Over on his blog, Scalzi offers a resonant metaphor for Straight White Male privilege:
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.
The science fiction/geek community has its own special issues with acknowledging privilege, so this post is powerful not just because the “easy setting” metaphor is so apt, but because Scalzi is speaking directly to our community. It’s refreshing to see a member of a highly privileged group take on the 101 duties and the backlash that results, and Scalzi is perfectly position to bring the Truth to folks who have trouble listening. But actually, his post does not take the metaphor far enough.
As the game progresses, your goal is to gain points, apportion them wisely, and level up. If you start with fewer points and fewer of them in critical stat categories, or choose poorly regarding the skills you decide to level up on, then the game will still be difficult for you. But because you’re playing on the “Straight White Male” setting, gaining points and leveling up will still by default be easier, all other things being equal, than for another player using a higher difficulty setting…
You can lose playing on the lowest difficulty setting. The lowest difficulty setting is still the easiest setting to win on. The player who plays on the “Gay Minority Female” setting? Hardcore.
On one hand, most of us view life as a game with “points” and “levels” more often than we’d like to admit. But Scalzi’s post fails to discuss that what counts as “points,” and how one “levels up,” is defined by, and to benefit, Straight White Males. Straight White Dudes don’t just “accidentally” end up on the “easy” setting - the game is designed around that setting, and its levels are created and maintained by those who play on “easy.” People on other settings may might not even see the value of the game’s definition of “winning,” or they might want to play a different game completely, but they exist in a world that prioritizes competing for points and levels on terms created to benefit those for whom it is easiest.
Furthermore, the “game” metaphor obscures the fact that points/resources are limited. Straight White Men get more of them, and then share them more often with other Straight White Men. So not only is it harder for other players to get to another level not even created to admit them to begin with - once they get there, most of the resources have already been claimed by the dudes who helped each other bound easily over the last boss.
Finally, at the end of the post, Scalzi points out that one doesn’t “choose” one’s own setting - it’s chosen by the computer, and that receiving the easy setting is a stroke of luck. That’s a powerful message - that we did nothing to deserve our privilege, and the fact that we have it is in fact meaningless - but ending there strikes me as a missed opportunity to explore an essential aspect of privilege: its invisibility to those who have it.
All too often, Straight White Men do not see that their setting is easier, and they assume that those struggling against bigger challenges are simply poorer players. At first this is innocent - the Straight White Men are focused on surviving the game themselves, after all. They didn’t design it. But the “easy” setting’s invisibility breeds arrogance, not the humility necessary to acknowledge that you’re “winning” the game because a. the game is easier for you and b. the game itself is designed to benefit you most. The fact that privilege robs us of empathy and humility is nearly as poisonous as the advantages it brings, because humble, empathetic people would not gleefully skip through difficulty while leaving others to suffer.
Scalzi points out, rightly, that players can’t undo their settings. But even if we can’t get rid of our white/male/straight/etc privilege, we can work on dropping our arrogance and ignorance. Any discussion of privilege without that call to action strikes me as incomplete.