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Ask Amy: Former student reacts to race-based game

By Amy Dickinson, Tribune Content Agency on

Dear Amy: With knowledge comes broader perspective. I am a person of color. While studying for my Ph.D. in clinical psychology, I have realized that many things about my upbringing were wrong. In light of the social environment at the moment, the actions of one teacher hang heavy in my heart and mind.

In elementary school, we played a game in gym. It was an obstacle course on floor scooters, and we played it in the dark. It was a huge hit, and everyone loved it. The problem is that we would play it in February, Black History Month, and the game was called The Underground Railroad.

Everyone I mention this to says how wrong this was. But I remain confused as to why it was allowed in a supposedly progressive community. It minimized what this nation has put black people through, and made it into a children’s game. Most people don’t fully understand the profound impact that constant invalidation can have on the psyche.

The teacher who led the game now teaches high school U.S. history. I fear that he continues to minimize the suffering of those this nation has held down. I don’t know the most effective way of dealing with this, I know it needs to be addressed. — Making Change

Dear Making Change: When I was a kid, we played “Cowboys and Indians,” featuring some truly outlandish, ignorant (and, I assume despicable) depictions of Native Americans. Granted, this game wasn’t used as a teaching tool in the schools, but I use it as one example of how every generation in this country can look back — and cringe at the racism that has infused our culture, since way before our nation’s founding.

We need only look at the pace of awareness and change over the last year or so to realize that we are in the midst of a reckoning. It is real and it is painful, and while this change might seem sudden, it has been happening in incremental ways for several generations.

 

I’d like to return to Maya Angelou, whose wisdom turns up quite often in this space: “I did then what I knew to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

You said as much yourself: “With knowledge comes broader perspective.”

I think it would be both helpful and useful if you wrote a letter to your alma mater, outlining your experience as a student there. You could use this letter to call out this particular teacher for minimizing the experience of escaping slaves by turning it into a game, but — this is obviously a bigger, systemic issue. The “casual” nature of this example does not make it any more acceptable, but perhaps this teacher has grown over time — along with so many others.

As a scholar, you have much to offer to guide this conversation.

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