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.
Like this post? Subscribe to have new posts sent to you by email the same day they are posted.
Marjorie Stelmach says
Betsy, this article is wonderful. The retired teacher in me wants to return to the classroom, where I tried and tried and tried to communicate the invisible structures of privilege to my students, and start playing Chutes and Ladders. This article needs wide dissemination. Is there an educator’s publication you might send it to? I’m forwarding it to some St. Louis teachers I’m still in touch with. It shouldn’t be this hard, but oh, it is, it is. I recall the fist-to-the-gut feeling of learning the lesson myself — at 21. No denial possible. I have never forgotten the pain of sudden self-knowledge. The shame of the mirror.
Clarence White says
The Minnesota Humanities Center has several workshops for teachers exploring “absent narratives” and include discussions about understandings of our world that are right in front of us but are stories not carried by the dominant narrative or settler history. They have teacher institutes as well as workshops on how teachers can use the books “Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota” (http://www.mnhs.org/mnhspress/books/blues-vision) and “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota” (http://www.mnhs.org/mnhspress/books/good-time-truth).
Teachers come for several reasons. One, they often want to become more effective in carrying a curriculum that includes stories and perspectives that reflect the reality of their students. Two, they are often teaching in high schools or community colleges where much of the population is white and they feel the need to interject something that, one, gives a more accurate reflection of history and society, and two, will make their students more culturally competent and better citizens. Three, many teachers and librarians and program officers want to increase their own competency, not just in the classroom but in general.
You can see many of the offerings from the Humanities Center here: https://mnhum.org/calendar/
For those who cannot be in Minnesota, the Humanities Center has many resources available on their web site. You might also want to check out the Innocent Classroom Project closer to home in Omaha, led by Alexs Pate.
Always remember, that there will always be a very substantial portion, even a majority, who will not take the lesson. When privilege is threatened, no amount of truth, facts, logic, or even staring bleeding truth in the face will dislodge the mindset. We see that quite clearly in today’s political and media reality, and it has been true for as long as we have been living with and contemplating male and white privilege.
It is also also important to remember that much of the Chutes and Ladders analogy is a great vivid analogy for what is faced by those in non privilege. One thing that it does not describe and I think is central to how deeply rooted the power dynamic is is that most of what we see as privilege today is not arbitrary, like Chutes and Ladders. It is crafted and systematic on many levels and no one wants to give it up.
Betsy Johnson-Miller says
Thanks, Marjorie : ).