Everyone (Who’s White and Affluent) Deserves a Prize

Why in America we give participation awards to some kids but not food to others

In the basement of my house, there’s a cardboard box. In it are dozens of old gymnastics trophies, swimming ribbons, soccer participation medals, even an award from a kindergarten chess tournament—a few of which I might have earned, but the majority of which were given to me to commemorate my mediocrity. The gymnastics awards were mostly from placing 10th out of 20, the swimming ribbons for winning the third heat at the B-level championship, and suffice it to say I was a distinctly below average soccer player. Yet, it’s quite a large cardboard box.

A lot has been written and said about the absurdity of participation awards in America. The “you are not special” graduation speech was given at my high school. Growing up in suburban Massachusetts meant getting a ribbon or certificate for anything and everything and being congratulated for it by liberal and conservative parents alike. Then I hit a certain age, realize how meaningless it all was, and started to wonder why we believe children are best validated by shiny metal instead of hard work and real progress. I started to feel unsettled by the fact that we’re so focused on results’ relative outcome, that everyone must feel they’ve won; we couldn’t allow everyone to simply feel rewarded by playing the game. I feared the ideal of winning would permeate into my academic, social, and family life as well, and saw that it had for many of the people around me. I feel confident this wasn’t just me, but still, we keep on handing out ribbons.

The obvious irony that America, in all the important respects, is one of the most exclusive nations on this planet, seems to be missing from conversation. As a society, we’ve deemed it perfectly acceptable to reward children and teenagers for doing absolutely nothing, yet we’re uncomfortable with the notion of social welfare for adults working much harder.

A kind interpretation of participation awards says that reward should come from effort and not achievement. In that sense, welfare seems a natural extension of the idea. The irony in such an interpretation lies in our definition of “effort”: that a middle schooler showing up for a soccer game and kicking the ball once is effort enough for reward, while a single mother—who must feed her children, keep them safe, and offer them an education—who is unemployed because the wages of her job don’t cover the cost of daycare or transportation, is not working hard enough for social security. Here, blind hypocrisy characterizes the American public, or else greed and an unyielding aversion to taxes.

A harsher but more accurate interpretation is that the coexistence of participation awards and social austerity reveal the hidden racial motives of American social policy. Uncoordinated white basketball players from upper-class towns are not stereotyped the way welfare mothers are; graduates from elite private schools do not pose the threat to white America that fear school desegregation would. We know that unemployment benefits do not generally encourage recipients to remain jobless, that food stamps help but are often not enough to fund an average family’s food needs, that health insurance subsidies do increase health coverage. We try to cut such programs not because they don’t work, but in spite of the fact that they do.

Participation awards offer an apt metaphor for much of American society: white children attending public schools in affluent towns can be rewarded with solid test scores, recommendations, and advising, ultimately graduating top colleges for simply showing up and doing average. Minority children, more likely to attend segregated public schools with fewer resources, might work much harder without sharing any of the shiny loot both figurative and literal.

This irony shows that what’s important to large swaths of America is not what people have earned, but what they’re deemed to deserve, with the definition of who is “deserving” falling invariably along racial lines. It continues to astound me that so many of the people I grew up with can simultaneously tell their children that everyone is worthy and a winner while maintaining intentional exclusivity at the political level. As they say, only in America.

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