Dominion of New York


May 16, 2012

How to Explain Privilege to a Straight White Male

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Written by: Kelly Virella
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Photo Courtesy of Flickr/whatsthatpicture


fter 8 months of running this website, I can now safely say that America has no clue how to talk about race in a manner that might generate understanding. Our comment threads — which for some stories contain over 100 comments — reveal people unwilling to listen and people only interested in entrenching themselves further into their position. And you don’t want to know what the comments that I deem unpublishable reveal.

This lack of understanding has had me wondering what we could do to develop a new language for talking about race. I still don’t know the answer to that question, but yesterday I stumbled across a blogger who was thinking like me and actually came up with a decent way to explain privilege to a defensive straight white male who might otherwise go into convulsions and launch counterattacks upon hearing the word privilege.

John Scalzi explains the idea through the use of a metaphor about video games. He says being a straight white male is like being the player in a video game that has the lowest difficulty level.

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. 

Scalzi adds nuance to the analogy by saying that players on a higher difficulty level might start the game with more points — more wealth, more charisma, etc. — but they are still on a higher difficulty level.

it’s certainly possible someone playing at a higher difficulty setting is progressing more quickly than you are, because they had more points initially given to them by the computer and/or their highest stats are wealth, intelligence and constitution and/or simply because they play the game better than you do. It doesn’t change the fact you are still playing on the lowest difficulty setting. 

I think Scalzi’s explanation is really compelling and so did many of the straight white males who commented on it. It actually lead to a fruitful discussion that Scalzi carefully moderated. One commenter — who identified himself as a straight white male named Ian Ironwood — said something really earnest that gave me an “A-ha” moment. His views were echoed several times. Read his comment and tell me below how you would answer him. (Unfortunately, you can’t answer him on Scalzi’s post. It’s closed.)

I can’t argue with the metaphor — it’s brilliant.


It’s not that we (straight, white, male) nerds can’t understand the concept of privilege (Latin, essentially, for “private law”) and how we’re benefiting from it, I believe. It’s the fact that yes, we didn’t have any more say in the character we were issued by the computer than anyone else, and we get tired of other players grousing like we did. No matter how good or how bad we do, it’s used as a justification for why we are, somehow, inherently at fault for our stats. And therefore most of the rest of what is wrong in the world. I’ll cop to straight white male privilege and how I’ve exploited it as much as anyone else would in my position, but I didn’t cheat to get that card. And having it doesn’t make me an inherently evil, unjust, selfish or immoral person any more than any other sociographic racial stereotype would.

Psychologically, that leaves you with two options: acceptance of your status, and developing some method of dealing with the guilt that being socially privileged forces upon you, like philanthropy or serial monogamy, or check out of the cultural matrix that imposes both the privilege and the guilt upon you. A movement known as Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), advocating Straight White Males abandoning those roles of ever-increasing social and financial expectation/privilege/guilt here in the West and pursue more fulfilling interests off the grid or in exotic foreign lands where you are merely one of many minority populations.

I mean, when you’re stuck with the lowest default setting and you have no way to correct it, why not abandon the Big Quest and indulge in little side-quests off in the hinterlands? You have just as much fun . . . and no one can call you a loser if you aren’t playing the Big Game. Hey, it beats enduring the ‘privilege’ of socio-racial guilt — what else are we supposed to do?


About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


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