My husband and I hated the game. It teased us with the relief of victory—ours, anybody’s—before cruelly forcing us to abandon all hope. Down, down to the bottom of the board, where we were doomed to wander the brightly-colored hell for all eternity. Chutes and Ladders was our kids’ favorite game, but whenever they asked us to play it, my husband and I would each rush to say, “Not it.”
Our shared hatred stemmed from the fact that the game was utterly random, things happened over which we had no control, and because of that frustrating combination, it went on forever.
Lately, I’ve been seeing Chutes and Ladders in another way, however, because I’ve been thinking about power, and its more explosive sibling, privilege. I teach college students, and I’ve been trying to help the ones who are white to see the power and privilege they have simply because of the color of their skin. It’s a truth many do not want to hear, so I’ve been trying to think of ways to get their existential fists down.
One day I decide to ask if they’ve ever played Chutes and Ladders. We talk about how a ladder brings you up, allowing you to go higher than you otherwise might have, moving you further along, ahead of those struggling behind you, whereas a chute drags you down.
At this point, they are still on board. They are probably lost in the glow of all those games they played with their parents and siblings. But then I tell them that many of the ladders and chutes in our lives are random. They often have little to do with us—our choices, our efforts, our goodness, our badness. Both chutes and ladders happen to all of us, and often they are beyond our control.
My students start to shift in their seats, so I turn to story.
I was born in 1971, I tell them. I was adopted by a physician and his wife, because my mom already had two sons, and she wanted a daughter. My grandparents, who owned a successful hardware store, decided to put money into a college savings account for me. Then the 80’s happened, and suddenly, my savings account was at a whopping 17-20% interest rate.
Here, the students laugh, because their savings accounts are earning 2% at best.
“I was able to go to a private college debt-free,” I tell them, “and have money left over. Two of my ladders were that I was adopted into a financially-stable family that valued education, and that my grandparents gave me money that grew and grew because of the interest rates. Did I have control over any of that?”
They shake their heads.
I tell them another story. One day my husband and I were late picking up our kids from daycare. He drove fast to minimize the damage. A siren soon blared behind us. My husband pulled over to the curb, and to our right was a field. Across that field was the church where our kids’ daycare was. As the officer walked up to the car, I opened the passenger side door, threw a “We’re late to pick up our kids from daycare” over my shoulder, and ran across the field.
Nothing happened to me.
“What could have happened to me?” I ask. I wait. I wait, because I know no one wants to answer me. But it’s critical that they answer this question.
Finally, a hand goes up. “If you were of a different race, you could have been shot.”
I nod. Quietly, I ask, “Did I have any control over being white?”
They shake their heads.
“Does being white offer me ladders?”
The students of color in the room nod immediately. One or two of the white students nod after a beat. I add, “It didn’t even cross my mind that I shouldn’t run from a police officer. That’s privilege. Chutes are the opposite. They are the things that pull you down and make life harder. Again, they are beyond your control.”
The mood in the classroom has changed, so I say, “Now it’s your turn. I’d like you to break into groups and talk about some ladders that you have experienced in your lives and some chutes. What are the things—beyond your control—that have lifted you up or dragged you down?”
I hear about fathers waiting for a transplant. I hear about parents who have loved them no matter what they’ve done. I hear about customers who ask, “No, where are you really from?”
By the end of class, some of the white students get it (the students of color always get it). What do they do with these ideas? I don’t know. But I hope, since the world they face will never lack chutes and ladders, that they at least strive to make sure that it’s not mostly chutes for some, and ladders for others. Because it’s not only hard to give up privilege, it’s hard to want to when you’re the one winning.