Systems and Stereotypes

David Leonard

Any game that has players choosing among a malt liquor bottle, a basketball, or an Uzi for playing pieces is certainly harmful.

I own Ghettopoly. I'm not proud of it and I'm not comfortable that I made its creator David Chang any richer. But the recent controversy surrounding the board game surprised me. Ghettopoly, a board game that satirizes Monopoly, capitalism, and "black urban" stereotypes, allows players to "buy stolen properties, build crack houses and projects, pay protection fees and get car jacked."

Rather than a sports car or dog as your game piece, Ghettopoly has you picking between a piece of crack or chronic. Instead of buying Park Place or Reading Railroad, players purchase properties like "Tryron's Gun Shop," "Busta Cap Recording," or "Ling Ling's Massage Parlour." Ghettopoly constructs a black world in which "Yo leg [can be hit] by a stray bullet during a drive-by" or elected "Pimp of the Year."

As it's been available for over a year, I have to wonder why Ghettopoly has only recently become the center of a firestorm, following Urban Outfitters' decision to sell it. "It's really sick," Darryl Rouson, president of the St. Petersburg, Florida chapter of the NAACP, told the St. Petersburg Times. "What would be going through a young adult or teenager's mind if they're playing this game to win? The message that's being reinforced in the mind while you're playing, there's nothing good about it, there's nothing humorous about it."

The controversy reflects a contemporary trend in the media and among antiracist activists, focused on putting out discrete fires because they loom so large and hot so quickly. Only in moments of racial rupture, where the dominant paradigm of colorblindness is obviously disturbed, do politicians, pundits, and "activists" respond with condemnations and demands. As with the disruptions ignited by Fuzzy, Newt, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Rush, the outrage focused on Ghettopoly reflects the limitations of social justice movements today.

Consider UCLA Law Professor Kimberle Crenshaw's analysis of the clamor over Rush Limbaugh's racist comments on ESPN: "The elementary 'see no evil, speak no evil' version of racial etiquette that has been assumed in mainstream media effectively whitewashed Limbaugh. The process of normalizing racism as mere conservatism probably does as much to advance the cause of white supremacy as hooded marches, cross burnings and other patently racist activities." In other words, transforming the racial justice movement into a series of stopgap measures reduces our understanding of racism and prevents any sort of structural critique.

The furor over Ghettopoly exemplifies this process. While, as Al Sharpton argues, it surely reduces blackness to "thuggery, drug dealing, and misogyny", so do any number of video games, commercials, films, television shows, and legislative debates. David Chang's game capitalizes on the popularity of Grand Theft Auto III, Dope Wars, and many rap albums. And he has profited from a white desire to consume a demonized blackness, or what scholar S. Craig Watkins calls the "ghettocentric imagination."

However, public condemnations of Chang and Ghettopoly have not sparked reevaluations of the policies or conditions that underpin U.S. ghettos. Denunciations of the game ignore the links between it and ongoing police brutality, the prison industrial complex, deindustrialization, "all children left behind" policies, and globalization.

While Sharpton and other black leaders make their loudest protests over flare-ups like Rush or Michael Jackson, at least they see there is a problem with Ghettopoly. And that's more than might be said for many. The censure by Sharpton and others has also been dismissed as unnecessary, hypersensitive, and "politically correct." An AOL poll found that over 60% of "Americans" feel that Ghettopoly is "harmless fun." Believe me, the game is not fun; it's Monopoly. And it's not harmless. Any game that has players choosing among a malt liquor bottle, a basketball, or an Uzi for playing pieces is certainly harmful. It contributes to widespread stereotypes of black men as drug dealers, pimps, and gangsters. It reifies dominant beliefs that, for instance, more prisons and police are reasonable means to deal with vilified black bodies and spaces associated with them.

Neither critics who see Ghettopoly as an isolated problem, nor those who detach consumption from ideology can see Ghettopoly for what it is, a representative entertainment. Last month's criticism of Ghettopoly, while surely warranted, was misguided. The call to remove the game from store shelves not only led to greater interest and increased sales, but also demonstrated the current trend toward reactive outrage in lieu of sustained organization against racism as a system.

Given the increasing number of African Americans behind bars and the declining presence of blacks on college campuses, we need more than a boycott of Urban Outfitters. The fact that so many dismissed criticism of the game necessitates education and action. We can neither ignore Ghettopoly, nor focus all our attention on sensational moments, given that racist images and attitudes are promoted, tolerated, and consumed every day.

PM Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.