Response: Slave Simulation “Game”

This is in response to Rafranz Davis’s blog post entitled, “Slave Simulation, an Edtech Game for Classrooms.”  I highly suggest that you read it before going any further, as that article lays the foundation for what will follow.

Last night, Rafranz described a slavery game that she had come across in her email, promoted for Black History Month.  She was very fired up, and rightfully so…how could such a game be promoted to teachers to use with our students?

The more I heard her describe it, the more upset I became.  Full disclosure: I have not played it, nor do I intend to.  I know everything that I need to, thanks to the screenshots Rafranz posted.

This is ridiculous.  How can one make a game out of the suffering and genocide of an entire people, with ramifications still being felt in the present day?  Is it supposed to be fun?  To treat a topic like this with such a casual air is very disrespectful.  Regardless of intent, this was not a good idea.

This is Django, all over again.

As I listened to Rafranz, I remembered an experience that I had as a student.  In high school, chorus and drama were my life.  I spent a great portion of my day in the Fine Arts building, drawn to the creative energy which permeated the walls.  My chorus teacher was a strong influence in helping me find my place in high school, which boosted my self-confidence tremendously. He was, and still remains, one of my favorite teachers of all time.  That being said, here’s what happened.

As a freshman, my goal was to join the mixed select choir, which dressed up in Renaissance garb and traveled.  I already had created my backstory in my mind, after a discussion with my parents about Africans in Europe during that period.  I was going to take on the role of a Moor (north African) princess, living in Italy.

My sophomore year, I was finally eligible to try out for the select choir.  The group was changed to a colonial theme.  I wasn’t too thrilled, but was still excited about the status and prestige that the highest choir held.  The auditions were held at the same time as a rehersal for a play I was in, up the hall.  I realized that I was late for my appointment slot, ran to the chorus room, couldn’t catch my wind, and blew it.

Junior year, I had better luck and made the group.  It wasn’t as bad as I thought.  I really liked some of the songs, and I was having a blast spending so much time with my chorus teacher and all of my friends in the group.

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 5.38.27 PM
Action shot, c. 1998

Senior year, though, there was yet another change.  Our teacher said that the chorus parent organization had decided that we should be “authentic.”

What did authentic mean?  Here comes the kicker…you might want to take a seat.

This year, we had to take on “realistic” roles.  You could pick whatever you wanted from a list that was provided…that is, unless you were black.  Then you had to be a slave.

I wouldn’t stand for this.  I couldn’t.  I asked my peers what they thought, and many of them were so brainwashed that they accepted it.  WHAT?  That’s yet another byproduct of my messed-up limousine liberal community, where oppression has become such an art form that even the victims don’t realize it.  Potential future blog post.  Back to the point.

It still hurts me that people could try to do this to children.  I don’t understand the intent of the parent organization.  Maybe it was some misguided attempt to educate people, through their own ignorance on how they thought the world was during that time.  Given my many other racist experiences at that school and even in my own neighborhood, it wouldn’t have surprised me if it was some kind of subliminal message to keep students of color “in [our] place.”  Yes, that happened in 1999…it still does.  I can go on and on about this, but…another potential future blog post.

Anyway, my first instinct was to quit.  I didn’t care how much I loved the group, or how good my choral accolades would look to colleges.  Nothing mattered at that point, except that I was being treated as 3/5 of a person, in the very place that I considered my refuge.

When I went home, I had an honest conversation with my parents, and we decided that we would fight it.  Thank goodness for my family.  They raised me to be an advocate for myself and for others, taking me to marches, congressional hearings, and many other places since I started losing baby teeth.

My mother called the choir director, and told him how unjust this mandate was.  They spoke on the phone for maybe an hour.  Ultimately, she designed a couple of workshops for all members of the group who were interested (not just the students of color) at the Black History Resource center downtown.  With the help of my family, museum staff, and other parents, we also did LOTS of self-guided research.  By the end, we all had a thorough understanding of the many varied roles and contributions of people of color during the Colonial time period.

I never got to be a Moor princess from the Renaissance as I had envisioned as a freshman.  Instead, I was an affranchi, a free black person in Haiti during that time period…and a rich one at that.  This was even better, because it reflected my own cultural heritage.  I felt a sense of pride every time I put on that costume, along with the matching hat that my grandma made for me.

I wish that I could say that we all lived happily ever after, but there was definitely resentment coming from some of the parents and students who were in support of the original change.  Not everybody is going to be happy when you redistribute power, even fake power, as in this case.  Perfect example: after one of our gigs, I got into a friendly debate with one of my classmates.  We were kidding around, but it turned very serious when he told me, “You may have won this one, but remember, if this were real, I’d own you.”

What. The. ?!@#

Let’s bring it back to the current situation, the slavery simulation game.  Again, I don’t know the intentions of the game creators.  Perhaps they thought it would be an engaging resource for Black History Month.  There is so much that is wrong with that last statement, but again, that’s another blog post in and of itself.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter what was meant.  Somebody (or rather somebodies…you know there had to be multiple people involved) really dropped the ball on this one.  You can’t make something as horrible as slavery or the Holocaust into a game.  It’s like making a game called “Grandpa Has Cancer,” with the hope of teaching kids not to smoke or drink, but even worse.  I could continue with the metaphor, but unlike the Slavery Simulation game, I know better than to go there.

6 thoughts on “Response: Slave Simulation “Game”

  1. As a Social Studies guy, the most difficult type of teaching is to have students UNDERSTAND the full context of daily experiences and decisions of all people in history. The horror, injustice, violations, and persecution that specific ethnic and religious groups suffered not just individually but generational, must be handled with significant empathy. Sims that are developmentally appropriate for Elem Students just can’t do that.

  2. Sarah, your story made me cry. It makes me sad that we still have these insensitive lessons and activities. And that there are people who candy-coat or harbor misconceptions about slavery and racial injustice. It is still an ugly part of our nation. White America has a woeful lack of understanding or knowledge about the many contributions that people of color have made to our nation and what injustices they have endured and still have to endure. I didn’t know anything about Phylis Whitney until I was about 50 years old! I know, there are even more people and contributions that we will ever know about because of the lack of sources. But I know they helped our country become what it is today.

    1. Hi Sara, thanks so much for reading and for your comments. I appreciate you. Your comments are on point…in the case of the developers, a little understanding would have gone a long way. I’m so happy that we are having these conversations. You are amazing.

  3. Gurl…I’m going to have to look at the actual game another day but you did an awesome thing in high school. Thank you for fighting for us, even though we were knee deep in gangsta radio and parasucos…didn’t even notice.

    My current struggle is finding out our motherland is currently named for a European Explorer and ask the lines that demarcated the countries were drawn by Europeans divvying up the lands amongst themselves. It’s hard for me to have anything other than a low opinion of the types of humans that would do such a thing in a land that was clearly inhabited. I wonder what my people once called ourselves…

    The struggle continues. We have been subject to the deliberate and systematic erasure of our identity, our perspective, our truth for much too long.

    You inspire me to fight back, to find out…this is going to be fun, dangerous, infuriating…but oh so necessary.

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