Wrestling with privilege

“Being in jail is the best thing that's happened to me this whole game!” cried Ben in anger. For a moment, I thought he was going to flip his Monopoly board over in a fit of rage.

He didn't – even though the game never improved for him.

It couldn't. Regardless of how hard Ben tried or what strategy he employed, the game was designed to make him fail. Our game of Monopoly was rigged.

Six players sat at a table, playing each game. Based on the game piece they chose, two became upper class, two middle class, and two lower class. Upper class received certain privileges – more money each time they passed Go; Low-interest loans; And the option to build on their properties each turn, regardless of how many of the same color properties they owned. In contrast, lower class players weren't even allowed to purchase property on certain sections of the board. When they tried to do so, they were simply told, “That property is no longer for sale.”

In our version of Monopoly, no matter what the lower class players did, they couldn't succeed.

In the same way, systemic racism prevents some people in our country from succeeding, regardless of how hard they try. Meanwhile, privilege gives other people unfair advantages.

Systemic racism and privilege are two concepts that have been in the news a lot this election season. Yet, for a variety of reasons, they can be difficult to discuss with high school teens.

Rigged Monopoly provided my youth ministry with the perfect way to enter into this important conversation. Although we were playing a game, the resulting feelings were real.

Bankers felt powerful.

Upper class players felt successful, elite, and sometimes, a little guilty... So much so that one such student even gave the other players a handout: $5 a piece. It did nothing to change the game, but it helped alleviate his guilt.

Middle class players felt caught in the middle and grew determined to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Lower class players felt hopeless... and downright angry at a system working against them.

After our game ended, we processed this experience together. Our discussion was rich.

Through this game, some of my white, suburban students began to understand that success isn't just a matter of how hard you work; That some people can work hard their entire lives without getting ahead because the system is rigged. They began to see how emotions (and sometimes even anger) are tied to our place in that system. Thanks to my student's $5 handout, they began to see the limits of charity and how meeting needs is important, but real change only happens when you overhaul the systems that create the need in the first place.

Right now, such conversations are exceptionally important. Regardless of where my students fall politically, as Christians I want them to understand the world – including systemic racism and privilege - in which they live.

Only then can they really love their neighbors as themselves.

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. When not doing ministry, she and her husband Doug can be found hiking, backpacking, and traveling.

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