John Scalzi is a pretty popular science-fiction writer, known in particular for Old Man’s War and Android Dreams. He also runs a pretty popular blog.
Yesterday, he put up a post discussing the concept of straight white male privilege using an analogy of a video-game – a role-playing-game to be precise. Nerds aren’t immune to privileged and inconsiderate behaviour towards those who aren’t like them, and I thought this was a good way of explaining the concept:
Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?
Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.
It was, well, controversial, to say the least. There were so many people accessing his blog yesterday that it actually crashed the server for a while. Ironically (or perhaps not) it’s mostly been straight white dudes who are outraged at what they perceive to be Scalzi’s condescension towards them, or otherwise “shaming” them for their privilege somhow.
I personally think it’s a fun post worth reading, and since I’ve also been embroiled in rather lengthy discussions about it elsewhere, I thought I’d repost some of my comments here as well.
My adaptation of the analogy, for people who maybe aren’t as well-versed in RPG lingo:
The computer is “fate”. The points are your initial starting pot – if you’d like, what “level” you start out as. In this analogy, if you see life as a linear accumulation of points society gives you that indicate your success, you could maybe start off with 5,000 points more than everyone else because you’re wealthy, or because you’re smarter, or because you’re conventionally good-looking. Scalzi’s point, whether you agree with it or not, is that as a straight white male it’s easier for you to accumulate points regardless of where you start off.
If you apply this analogy to real social issues like unexplained wage gaps, then it’s like saying that if a man and a woman with the same social, economic, educational and experiential background performed the same task to the same level of satisfaction, a man will get 100 points for finishing the project, whereas a woman would get 80. Or, to give another example, a man might get 1,000 points for getting married, having a kid, and starting a family (and in the real world, get promoted or get a raise because he now has to support a family), whereas a woman might get 300 points for performing her reproductive duty, but lose 100 points in her career advancement because people now assume she just has babies on the brain and is no longer capable of staying relevant with industry changes. Oh, and people like Romney want to take some points away from her for staying at home to take care of the kid.
If you talk about relative situational privilege, the man staying at home to take care of the kid would probably lose 500 points in social standing, where the woman might gain points instead. If you grew up in a poor household and have trouble holding down a job because the educational system screwed you over, you might only get 200 points for getting married and having a kid even if you’re a straight white dude, because now you’re “taxing the system” and “living off the government”.
So yeah, relative situational privilege exists, and is real, and is a big deal. But I personally quite like this analogy for situations of “all else being equal”, because I’m trying to have this conversation with people who are convinced that all of their accomplishments are solely the result of their own individual hard work, and that other people are given the same opportunities with the same judgment metric.
When have two people ever been identical but for the colour of their skin? Or their gender? Or sexual orientation?
Well, if you want to get into it, there’s proven sociological study on the effect that changing the name on a resume to a more racially stereotyped one can have on people’s perception (PDF) of that person’s qualifications for a job, or the effects of a female name vs. a male name on otherwise identical resumes. There have been examples of blind auditions for orchestra positions where women are suddenly selected far more frequently for a position. There’s even an instance of a female scientist transitioning to male, and colleagues saying that his work as a man was “much better than his sister’s”.
This stuff isn’t unsubstantiated.
Do we really need to talk about this? The average (N. American) 19-year-old white dude has been raised in a fairly egalitarian cultural context that says everyone deserves equal rights, everyone deserves respect, democracy is all about one-person-one-vote and so on.
I don’t know if I believe that assumption. By and large, being surrounded by middle-class nerdy dudes under the age of 25 who are often white and occasionally East Asian has taught me that few of them actually take these tenets of equality to heart, even when they pay lip service to it. They’ll tell you that women are equal, but they’ll also say feminism is basically reverse sexism. They flat out refuse to believe in the glass ceiling or in pay inequality – it must be because of maternity leave and wanting to get married. They think that rape is wrong, but that you’re really asking for it if you wear short skirts. They disdain pop culture created by women because it’s all about romance and feelings and mock tomboys for not being feminine enough. They demand nerd credentials of female nerds in a way that they would never dare question their male brethren.
Just look at the scoffing and jeering you get when some female blogger dares ask for female characters in pop culture that aren’t just eye candy, or questions the overly sexualized nature of movie posters. (Actually, that’s a whole other post. Hold that thought.)
One of the problems of paying lip service to equality is that people begin to believe that this is true, without actually lifting a finger to encourage it. The average so-called enlightened nerd–the audience that Scalzi is trying to reach–that I personally have had interactions with thinks people in the LGBTQ community are being too belligerent, that women just don’t like math or aren’t good at it even though we gave them all these opportunities, and that black people are better at basketball so what’s the problem? But they say that they’re not racist or sexist or homophobic or transphobic, and obviously everyone knows that men aren’t better than women, so clearly this isn’t a problem anymore.
And it’s true that some people who fall in the “middle class, straight, white, male” demographic aren’t like this. Some of them go out of their way to educate themselves, some of them go out of their way to try to help, or to at least moderate their language so it’s not a rape joke with every second sentence. But a lot of them are like this…enough that I constantly find myself having feminism 101 conversations, over and over again. Scalzi’s metaphor isn’t perfect, and this article isn’t perfect. But the people that Scalzi is trying to reach–the self-styled intellectuals who refuse to believe that there are unwritten social rules that favour them–they do exist. And I don’t mind if they’re forced to learn a little bit more about their social advantage.
No one is trying to blame any individual for “having it easy”. Life is hard for everyone in their own way. We are, however, trying to start a conversation about how sexism, racism, and homophobia affect individuals in ways that many have never thought about, and one of those ways is that they sometimes don’t have to think about sexism, racism, or homophobia. Privilege isn’t meant in the accusing sense, here – not like “you spoiled privileged brat”. (Well, sometimes people say that, but I try not to.) It’s meant in the sense of “you get to not think about this unpleasant thing that other people can’t not think about”. So we ask that you do think about it, occasionally, because that helps.
I have privilege, too. I’m a female minority immigrant, but I’m straight, and I was born into a middle class family and I’m smart and I somehow managed to graduate university debt free. My privilege is amazing and I can’t imagine having to shoulder half the burdens that I see other people shoulder – people who are less financially well off, people of colour, people with disabilities, transgender folks who have to fight for their right to exist. The fact that I have privilege doesn’t make me a bad person, but I’d rather be aware of the imbalance than not so I can do something about the people that don’t have what I have.
So hey, how ’bout that shaming thing.
It’s been pointed out to me that the “shame” angle of privilege is often used in a silencing way towards white straight men, as though they could never possibly understand and therefore have no place contributing to the conversation of equality.
Which is totally, totally fair. I have seen the word lobbed at male allies who dare to be male, and I think that’s totally shitty, too. I personally think the conversation about equality can’t happen if you don’t engage the people you perceive to be currently in power, especially when those in power have not necessarily done anything to either obtain that power or engage in oppression.
It can be a bit of a frustrating double-edged sword, though, when discussions about microaggressions and discriminating behaviour that people in the minority experience turn into discussions in which people who have not experienced those microaggressions question their validity. I think oftentimes the accusation of privilege comes in frustration, as in: “I’m telling you about my experiences being sexually harassed and you questioning my life experiences simply because it doesn’t mesh with your worldview is privileged”. That’s not necessarily the right way to engage in that particular conversation and will do nothing to further the discussion with that particular person, but…well, I can understand its motive, that’s all.
I’m a 28 year old white male. I acknowledge the privilege I have benefited from because of my background. Now what do I do?
That’s up to you. You can get involved with groups that actively try to change the dynamic. Donate money to groups whose mission you believe in. Write letters to politicians.
Or you start small, and pay attention to where your privilege might harm someone else’s comfort levels or sense of wellbeing, and moderate that behaviour. Don’t use problematic language, like rape jokes, gendered insults, even if you think everyone will know it’s a joke. Think critically about the pop culture you consume, and don’t take messages that it sends about a given subgroup of society as truth. When you see friends who’re engaging in this sort of behaviour, speak up, and educate them in turn.
Is that fair?