These Adorable Cartoon Shapes Will Teach You About Racism


If you’re at all interested in how segregation works, you should play around with Parable of the Polygons, “A Playable Post on the Shape of Society” by the programmers Vi Hart and Nicky Case. It’ll make more sense once you click over to it, but the basic idea is that you’re presented with a bunch of grids consisting of triangles and polygons, and it’s your job to move the shapes to reduce the overall level of unhappiness.

What makes a triangle or a square unhappy? In this case, they get unhappy if less than a third of their neighbors — that is, the squares to which they’re immediately adjacent or diagonal — are the same shape as they are. So yeah, they’re racist — or “shapist,” as Hart and Case put it — but just a little: they’re also not thrilled to be in a totally homogeneous neighborhood and adopt a “meh” face when they are.

Unhappy shapes are eligible to move somewhere else on the board, but happy or meh ones aren’t. This whole game’s a very simplified abstraction of the real world, of course, but this isn’t terribly far off from human behavior, in a sense: It certainly seems like way more people move to get out of a neighborhood in which they are a minority than to escape homogeneity.

Anyway, the point here is that even when individuals are only slightly biased with regard to where they live, over time the aggregate result is segregation. It’s another version of an effect I wrote about back in May: Because of the subtle, sometimes unconscious ways we favor people similar to us, there are lots of ways racist outcomes can pop up even in the absence of all that much explicit or malicious racism.

Plus, on the housing front, things are already segregated because there has been a lot of very explicit racism, which lingers today, from white suburbs in midcentury Detroit protesting, sometimes violently, every time a black family tried to move into the neighborhood, to ongoing housing-discrimination issues in New York City. As the Parable of the Polygons simulations show in increasing complexity as you scroll down, that makes it harder and harder to desegregate, even as people get less and less explicitly racist or biased.

This is a really well-done use of the web to make some important but non-preachy points about human behavior, and you should check it out.