If you had to rank Harriet Tubman and Kanye West in order of blackness, who would be first? Who's blacker, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr.?
These are the type of questions a new card game, Trading Races, asks players to ponder. The rules are simple: Each player gets five cards from a 52-card deck; each card has the image of a different famous person. In every round, participants take turns throwing down one card. To win, you have to throw down the card with the "blackest" person in the bunch — a feat that players agree upon after a civil discussion (read: all-out argument) about what makes some people blacker, or less black, than others.
Kenyatta Forbes, who created the game, said she wanted to get people talking about their definitions of blackness. The idea came to her years ago, when she was the only person of color in her graduate cohort. Forbes, who was studying film and video animation, said her white professors sometimes had trouble critiquing her work in a meaningful way, "because they felt like they couldn't talk about work that was rooted in blackness." One way of breaking through those blocks, she said, was humor. If she could get people laughing, she could get them talking.
Trading Races does just that. But despite it's levity, the game can lead to some pretty serious — and sometimes uncomfortable — discussions about history, culture, appropriation, science and community. "It is really looking at how we, for lack of a better word, quantify race," Forbes said. "At the end of it, I'm not expecting a kumbaya moment. That's not going to happen. But what I'm hoping is that it opens up a space to have the dialogue that [people] wouldn't have had otherwise."
Forbes said that despite the fact that race doesn't have a real biological definition, people have very real opinions about what it means to be black. This game is a fun way to parse out those views, and maybe even start to unpack them.
Although Trading Races doesn't offer any suggestions about how to define blackness, Forbes said that after playing the game hundreds of times with friends, coworkers, even strangers — including the creators of "Cards Against Humanity" — she has noticed some themes. People tend to give higher rank to people who have done something significant for fellow black people. That means a Stacey Dash card, she said, usually doesn't stand a chance against a Sojourner Truth card, and it's hard to beat an MLK card.
Right now, Trading Races is in production. The game should be available for mass purchase mid-April, with official game nights coming to Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Oakland and New Orleans. Forbes has big plans for the future. For each deck of cards sold, she wants to donate one to a school. Though right now the game focuses mostly on black and white folks, she's already planning expansion packs with people from other racial backgrounds.
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