Sorting People Into Races Activity

Objective: Introduce the topic of race and ethnicity, Frame what students can expect from the class, Create an environment conducive to discussion and engagement from the very first day, Unpack students assumptions about race.

On the very first day of class, before we go over the syllabus and do the usual first-day housekeeping activities, I begin the class with an activity. I do this to set the tone for the class and frame what they should expect from the class moving forward.They should expect to engage with the material, with me and with their fellow students. They should expect discussion. They should expect for their assumptions to be challenged. I have also found that this activity helps students to be more comfortable with each other, and it helps to alert me to some of the preconceived notions about race that my students have.

I begin the activity by asking my students if they think they can generally identify someone’s race accurately. The majority of the class consistently says yes. I affirm their confidence in their ability to identify races by saying: “Great. Then you have already come to class with some knowledge about race and ethnicity. Let’s test that knowledge.” I proceed by explaining that we will now look at pictures of people’s faces and group them into racial categories.

To do this, we use the online game (click “Begin Sorting” on the link) provided by the “RACE: The Power of an Illusion” website. I show pictures of people’s faces and students vote on which category to put the person into. The discussion gets particularly lively as the activity goes on and the class begins to run out of boxes to put people into. They begin to want to switch people around to new categories, which they are not allowed to do because, as I joke with them, “I thought you guys were experts?”

Once we have put all the people in place we see how many the class got wrong and look up close at two or three of the faces to see how they actually are labeled under the census and how they self-identify. I then lead students to discuss what was hard about the activity – why do they think they didn’t do as well as they thought they would. I ask what features they used to classify the faces and I have them to begin to think about why this may be problematic. We also discuss the discrepancies between census categories and self-identification or between census categories and how we usually talk about races and ethnicities. (Students often insist that Arab should be a census category, for example.)

I wrap up the activity by explaining that these are the kinds of ideas that we are going to be exploring over the next few weeks. For example, I say “We will cover the difference between race and ethnicity, discuss what races “are”, how we came to understand them the way we do and what this means for the way society has distributed resources in the past and today. If this is something you’re interested in learning about, then you’ve come to the right classroom!”

Star Power Game

Objective: Illustrate and introduce conflict theory, show how power and privilege corrupt, portray how the advantaged are always picking from a better bag of “chips” (jobs, schools, neighborhoods) that sustain their advantage, and expose how blocked obstacles can result in “deviance”.

In this activity (adapted from Dr. Richard Stone), students are told they need to barter chips in order to accumulate points for themselves and even their team. They are also told that the winners will receive bonus points on their exam. The chips are worth different values, and they blindly pick 5 from a bag to hold onto. There’s a first round where everyone tries to trade to better their score, and then write their scores on the board. After a few more rounds where they “prove” their trading skills, they’re broken into three groups based on scores: squares (top), triangles (middle) and circles (lowest).

From now on the bags will be SECRETLY rigged by the facilitators so the squares get the best chips, then triangles, then circles. The facilitators go around and have them pick from the bags being careful and discreet about which group picks from each bag. After another round or two of the squares pulling ahead, the squares (the top team) are allowed to discuss a rule for the entire game. More trading occurs, and each round the squares make a new rule since inevitably they keep getting ahead. Sometimes there’s a chance for mobility if someone from a lower group has more points than someone from a higher group. As time goes on, the squares tend to get more vengeful and make meaner rules, and the triangles and circles get frustrated and turn to deviance (stealing chips, lying about scores, etc), drop out altogether, or sometimes (rarely) both groups band together against the upper class.

The point value system if as follows:

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 9.07.59 AM

The numbers at the top correspond with how many chips of that color you have. If I have one black chip (20 points), 2 green chips (20 points) and 2 white chips (6 points), my total score for that round will be 46 points.

Why would anyone with black or green chips trade for a lowly red or white? Having 5 red chips will give you more points (60) than having four reds and a black (20 + 20 = 40). Same for white. I’ve played around with the bonus red/white numbers – here I have 60 and 40, but you can change it, just be sure it adds up to more than what they would have had if they had many whites or reds but also kept some of their better chips.

A few students catch on to the goal of the game with time (particular those in the lowest groups), but most students continue to play to their advantage even as they acknowledge that the system is rigged. As we debrief the activity and unpack the objectives (above) to the game, students begin to light up and connect their experiences in the game to the experiences of racial and ethnic (as well as class) groups in real life. Throughout the rest of the semester, students often refer back to the activity in our discussions and connect the game to concepts we cover.