Mathias Poulsen

Play Activist & Researcher @ Designskolen Kolding

Facing Privilege

I just read Aaron Trammell’s new book, “Repairing Play – A Black Phenomenology“, and it’s a fascinating, compelling and important book that questions a lot of the assumptions about play we have come to take for granted.

Trammell makes a stark critique of Huizinga’s proposal of play as a civilizing agent, of play as something that maintains and cultivates civilizations. Huizinga contrasted civilisation with the image of the savage, and thus Huizinga’s notion of civilization and the civilized was a product of a colonial attitude, a dream of civilizing the savages (wherever they may be, in the North or in the South) in the image of Western modernity.

Trammell contends that play is only voluntary to some, typically to white people who are already privileged by the particular notion of civilisation that dominates play, and the Western values that underpin it. He argues that play is often a subject-object relation, not one of equal subjects voluntarily playing with each other, but where one is playing and the other is being played with.

The book is a much-needed wake-up call, a necessary and stark reminder that most conceptions of play remain firmly rooted in ideals from Western modernity, and thus, they only include some and exclude many, many others. In Trammell’s stronger words, some – BIPOC – are left in the hull of the slave ship. He suggests that we could understand play through the prism of police and arrest, where some are playing voluntarily – the police, the white people – and some are being played with, being policed, being arrested.

As I was reading, I sometimes felt like this rhetoric, connecting play to police, war, torture and slave ships, may be taking it too far, that these dark, painful images may get in the way of fruitful conversations about play.


That’s how hard my own privilege hits me, as I hear in my head, ironically, the sirens of the tone police. I instinctively long for a more civilised conversation, a painful reminder that I myself embody and sustain the Western, colonial positions I am committed to dismantling. I do believe in civilised, respectful and kind dialogue between all people, but it hurts to acknowledge how privileged that sounds when those very same ideals have been – and continue to be – a vehicle for marginalisation and oppression. I might as well have asked him to “play nice”.

If Trammell is the spoilsport or the killjoy, the one who says what must be said regardless of the “good mood”, then, if only for a brief moment, I am the police or the patriarch, who seeks to resist any and all challenges to the established hierarchy and way of the world – my way.

I am vehemently opposed to the idea that the oppressed can only be allowed to speak if they adopt the language of the oppressor, or that knowledge of the oppressed can only be validated on the scales of the oppressor. I believe that Audre Lorde was right when she famously stated that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.

Even so, I found myself doing just that. Not for long, but just long enough that it hurts. Thus, when Trammell writes that he means to “challenge the norms of White European scholarship with my writing”, he succeeds. At least with this White European scholar.

It demonstrates all too clearly that even those of us who try, however good our intentions, are deeply flawed and caught up in our own heritage.

I am wildly sympathetic to Trammell’s project, and I can wholeheartedly get behind it, especially when it sheds a light on my own unconscious prejudices. I am indebted and grateful of his work, because he makes it so abundantly clear how far we have yet to go. On the one hand, I am already attempting to develop conceptions of play, of language, knowledge and of democracy that challenges Eurocentric hegemony. On the other hand, I, unwillingly, extend this very same hegemony by my own being, my white, male Europeanness.

In a popular straw man argument, white men often claim that they will not make excuses for being white or for being men. That is, after all, how they – we – were born. I see no need for making such excuses, just like I see no demands to do so. I do see, however, an urgent need to acknowledge our privilege and do whatever we can to dismantle and share it.

It is my sincere hope that I can contribute to a different conversation about play, not because I am able to free myself from my privileged position, but exactly because I am not.

Not by pretending to know better than women, the colonised or other historically oppressed groups, but by acknowledging that I do not. By exposing and embracing my privilege, my limitations, my vulnerabilities.

I see in Trammell’s work, as well as the work of feminist and postcolonial scholars, a promising path. A a narrow path, or rather a web of intermingled paths, not at all like the broad, paved boulevards we may have gotten used to, but that is the point. Like Walsh and Mignolo propose, we should be “creating and illuminating pluriversal and interversal paths that disturb the totality from which the universal and the global are most often perceived.” (Walsh & Mignolo, 2018, 2). When they end their book, “On Decoloniality”, by suggesting that our best bet for creating a more just world is to engage in “thinking, doing, sharing, and collaborating with people in different parts of the globe engaged in similar paths”, I fully agree.

I would add “playing” to that list, playing across borders and boundaries, because if we want to “repair play”, as Trammell suggests we must, or if there are other things we wish to repair in the same spirit – such as democracy – we can only do it together.


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