Monday, November 10, 2008

On Bridging the Divide . . . through Paintball?

This might be one of my stranger posts, but bear with me here - because I'm serious.

So - I was down in LA this last weekend. And, although I'm going to save this for another post - I have to say that being there really knocked the f-ed up aspect of Prop 8 into me. As there is a large gay community in LA, there were marches and rallies being held all over the city, and everybody was talking about it. My brother (who I was visiting) told me about his friends who had just had their knees cut out. How can you just undo something like that?

I'll write more on this in a future post (soon) - and I'm not trying to minimize the issue - but I want to try to keep a little bit of the positive flow that Obama's election brought me, so I'm going to change the subject right now. To paintball.

Yup, paintball.

My brother and I went paintballing my last day in town, and I couldn't help but bring my race-ometer with me, and I was kind of amazed by the results.

To be brief - paintball is a form of entertainment that basically consists of running around with guns in a faux-battle type environment shooting each other with paintballs (that explode and thus show you that you've been hit). There are playing fields all over the place - but the one we went to consisted of a few different large fields covered in bunkers and hills and partial walls and what-not. We joined as "walk-ons" with other people who had just shown up on their own to play - and for each game, we were divided randomly into two different teams (try to shoot members of the other team, and protect those on your own as you try to capture your opponents flag).

That's a quick summary, but it captures the gist. So - obviously - it's not the most PC form of entertainment, due to the gun-toting, shoot other people, war-imagery nature of the game. It's pretty "masculine" and vaguely violent. So you'd expect it to be a bunch of adrenaline-filled macho-men that just want to shoot things.

And, at first look, it seemed like that was the case. Most of the other people there with us when we got there were men, a lot of them in army fatigues. They ranged from about 18 to 40 years old.

But, an hour later after more people had arrived, I started really looking around, and I was a bit surprised. The first thing was the incredible racial diversity of the participants. There were white guys, of course, but also a large number of Latino (mostly Chicano), Asian (Filipino, Vietnamese, Japanese - with certainty), black, and ambiguous folks like me and my brother. And I'm talking true diversity here, meaning white did not make up 50% by any stretch - and neither did any other racial group. And neither did any group fill the "token" role of being just one or two people.

Then I noticed it wasn't just guys. There were actually a decent number of female players (not 50-50, of course, but still many more than I would have expected).

The age-range stretched FAR. There were a ton of younger kids (from around 11 to 16 years old), as well as their parents and other older folks (over 50 for sure, probably up to 70-ish). And a number of people spanning the years in between (and I really don't think that was the largest population).

And the part that really blew my mind? The span of socioeconomic categories. Seriously. Because, in real life, when people are talking about diversity - they are seldom talking about a group that spans different economic classes evenly. But this was just that. There were the stereotypical "working-class" types (more rural, white hunter-types). There were "urban" youth (vaguely "thuggish" with the whole hip-hop "gangsta" look). There were middle-class folks (some business-types, college kids). And there were upper-class folks driving around nice-ass cars. And it really was pretty evenly spread throughout. Of course, I'm making some big assumptions and generalizations about the people there based on a number of stereotypes - but I feel confident in my assessment, nonetheless.

And finally - the number of languages being spoken on the field was refreshing. Everybody there spoke English fluently (as far as I could tell), but it felt good to hear them easily switching back and forth between English and (what I assume to be) their "home" language. I heard a group of kids speaking Japanese with their parents. A number of folks (that didn't come together) were speaking Tagalog. Spanish was prevalent. And there were a few other languages that I didn't recognize.

All of the above. On a paintball field. And it felt perfectly natural and fine. There were no conflicts. In a game where you shoot other people (and it can hurt), there were no arguments, or threats, or even cussing. People just played the game. We were stuck on random teams with strangers - guaranteed to be filled with people spanning a number of different demographic categories from each other - and we played together, as a team. We strategized, covered each other, took risks for each other, and played to win without blaming anybody else when we lost.

And it was FUN. On a number of levels. It just felt so good. Maybe it was the ongoing high from the Obama election, but it just filled me with ease and positivity. F-ing PAINTBALL brought together so many different groups of people that we have been taught cannot get along in this country. We're filled with stereotypes about racist "red-neck" rural white guys who just want to go hunting and hurt non-white folks. We're taught that urban Latin@s and black folks are gang members that are violent and unable to get along with other groups. Asian folks are foreigners that don't trust or respect other races. Middle-to-upper class people are arrogantly prejudiced against "lower" economic classes and races and don't mix it up.

But - for one day -this was all flipped on its head. On a paintball field.

And I couldn't help but try and apply the lessons learned to the bigger world: the most obvious one is a common goal. The focus wasn't on race, or economic status, or any of these other dividing factors because everybody was playing together to achieve a common goal - and so individuals were willing to help each other out and get along because it clearly benefitted themselves, directly.

The other big part (in my head): there were no given stereotypes to play upon. It was paintball. To my knowledge (and probably to most of the people there) there are no stereotypes about what kind of person is "naturally" better at paintball. Not by body-type (I saw plenty of "larger" folks who were just as good as any "more athletic" competitors), not by race (there's no "insert-race are just built for paintballing," and - surprisingly - not by gender (the females were just as good) or age (one of the best players was the oldest). So, without stereotypes to fall back on, every individual was treated on their own merit - by what they demonstrated on the field and nothing else. And when was the last time you ever saw that actually happen?

Finally, there's the simple fact that the stakes were low. We were all there to play a game. And that's it. We wanted to win, of course, but that wasn't all-important (because there was always another game, another opportunity to make up for it). And so we were able to relax and not resort to all the negative qualities of humankind that end up being triggered by the stress of high-stakes (survival, success, etc.) and that cannot be ignored.

So my question is this: how can we build this into "real life"? Can we even do so? Are there other areas of life where these three conditions exist to eliminate the tension of "perceived difference"? Because now, I actually think it can be done. It would take a ton of work, of course (because I think it runs counter to a lot of ways we do things in this country), but it could be done. And if y'all can help me figure it out, I'll see what I can do to become your president and put it into action after Obama's eight years are through . . .

* Now, obviously, there are stereotypes about sexual preference that likely would be brought out in this atmosphere. However, I cannot be sure about that one, as that was not a readily-noticeable distinguishing factor in this context. Of course, I had a lot of other assumptions dashed about stereotypes that would be played out in this situation, so maybe even ones about sexual preference wouldn't have come out this time (unlikely, but I've been proven wrong before).


Winifred said...

Interesting post.

I wonder if the issue of masking and uniforms is at all relevant?

I've taken my kids to paintball birthday parties, and one thing I've noticed is that the kids are divided into teams, given masks and coveralls head-scarfs. They identify their team-mates by color of headscarf.

This makes the players relatively anonymous (although at the parties my kids have attended, they know who's who because they arrive in a group and are all school-mates and/or friends).

My other thought is that what you describe is very typical of the US WW II war dramas - where a "diverse" group of men join together in defeating the enemy: the clean-cut white boy from Texas, the wise-cracking "ethnic" from New York, & a white guy w/ a southern accent.

So, it's kind of a stereotypical situation a mixed bunch of people coming together to defeat the foe.

You can even see a bit of it in (g-d help me) the TV series "Hogans Heroes".

That said, playing games is one of the ways that we can relate to each other across our various divides. When I was younger I played darts in a local pub and ended up playing & passing the time w/ folks I otherwise would have spent little time with.

This blogger (a Korean-American guy now living in HK) writes about playing pick-up basketball in HK, which in part helps him to bridge linguistic & cultural divides.

Jennifer said...

Love this post--and I'd love to help you think of how you/we/the world can take the "paintball" atmosphere of cooperation and mutual acceptance relatively free of judgment that you describe.

As Winifred above has noted, a common goal/enemy does seem to be key (although I prefer goal to enemy) and I do agree that there are interesting corollaries between WWII war dramas and a paintball scenario--except that I take your point CVT, about the stakes being low, which ends the comparison between WWII movies and WWII itself.

I've noticed that when I have students working together, in groups, some of the groups develop friendships outside of class. And I wonder if that has to do with working towards a common goal (assignment). Of course not every group does, but my point is that students are more likely to walk away with friendships from a class when I make them work in groups then when I don't. So I think there IS something about getting students to work together that creates friendship or at least good feelings.

And I think that's part of what you captured in your post--people working together for a common goal.

I suppose figuring out what that common goal is, and then recognizing that everyone has something to contribute would be important. I sometimes wonder if that's what made Obama's grassroots campaigning so successful--because EVERYONE could get involved and work towards the common goal of getting him elected and EVERYONE could contribute in some way and it was all valued.

CVT said...

Now, if only we could get people to realize that we really ARE all working for a common goal . . .

lyric said...

Wonderful posts and great blog in general. I have no idea as to how to bring PAINTBALL non-racial fun into every day life. Most of us white people are woefully unaware of some of the hurt "we" cause. My brother over at has been doing a great job of opening my eyes to issues I truly had never considered before and I'm a better person for it.

Keep educating me. I think most of "us" really are clueless - and don't mean to be dumb or racist. We've just never HAD to think about it because of our inherent privileged status as whites in a country that favors whites.

I think perhaps better days are coming. It takes a lot of work. And it will take time. But better days are coming.