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.