Poverty Simulation Reflection

I helped out with a poverty simulation last week and my mind is still reeling from it. There was–and to be honest, still is–so much to process from it. I’m attempting to reflect on some of what I have learned, but I’m sure this is only the tip of the iceberg.

 This particular poverty simulation was designed by a Bethel professor, Dr. Karen McKinney, as part of her dissertation for her doctorate she wrote about using simulations to educate people about current social realities.

So, you are probably thinking right now, “Okay, Sarah I already have done a poverty simulation before. You know where one group of people gets a whole feast prepared for them, while the majority of the people have to sit on the floor and eat a few grains of rice. That’s so elementary.”

 Yes, similar concept, but imagine that simulation on steroids. Or better yet, imagine it 10 times more complex, and then you will have understood THIS particular poverty simulation.

I’ll attempt to explain it, but due to the complexity it’s difficult to explain—especially if you haven’t seen it firsthand. Well, let’s have at it.

 The simulation begins with the group of people participating being divided up into 3 different groups (upper class, middle class and lower class). This is determined by their ear lobes (i.e. attached or unattached).  There’s one person regulating who’s put into each group and making sure that there is the right proportion of people in each of those groups. They use stickers to signify what people are in which group so they remain unaware of the reason for the grouping.

Before the simulation officially begins Dr. McKinney who designed it tells the participants three things:  1. You want to trade as many chips as possible   2. You can trade with anyone   3. This is not a game.

As the participants enter into the room where the simulation is to take place they are guided to different places within the room depending on which group they are in. The group of people who are placed in the “upper class” group are given comfortable chairs and couches to sit on and right away asked if they would like food, beverage, or even a back massage. The middle class group is given fold-up chairs to sit on and I believe they can choose from different beverages as well. The lower class group is not given any chairs and they are forced to stay within a small “box”, marked off by tape on the floor.

Since the goal of the game is to trade as many chips as possible, each person in the different groups start off with a certain number of chips (off course these are rigged) and so everyone thinks they are starting off on the same page. The only times when the lower, middle and upper class groups can intermingle is during these “trade-off” times, when they can trade chips with other participants from various groups.

In addition to the “trade-offs” happening throughout the simulation, each group (lower, middle and upper class) has “servants”, or in the lower class “police officers”, who have completely different roles depending on what group they are with. For the upper class, the “servants” are constantly supposed to be catering to the needs of their group.  For example, if someone from the upper class says they want the “servant” to perform a song for them or give them a back rub, they must do it. Their job is to distract the upper class from knowing what is happening to the lower class group. The “servant” for the middle class is supposed to constantly be guiding conversations in order to support everything the upper class says or does. The “police officers”—which I was a part of this past week in the simulation—are supposed to do everything they can to keep the lower class “in their place”.

In the beginning of the simulation, the “police officers” are supposed to manage “crowd control” within the taped-off box area, but as the simulation continues the repression is supposed to increase more and more.  During “trade-offs” we are supposed to go up to upper class people who are making a trade with a lower class person and ask them if the lower class person is harassing them. If they say “yes” then we take them to a place designated as the jail. As the game continues the taped-off box are where the lower class are supposed to stay when “trade-offs” are not occurring gets smaller and smaller. We dump trash in the lower class area and then throw insulting comments at them about it. We also have water spray guns that we use to spray the lower class with as well if they are “acting up”.

Towards the end of the simulation the upper class group is always asked by Dr. McKinney if they would like the lower class group to be sent away in exchange for money that would go towards their group. Most often they agree to this and we, the police officers, take all of the lower class to a room outside designated as the “reservation”.

The simulation typically ends after the upper class has sent away the lower class to the “reservation” and a time for debriefing among the participants and the helpers takes place.

I have been a participant in this simulation once before (I was in the lower class), but this time I helped with the simulation I was one of the “police officers”. There were three other people besides myself who volunteered for this position. Because I had participated in this simulation before I knew what to expect and how the “police officers” were expected to treat those in the lower class. Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to be able to keep a straight face, much less throw insults at people without apologizing or squirt them with water.

When the simulation first began I felt very awkward and uncomfortable spelling peoples’ names wrong and making snide remarks at them. However, as the simulation went on I was surprised—and terrified—at how easily it came to me to act in a repressive way.

Although the simulation only lasted about 40 minutes, when it ended I remember thinking that I didn’t want it to stop.  40 minutes was all it took for me to feel comfortable getting up in people’s faces and calling them “stupid” or screaming at them to “shut up”. Right when Dr. McKinney told us the simulation was over I honestly didn’t know what to do.  I just stood there. My first thought wasn’t how bad I felt or how much I wanted to apologize to those I was insulting. I felt powerful and strong. If anything apologizing was the last thing I was about to do.

After a few minutes, I felt like I had just woken up from a bad dream. What had I been doing? I felt ashamed and awkward, trying to apologize to some of the participants I had just terrorized.  One of the things that hit me the most was the comments the participants said to me after the simulation had ended. One woman said “good job, you really got into your role”. I laughed it off, but on the inside I was really disturbed. Really? All it took was 40 minutes for me to take on the role of the oppressor? For any of you who know me, screaming insults at people at the top of my lungs is far from my typical behavior to say the least. I can’t remember the last time I screamed at someone, I mean really screamed, like in a fight. 

My world had just flipped upside-down.

So, you may be wondering what did I learn from all of this? Well, many things, some of which I’m still trying to process. So, I’ll share a few. 

  1. First of all, I learned socialization is a crazy, scary and very real process that all people go through. Sure, before participating and helping with this simulation I believed socialization was a huge factor in shaping peoples’ lives, but reading about it in a school textbook and experiencing it firsthand are two completely different things.
  2. Everyone is capable of taking on the role of the oppressor as well as the oppressed. Since socialization is a learned process contributed by many different factors we interact with on a daily basis, if a person who has typically been in the role of the oppressed in society is placed in a context of power and privilege they are just as capable as any other human of then taking on the role of the oppressor (and vice versa).
  3. Both those who are oppressors as well as those who are oppressed need to be liberated. Poverty, sexism, racism, and homophobia do not only hold those who are being oppressed by these societal structures in bondage, they also hold those who are oppressing, those who hold the power and privilege, in chains as well. In the wise words of Nelson Mandela, “ I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.”

On a more personal level, I have some theories about why I in particular was able to take on the role of the oppressor so easily. The first one is that as a white, upper-middle class person I have grown up in the role of the oppressor. While screaming insults at people was not something I was socialized to do, I was socialized to dehumanize those from a lower socioeconomic status than myself and people of color in much more subtle ways. Remaining silent when racist jokes are said, being able to define certain names as “normal” and others as “abnormal” and participating in perpetuating historically oppressive stereotypes—whether knowingly or not—are all a part of the privilege I have had as growing up white and upper-middle class in the U.S.

Another theory, which I think played an equally important role in understanding the way in which I took on the role of the oppressor so quickly, is due to the oppression I have felt being a woman in a male-dominated society.  Sometimes when those who are or who have been oppressed are given a bit of power, they in turn act out in a similar way in which they themselves have been oppressed. Thus, they essentially take on the role of the oppressor.

While I have a significantly greater amount of privilege than the majority of women who live around the world, especially those living in third-world conditions, I too, have internalized sexist oppression as a result of living in a hyper-masculine, male-dominated society. I was socialized by many different institutions in some subtle, and others not so subtle, ways to believe that my ideas were inferior to a male’s and that I must constantly alter my physical appearance to please men. I’ve more recently been doing some reflecting on just how much male patriarchy has deeply affected the way I view my world, and the way I even view myself. I have struggled so often to make sure that my voice is heard and I think for the last part of the simulation I actually enjoyed oppressing because I was able to release some of my rage at being silenced much too often in my life.

If anyone is curious in getting more materials on the poverty simulation, I would gladly introduce you to Dr. Karen McKinney. She has done extensive research on the use of simulations in bringing to light societal “truths” and she could provide much more detailed info specifically about the simulation.

As always, I hope you learned something from this post and that you will feel encouraged and challenged to do some of your own self-reflection. It is my prayer that we can truly see the chains that keep us apart from one another, and together work to break those chains in order to fully be the incredibly, beautiful diverse people that God made us to be.

Peace & Blessings,


One thought on “Poverty Simulation Reflection

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  1. Sarah, great post. Simulation sounds powerful on a number of levels. Good self-reflection. Couple questions: who are the participants and what do they know / how much are they prepped before the simulation? What’s the debrief like? How does Dr. McKinney handle criticism of the simulation being unrealistic or exaggerated?

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