Tag Archives: privilege

Why I don’t feel guilty about being a straight, white male

As I have alluded to in other posts, I am very much trying to find my way when it comes to issues like feminism and privilege. While I have always tried to treat all people with the same level of respect and dignity, I have to be honest and say it was from a fairly uninformed point of view. These issues didn’t really register on my radar growing up, but this changed when I became involved in the spec fic community because, in Australia at least, these issues are a fairly constant topic of debate and discussion. For example, I remember meeting the people behind Galactic Suburbia and thanking them for changing the way I read speculative fiction because it is no exaggeration to say they had a huge part in opening my eyes to things I had always taken for granted.

So, I am well aware of my lack of knowledge, and because of that I deliberately seek out articles and blogs that might broaden my horizons. There are lots of wonderful posts out there (like this one), but sometimes the most interesting stuff, and the most offensive, can be found below the comment line. One thing that I have noticed in discussions of privilege is that a lot of straight white males seem to take any suggestion that they might have life a little easier as a personal attack. One of the more common things I hear is that they didn’t ask to be born that way, and that it isn’t their fault, so why should they feel guilty about being a straight white male and having all the advantages that come along with that?

Now, I actually agree with that argument. You can’t help how you are born, the circumstances or the genetics that you are dealt, and noone should ever judge you simply on that basis (though often those making this point don’t see the hypocrisy in applying the same judgements to others born a certain way). I don’t feel guilty (other than on realising how fortunate I am) simply due to the fact I was born in an affluent country to middle class parents, with “white skin” and a liking for the opposite sex. Why should I? It’s not something any of us have any control over. I don’t feel any personal guilt for the things that were done by my ancestors, nor do I feel that I can be held accountable for the actions of others.

So, while I don’t condone the way that this opinion is often expressed, I do understand and even agree with it. But, that is where my path diverges. You see, I think there is plenty for me to feel guilty about. Not the actions of others, or my unchosen circumstances, but the things I myself have done. I don’t take responsibility for the existence of the patriarchy, or the fact that I exist in a world of privilege. I take responsibility for the things that I have done to perpetuate them.

I feel guilty about the times when I have made racist or sexist or anything-ist jokes, or when I have laughed along or when I have simply remained silent. I feel guilty about the times when I have been cut extra slack because of my status and, through sheer laziness, taken advantage of that instead of working as hard as other people must. I feel guilty about the times I have made women feel uneasy or uncomfortable because of my obliviousness to their boundaries. And, I feel guilty about the times when I have judged how others should react to my comments or behaviour, or to their own circumstances, from the safety and security of my own place of privilege, calling them humourless or over sensitive if they dared take offense.

When I was younger I was outraged by the idea that certain groups should be treated differently to make up for past imbalances, believing that it was actually counterproductive to creating a truly equal world. But I have slowly come to the realisation that, unfortunately, hard work and ability are not all that matters, and that they not are rewarded exactly the same regardless of who you are. It’s become clear to me that sometimes, when things have been stacked against a particular group for too long, artificial measures are required to bring things back into balance. It’s not a case of punishing anyone, or rewarding mediocrity, but creating an even playing field.

An example that springs to mind is the quota system in South African cricket. I used to believe that if players were talented enough that they would make the team regardless of colour or background, but now I see that this was fairly naïve. It assumes that two players will get the same opportunities, and will face the same attitudes, but that just isn’t true. A non-white player has to overcome years of disenfranchisement, embedded prejudices and most likely had to contend with less access to opportunities and resources a player from one of cricket’s more traditional demographics. So, before skill and ability and work ethic even come into it, the latter is already out in front and more likely to be selected. The quota system is not about punishing white players or denying them their chance, not does it mean that mediocre players get into the team (just ask England!), you still have to have the talent. It’s about making sure everyone starts from the same place. Hopefully one day that will happen naturally, without need for artificial constraints, but that day is not now. Not yet.

The same thing applies to a lot of other initiatives, ones that I used to decry. Now, I have no doubt that, like any human institution or system, there are times when they are abused, or go too far. But I can see the need for them now, in a way that I never used to, because I understand that due to the nature of privilege some people are born with advantages others do not automatically receive, while others are born already behind the eight ball and will have to overcome more than I will simply to get to the same place. I can’t argue with the necessity, and the morality, of doing something to try and fix the mistakes of the past.

But, it is not enough to support these institutionalised programs. To riff on Uncle Ben, “with great privilege comes great responsibility”, and I believe that I have a responsibility to do something on an individual level, rather than leaving it to others, especially the government, to do it for me. The thing is, though, sometimes it is very hard to know what the right thing is to do or to even believe I can make any difference. At a fairly removed level, there are some things I do due to this desire. I work for an organisation that provides welfare for the most disadvantaged, and does not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, gender or orientation when it comes to employment, membership or who it helps – and I take a fairly substantial pay cut on what I might earn in corporate to do so. I sponsor some children in a country not as fortunate as my own. But, these things are not enough, they don’t require any real modifications to my day-to-day behaviour.

That’s where it counts, in the constant daily interactions I have with others. That’s why I have tried to push through things in my workplace to combat bullying and harassment, it’s why I try and be a safe space for my female friends, it’s why I try and not buy into the “guy talk” at the sporting clubs to which I belong. Note I say “try”, because I often fall short. It’s why I try and be an informed voter and informed human being. It’s why I try and spread the word about things I see online that I feel are good initiatives. It’s why I try and use what small influence I have on the world around me, whether through what I write or what I say, to change it for the better.

I don’t think that to be able to do these things that I need to be ashamed of the way I was born, nor do I think that I need to take every post pointing out examples of privilege as a personal attack. Yes, there is a minority of people who will automatically paint straight, white men as oppressors, but to use them as an argument against the idea of privilege is disingenuous at best. And, maybe they have a reason to be distrustful, it can’t be easy living in a world that seems tilted against you. I can deal with reading a few posts that are somewhat antagonistic against my “kind”, it’s certainly small potatoes compared to what someone who is gay or female or non-white has to put up with every day.

Through this journey of discovery, I have become aware that there is a lot of injustice around me, not in some far off country, but here in the lucky country. My eyes have been opened to the things that I take for granted are not the reality for too many people. The fact I can express my opinion without threats of rape or violence or being called vile names, the fact I can go out at night dressed how I please with out worrying what it might seen as an invitation to, the fact I can hold hands with my wife in public without a very real chance of a beating. All these things and more should be for everyone, and I don’t want to live in a world where they are not.

Being aware of my privilege doesn’t mean being ashamed of who I am. It means using what small power and influence my privilege gives me for good, not evil. It means, rather than perpetuating the system that gives me this privilege, and being content to reap the benefits, that I do what I can to dismantle it. It means trying to support those with less privilege than me, not in a condescending and disempowering fashion, but by listening to them and finding out what they think I should be doing.

You may think that by talking about people who get defensive whenever privilege is discussed I have merely set up a straw man, easy to knock down. All I can say to that is read below the line and see the comments that these sort of posts provoke (for a great example I would point you to the post by John Scalzi I linked to at the start of this post, who I think is an excellent example of someone operating from a position of privilege and influence trying to use those things to improve the world around him). You will soon see that there is indeed a certain type of straight white male that flocks to comment in high dudgeon. That’s not the sort of person I want to be. Do you?

Scalzi and the Game of Life

Like about 98% of the internet, I came across this post from John Scalzi where he attempts to explain privilege via a gaming analogy. It is a brilliant post, and I would encourage you to read the whole thing (he has started discussing topics like this a lot more regularly of late, and is doing a magnificent job).

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.
This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.

Like any analogy, it breaks down or falls short in a few places, which I am worried will be seized upon by people with an agenda as a way of invalidating the whole thing. Of course, Scalzi is more than capable of defending himself!

He has expressed the concept far more eloquently than I ever could, but that’s not going to stop me from sharing my thoughts, after all that’s why we have our own blogs, isn’t it?

Firstly, I think it is important that he points out he is talking about being born in the Western world, because that in itself is a huge advantage from the start. I think we often forget how much we take that for granted. Working for an international not for profit I am constantly confronted with how much even the worst off person in Australia has compared to someone in the Third World. That’s not to say that there is no suffering here, there is, but it is of a different kind.

The one thing I think he doesn’t make quite clear enough is that you don’t choose the settings in the game. Race, orientation, gender, the class you are born into, the initial settings are all decided for you. You can’t do anything about this, all you can do is play with the stats that are rolled for you. I don’t believe that I need to feel guilty for being born with the advantages of being a straight, white male. That doesn’t make me good or bad in itself, it is simply what is. What is important, though, is what I do with those advantages.

There is a passive response, where I do my best not to use my advantages to make the game of life harder for other players who don’t have them. That means being aware of my privilege, not discriminating, not participating in behaviours that disadvantage others, not buying into whingeing of other SWMs about how hard done by they are. But, is that enough? I don’t think so, I think that being born with these advantages requires more of me.

I think that I have a responsibility to make an active response. That means trying to change the fact that there are advantages to the circumstances I was born into. It means actively trying to change the mindset of other SWMs around me, of speaking out against discrimination, of agitating for social change and trying to let my awareness of my privilege inform everything I do. I spoke about this briefly in an earlier post.

While I don’t feel guilty about being born a SWM, I do feel guilty about the times where I have been content to enjoy the privilege that comes with that, without thinking about those who aren’t so lucky. I feel guilty about my lack of self awareness. I feel guilty that for a long time this didn’t even register for me. Even now, my understanding of all this is limited, something I readily acknowledge. I am trying hard to educate myself, and hopefully every day I get better at seeing the ways in which my privilege exists, and better at doing something about it.

It’s not fair that certain people start off with these advantages. But, what is important is that they use these advantages to try and change the way the game works so that, however gradually, the default setting becomes fairer and fairer. I think it is wonderful that John Scalzi has taken the advantages he has been given as a SWM and is using them to try and raise awareness, to try and change the way things are. I hope more of us start to do the same so that one day we won’t have any advantages simply because of the way the game works.