How to explain white male privilege to geeks

This is awesome.

So, the challenge: how to get across the ideas bound up in the word “privilege,” in a way that your average straight white man will get, without freaking out about it?
Being a white guy who likes women, here’s how I would do it:

Dudes. 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.

(Thanks for the tip, J!)

17 thoughts on “How to explain white male privilege to geeks

  1. 1. Life isn’t a series of quests.
    2. There’s at least some reason to believe that if it were (at least based on the quests you’ve listed), choosing the ‘straight white female’ option would be an easier setting.
    3. Even assuming this constituted something like an explanation, what is it helping to explain? What work gets done on the basis of this recognition other than the (de facto) marginalization of (ironically) the opinions of white males in conversations and arguments that in any way touch on matters of sex or gender or class?
    4. The notion that any disagreement with the utility or legitimacy of a concept constitutes ‘freaking out about it’ is–and I can’t believe you don’t see this–no different than when a man says something sexist and falls back on the fact that he’s just joking around.

    Not awesome at all.

  2. 1. Um, it’s mostly supposed to be funny.
    2. I hope you appreciate my ironic imitation of your numbering. But induction is not making me hopeful on this point.

  3. It’s a good joke.

    However, it’s been almost 50 years since Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” and so if by now, someone has not gotten the point that racism (and hence, white privilege) is a serious problem in the U.S. (and every other country I know of), they will need more than a one-liner to get it. In fact, they probably have invested a lot in not seeing what is obvious to all those who allow themselves to see.

  4. Very true – I seriously doubt anyone intends this as an actual tool for social progress! It’s just funny.


  5. I’m less confident it’s not useful as a social tool. In particular, it’s the sort of thing that I would have found really helpful as a young, wide-eyed, idealistic and naive freshman — it would have removed certain barriers (mainly, angst about this “privilege” concept and the impression it meant people thought I had life handed to me on a sliver platter) that would have made me less resistant to seeing the world in front of me. I mean, I doubt it will lead to massive social reform or anything, but it has its uses.

    Oh, and I’d recommend complainers chek this out rather than derailing this thread into another interminable debate about privilege. (If you’re really into that sort of thing, a reprint of this post has one going on right now, and if you hurry you can probably get in on it.) If I’ve done the math right, comment #1 above hits the author’s points 1, 2, 6, and 7.

  6. I thought it was pretty witty. And while the world’s list of problems doesn’t include an excess of wit, it also got a sigh. The responses were completely predictable. Such metaphors, because of their obvious limitations, probably do more harm than good.

  7. The joke would work better if World of Warcraft actually had different “difficulty settings”–the very fact that it is an MMORPG actually precludes this.

  8. Yeah, a better analogy would be that the class (you can choose to be a wizard, warrior, etc) is overpowered – sometimes the designer of the game doesn’t balance them right, and one type of character is significantly better than others.

  9. Following comment 5, I came across this, a response I plan to use (perhaps often):

    6. Your piece is racist and sexist.
    This particular comment was lobbed at me primarily from aggrieved straight white males. Leaving aside entirely that the piece was neither, let me just say that I think it’s delightful that these straight white males are now engaged on issues of racism and sexism. It would be additionally delightful if they were engaged on issues of racism and sexism even when they did not feel it was being applied to them — say, for example,when it’s regarding people who historically have most often had to deal with racism and sexism (i.e., not white males). Keep at it, straight white males! You’re on the path now!

  10. My sense, from various political fairly left wing blogs, is that there are plenty of white men who are (1) completely unaware of any privilege, but (2) perfectly prepared to play the race or gender card (as they put it) when it suits them.

    That said, I think it is enlightening to say that having that privilege is like playing a game at an easier setting than others.

  11. My sense was that this was intended as an instructive analogy not a joke (though there’s no reason it can’t be both). Like Euthyphronics, I can identify all too well with the well-meaning but unseeing idealistic young geek who thinks that racism and sexism are primarily about intent, and who thinks that the very real social progress since, e.g. King’s “I Have a Dream,’ means that these forms of prejudice are primarily things of the past. The younger me would have been as dismissive of claims couched in terms of ‘privilege,’ as I was when I first encountered the idea of ‘structural racism.’ It’s hard for me to say what mixture of reflection and life experience was necessary to bring about that change in my perception, and so it’s hard to say what it takes to help others see the complex reality of social privilege. Hopefully spending 10 years in grad school isn’t a necessary element.

    Of course any analogy is going to be incomplete. But I think this one has a lot of potential, because it highlights the multiple dimensions of advantage (‘easier difficulty,’ disparity in starting assets, perseverance in developing those assets, making wise choices in developing those assets) and the difference between default vs earned access to certain areas or resources. No argument or analogy will be of help to those who aren’t willing to seriously consider them. But I think this analogy can be useful for those whose current blindness to privilege is tied up with a genuine commitment to principles of fairness and equality.

  12. I always admire a good political analogy — especially one with a dash of humor. Many thanks!!

  13. NOTE: If all my paragraphs are smushed together without line breaks, I APOLOGIZE and know that I am raging at wordpress/chrome/computer gods.

    The difficulty setting analogy is a great one-liner. There’s another game mechanic though that mirrors the contingencies of privilege even better and it can more easily avoid the ranking issue (i.e. Which identities are the highest difficulty?) I admit though, it’s lengthier and less pithy:

    In WoW, there are items you can get for your avatar called “heirlooms.” They are things like helmets and capes that give you an experience (“xp”) bonus to whatever you kill. In WoW, it can take weeks or months to get a character to the maximum level, so these xp bonuses matter.

    Privilege is like having an heirloom item equipped. It makes things relatively easier for you. It gives you a small leg up in lots of things you do (i.e. a small bonus for each enemy you kill.) It can also give you an occasional big bonus (i.e. when you kill a boss.) Privilege is also like a heirloom item in that you normally acquire it through wealth (you can buy it in the game) or inheritance (your higher level avatar can send it to your lower level avatar.)

    In WoW, you yourself have to earn the heirloom items. Either you have to get a character to max level and then save up enough money/tokens to buy one, or, you can buy one through your “guild” (these are like social networks / clans/ families.) But, you have to have high “reputation” in your guild to buy an heirloom, so you can’t just walk into a new guild and get it on day one. (Disclosure: I stopped playing WoW a year ago, so this is how it worked then.)

    However, in the Real Life game, heirlooms work a bit differently:
    –You don’t have to earn them yourself. You parents can give you heirloom items via inheritance. Also, (if we’re thinking about things like gender/race) you automatically get some ‘from your parents’ when you’re born.
    –You can also buy heirlooms from your guild, but gaining guild reputation overall is harder. But…if you already have one heirloom item, you can jump into some guilds and start out with a high reputation, letting you buy additional heirlooms for cheaper and sooner.
    –Also, in the RL game, you automatically equip heirlooms when you get them, and you can never take them off. Ever. (Occasionally they might get destroyed, but this is rare.)
    –Furthermore, in the RL game, their bonus is a hidden mechanic. It’s not listed on the item’s description. Heirlooms look like simple vanity items. (“Vanity item” is a technical term in WoW for items that are merely fun and don’t help you kill enemies or complete quests.) And there are lots of vanity items in the RL game that look sort of like heirlooms. The thing is, some of these give buffs (bonuses), some of them do nothing, and some of them actually give you a debuff (a negative bonus).
    –And lastly, there’s only a few RL game wikis that mention these bonuses. The more popular game wikis don’t say anything about them, and then there’s even a few wikis that claim there are no hidden stats and this is just a conspiracy theory by noobs who suck at the game

    So now you are running around with these items that you didn’t work for yourself and that not everyone has equal access to (or sometimes access to at all). And they’re giving you an xp bonus which you can’t willfully get rid of. Oh, and lots of people are claiming there is no bonus at all, and really you’re just very, very good at the game.
    Welcome to RL.

  14. Excellent WoW anaology there, Logoskaieros. Would like to add one more point. Your character is probably not aware of the bonuses that their heirloom items give; the fact that making kills, gaining reputation, earning gold and even being welcomed into the higher powered guilds all comes easier than those around is not made obvious in the game, it just happens with no notification whatsoever. Your blissful ignorance of your innate advantage in the Real Life game may well lead you to think that its actually a level playing field and that your advance through the game has been on your clearly above skills alone. Since you’ve been relatively successful, it would be easy to think that everyone else should be too, and that the most reasonable explanation for people who are not is not about heirloom items (or their lack of them) but the poor choices they’ve made within the game. In this way,it is not so far a jump as to tell the less successful people to accept the consequence of their poor gaming choices rather than offering to help them out until they get to the levels where they can access heirloom items too.

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