Teaching about Oppression through Jenga: A Game-Based Learning Example for Social Work Educators

By Lichtenwalter, Sara; Baker, Parris | Journal of Social Work Education, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview
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Teaching about Oppression through Jenga: A Game-Based Learning Example for Social Work Educators


Lichtenwalter, Sara, Baker, Parris, Journal of Social Work Education


THE INSIDIOUS MECHANISMS of structural oppression have surpassed the potency of one-on-one overt discriminatory acts. Today the most unyielding obstacles to social, economic, and political equality operate more effectively within the institutionalized codes of private and public sector systems perpetuating disparities in health, education, and wealth than in the individual racist denying access to seats on a bus or space at a lunch counter. The pursuit of social justice embedded within the historical roots, as well as the present-day mandate, of the social work profession obligates the discipline to prepare professionals to effectively address such assaults. Therefore, after reviewing the subtle but powerful mechanisms inherent in institutional oppression, we offer an overview of game-based learning exercises and introduce a modified version of the family game Jenga as a tool for instructing on the topic of institutional oppression.

Institutional Oppression

Institutional oppression refers to the way in which society is organized into predictable relationships. It has been defined as "an enclosing structure of forces and barriers that tend to immobilize and reduce a group or category of people" (Frye, 1983, p. 11). Van Voorhis (1998) describes it as that which originates in, and is maintained by, the dominate group through institutional and economic power and control over societal institutions such as schools, banks, legislative bodies, and policing or military forces.

The consequences of institutional oppression are often targeted as the subject of studies on racial or ethnic group disparities in income, assets, health, and so forth. However, the reasons for these disparities are most often ascribed to attributes of the marginalized population, rather than the exploitative actions of the privileged groups. The literature on deficit thinking (Brandon, 2003), modern racism (Leach, 2005), and White racial framing represent examples of how vulnerable groups' subordinate positions are attributed to the groups' values, choices, culture, and/or perceived pathologies. This classic victim-blaming is aided by the ideology of equal opportunity and the myth of American meritocracy (Freeman, 1995), which present powerful obstacles to individuals of privilege reconceptualizing what were historically viewed as personal or family achievements into privileges illegitimately gained at the expense of oppressed groups.

Although flagrant disparities are occasionally acknowledged as the consequence of institutional oppression, seldom are these disparities conceptualized in terms of institutionalized mechanisms generated and maintained by individual members of a privileged social group. When systemic injustice or structural discrimination is linked to grievous disparities, typically the discussion is positioned within a passive tense or the discourse is conducted in abstract language that removes individual agents from view, which serves to incriminate some "vaguely specified institution" (Feagin, 2006, p. 5). Nevertheless, institutions do not act; it is the people in them who act, even though the individuals may be simply following routine rules and regulations (Feagin & Feagin, 1986).

This position of "faultlessness" is regularly upheld by members of privileged groups for acts associated with structural oppression, because individual prejudice and discrimination, or the explicit intention of harm, often are not overtly present in institutional oppression. It is often perpetuated through individuals who may believe they are simply adhering to organizational or institutional protocol. For example, the U.S. courts have found no legal wrongdoing by school districts that distribute their educational resources with such vast disparity that it results in high-poverty neighborhoods attaining lower scholastic performance (Center for American Progress, 2008), by subprime lenders approving harmful loans that have resulted in "the greatest loss of wealth for communities and individuals of color in modern history" (Rivera, Cotto-Escalera, Desai, Huezo, & Muhammad, 2008, p.

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