluctant at first because I wasn’t sure they could understand the intricate rules and strategy needed to master the game, but they convinced me to let them join in.

“OK, since this is my game I want to set up the rules.  First, I can buy properties on my first trip around the board.  You two can buy properties after you’ve made it around the board once.  Also, I get $300 each time I pass ‘Go’ and you two get $200 like the rule book says.”

Amber and Kristine looked confused and then mad.  Amber said, “That’s not fair at all.  Let’s just start the game with the same rules for everybody.”

“No,” I replied.  “It’s my game.  I found it and took the time to set it up.  If you want to play it will have to be my rules.”  The girls resigned themselves to playing by my rules.

After a couple of hours of playing, each of us owned all but one railroad.  I owned four complete sets of properties and parts of two others.  I had hotels and houses on each of my full sets.  Amber and Kristine even managed to have one complete set each and parts of others.  They owned houses and hotels, although not as many and I had.  Suddenly, two other kids from the neighborhood, DeMarcus and Rosalita walked over and wanted to play.  At first I didn’t want them to join in, but I thought I could make even more money with more players, so we agreed to let them play.

To make things fair, the four of them insisted that I take the same payment for passing ‘Go’ as everybody else.  With consistent and equal rules for each player, everybody had a fair chance at winning the game, I said.

Before we even completed one rotation around the board, Rosalita said, “I’ve already used my $1500 having to pay rent on every property I’ve landed on.  How am I supposed to play the game like this?”

“The same rules apply to everybody,” I said.  “If you want to win you’ll have to work harder and learn more of the game’s strategy.  Maybe then you’ll move up like we did.”  Rosalita sulked but continued to play.

Marcus kept playing, but he never smiled.  The entire time he sulked and scowled.  He made me nervous.  Honestly, I didn’t like playing with him.

Believe it or not I ended up having to sell a couple of properties to Kristine and Amber.  They were getting more adept at playing the game by working together.  It was just my bad luck.  I had cash flow problems.  I hoped to buy that last railroad but DeMarcus got lucky and landed on it before I did.  Maybe if he landed in jail and needed quick cash I could get him to sell it to me, I thought.

When it was Rosalita’s turn again she refused to roll or move her piece.  “I don’t understand the joy you see in this.  It’s simply not fair!  No matter how many times I collect money from passing ‘Go’ or from the Community Chest you guys just end up taking everything.  I have no chance of winning this game!”

After hearing Rosalita’s protest, I was appalled.  “How can you sit there and refuse to move your piece!  I am offended!  Look, Rosalita, the game has the same rules for everybody.  We all get the same amount each round and we all started with the same cash in had.  You know what?  You are just ungrateful and disrespectful to me, the other players, and this great game we are playing.  You should be ashamed!”

Rosalita continued to sulk.  Even though her protest didn’t take away any of my properties or money in my bank, I was still angry that she showed such disrespect to me, the game, and the people who’ve played this game many times over the years.  How ungrateful she was for me sharing the chance to play  my game!

It wasn’t long before DeMarcus’s smug face became flush with anger.  He landed on one of Amber’s properties with a hotel and he was nearly bankrupt.  He took the few dollars he had left, threw them on the board, and knocked over two of Amber’s hotels.

“DeMarcus!  How can you be so crude and hateful!  You landed on that property fair and square!  You know what, your piece just needs to go to jail.  And since we decided to make the jail a property that can be bought and sold, I own the jail and have a financial incentive to keep you and any other player like you in there as long as possible,” I said.  “I don’t think you were born to play this game.  You don’t have the right qualities to be successful here.”

When things settled down again, Marcus and Rosalita managed to accumulate a little bit of money and were able to buy a couple of properties off Amber and Kristine.  I don’t think Amber and Kristine were having as much fun because they weren’t making money as they had earlier in the game.  They looked tired and discouraged.

“Come on, you two!  We can do this!  I know you’re frustrated that DeMarcus and Rosalita are taking some of our money.  You know, we could go back to the way the game was before they joined it.  We could let me take more money for passing ‘Go’ and then I can buy up their properties over time.  I’d let some of that money trickle down to you two so you won’t have to think about selling your properties.  DeMarcus seems to spend most of his time in jail anyway and I believe Rosalita doesn’t meet the age recommendation for the game.  We can just make her leave and divide up her property and money.  Just think about it; we can make Monopoly great again!”

Commentary

The first time I heard the idea behind “white privilege” I was appalled.  I felt that my hard work, the long nights writing papers, five years working multiple jobs without taking a single day off (not even holidays), and the nights I lay awake in bed wondering how I would buy groceries the next week were being thrown out the window.  It seemed as if I were being told the only reason I was a success in life was because I was a white man.  Over the years I learned that white privilege is not about discounting any success I have nor is it about saying I have earned what I have in my life.  The reality is this:  The game of life in America does not begin at the same starting point for all people, nor does the game progress equally for all people.  Our nation’s history limits the equality of opportunity.

As a white man I do not leave my house each day wondering how my skin color will impact my day.  I do not worry that my white children will be looked at by authority figures in any particular way because of their race.  In essence, my life can be devoid of racial issues unless I choose to confront them.  That is my white privilege.  I can choose to deal with race or I can choose not to.  For my friends and family of color, that is not an option.

I know a lot of my fellow white folks will bristle at the content of my post, but I’m not concerned.  I’ve seen too much suffering in the eyes of my children of color over the years to be concerned about political approval.

I will never understand what it is like to be black or Hispanic in America.  But what I can do is listen to people of color and work toward understanding the issues they face.  Once we learn to listen first, we can come together as a people.  America has always been great for many of us.  I believe the potential is there for America to be great for all us.  That, my friends, is what I am working for.

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