Eve Tushnet / July 14, 2020
Assign teenagers to different socioeconomic classes and require the lower classes to perform humiliating rituals of obeisance to the upper. Give other students the power to enforce class boundaries and punish those who get ideas above their station. Make sure the artificial hierarchy affects the students’ friendships and grades. What could go wrong?
This is the setup for Gloria D. Miklowitz’s 1985 young adult novel, The War Between the Classes. But it’s also the premise of a real classroom exercise developed in the late ’70s by Occidental College Professor Ray Otero. Otero’s “Color Game,” in which students wear armbands whose colors indicate whether they’re upper-class, upper-middle, lower-middle, or lower, is one of many similar classroom experiments in which students take on new identities in the hopes of gaining insight into social dynamics. (You can watch a short 1983 feature on the Color Game here.)
Perhaps the experiment that had the greatest impact on ’80s pop culture was “The Third Wave,” a 1967 exercise intended to teach California high school students about the rise of Nazism. The experiment got out of hand, of course, leading to both a fictionalized TV movie and a novelization, The Wave, in 1981. The Third Wave has inspired everything from a Canadian musical to an episode of the children’s cartoon “Arthur”—and even a Sweet Valley Twins book, 1995’s It Can’t Happen Here. The story of the Third Wave has had a recent renaissance in Germany, with a 2008 film and a 2019 Netflix series, We Are the Wave.
Although Miklowitz’s novel did get a 1985 Emmy-winning television adaptation, the Color Game never managed the big pop culture footprint of the Third Wave. And the real-life game didn’t please everybody, especially once it moved beyond the control of its developer. Otero was sued in 1988 by the parents of a high school student who claimed her experience as a “lower-class” Color Game participant had traumatized her. But as an exercise for college students, led by an experienced teacher, the Color Game proved popular—and Miklowitz’s fictional version offers far more insightful social criticism than the usual YA “the game got out of hand!” cautionary tale. The Wave has two fairly simple messages: “The desire to belong will dull your conscience,” and, “Anybody will buy into fascism if you market it right.” The War Between the Classes is teaching subtler lessons about shame, solidarity, and meritocracy.
Miklowitz specialized in YA novels about social issues: cult recruiting, nuclear war, teen suicide, single motherhood. Her prose in The War Between the Classes is workaday, her dialogue often preachy; characterization is quick and simple, and the obligatory YA romance is useful to the plot, but predictable. That romance crosses both color and Color Game lines. Emiko Sumoto—always “Amy” at school—is a middle-class Japanese-American girl whose boyfriend, Adam, is a rich white bro. His first romantic gesture in the novel is a flower with a note: “To my exotic, inscrutable Amy….” This is about the level of subtlety the book aims for.
Amy ends up wearing the armband of the upper-class Blues, whereas Adam is relegated to the lowest class, the Oranges. This is no coincidence. In the novel, the fictional Otero rigs the game so that students of color are assigned to the upper strata and the white kids are more likely to end up in the lower. Meanwhile, the game also reverses their sex roles: in a twist taken from the real-life Color Game, boys (called “No-Teks”) must now curtsy to and otherwise defer to girls (“Teks”).
In fact, the game relies heavily on shows of deference. The novel’s Otero explains, “Oranges must always show their inferiority by bowing when they meet their superiors, all colors above them. Light Greens must bow to the Dark Greens and Blues… But the Blues, bless them, don’t bow to anyone. Why should they?” He continues, “Inferior colors may not speak with or socialize with superior colors. A superior color may address an inferior one, but not vice versa.” Otero throws in derogatory comments about the “lower” colors (“I wouldn’t want to confuse you… Especially you Oranges”) and warns them that a “spy network” of enforcers called G4s have the power to report and punish disobedience. “You can be fined, harassed, given lower status”; you can also gain status by “squeal—er, uh, reporting” on others who break the rules.
The students must keep a diary of their impressions of the game; they can be punished if they’re caught without an up-to-date journal—even outside of school. Oranges sit at the back of class and wait at the end of the cafeteria line. “Lower” colors must run errands at the command of “higher” colors. Even when they break the rules, Blues get warnings; Oranges get punishments.
Amy is sweetly conflicted about the taste of power the game gives her over her boyfriend. Her blue armband gives her the power to confront the racism of the rich white kids, and uncovers an anger she didn’t realize she harbored. Adam has a harder time: “I was rewarded yesterday. You know why? For being submissive when a G4 chewed me out. I feel sick just thinking about it!”
The most noticeable feature of the Color Game’s understanding of class is how heavily it relies on humiliation. That’s simple necessity, since neither a college professor nor a high school teacher can actually take away their students’ food or shelter, deny them health care, or force them to live in unsafe neighborhoods. And yet necessity becomes a virtue here, as the students confront how deeply poverty and inequality humiliate those who endure them. Americans often blame the poor for their poverty (this is true across class lines; poor people blame themselves as well as their neighbors). All forms of need are treated as personal failure. This is the aspect of poverty that the Color Game can best replicate, and so the experiment overturns the assumption that the worst thing about poverty is that you have less stuff. (Monks have less stuff and they’re rarely ashamed of it, to use just one example.)
The “lower-class” students quickly begin to experience self-doubt, feeling constantly scrutinized and vulnerable, even helpless. The scene where Brian, one of the enforcers of the game’s hierarchy, forces a Dark Green student to turn over her game diary so he can mock her private thoughts aloud is startlingly raw. This humiliation is deepened by the way the Color Game (in the novel) exposes the flaws in the meritocratic ideal. Tests are handed out in order by color, so the better your economic position, the more time you have. The “higher” colors even get easier tests. And of course the point is that even before the Game started, the intelligence and academic ability of the students didn’t define their worth—and their grades were never fair.
The recurring use of the diaries to humiliate offers a strange, painful nuance. Why are the G4s so intent on learning, and exposing, what the “lower classes” really think? In the novel it’s camouflage so that Otero can monitor whether students are learning from the Game; but there’s an unexpected parallel with 2017’s Get Out, in which privileged characters similarly hunger to both understand and control the experience of the oppressed. Over the course of the Game, the students who are privileged in real life begin to feel that they’ve been missing something—something important that they neither knew nor wanted to know. Only when they themselves begin to experience humiliation do they wonder if their previous experience of power has somehow damaged them.
In the 1983 video on the “real” Color Game, one participant, like the fictional Amy, broke the rules by bowing to her “inferiors” and got busted down to Orange. She noted, “There’s not much unification among the upper classes. It’s kind of everyone for themselves… When you become part of the lower class, you’ll notice there’s much more of a sense of unity. People band together, we help each other out much more.” Miklowitz captures this solidarity too—a solidarity that is even harder to find outside the game now than it was in 1985, as low-income families, communities, and institutions are even more fragile.
The novel ends happily, of course. Amy leads a cross-class rebellion against the Game. There’s a cathartic ceremony in which the students shed their armbands and embrace, even hugging Brian, the G4 who seemed to relish his work. Interestingly—and depressingly—the characters walk away with relations between the sexes more obviously changed than relations between the classes. Amy has learned to assert herself in her romance with Adam, and he’s learning to see that as a gain for himself rather than a loss. Friendships have been forged across IRL class lines, and we can hope that some of them will last. And yet these friendships don’t seem to impose any obligations of change, the way the shift in Amy’s self-understanding requires Adam to change.
Ultimately, the girls learn to assert themselves, but class relations don’t budge: it’s easier to figure out how a boy might listen to a girl than how a rich kid might relinquish his power. Despite the confrontations in the mall food court and kids who use “black jive,” in some ways The War Between the Classes feels painfully contemporary.
Eve Tushnet is the author of two novels, Amends and Punishment: A Love Story, as well as the nonfiction Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith. She lives in Washington, DC and writes and speaks on topics ranging from medieval covenants of friendship to underrated vampire films. Her hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy.