Privilege: A user manual

 

This page, supplementing my page on the morality of liberalism, is an introduction to the idea of privilege, focusing mainly on race and sex. It's intended for the “nice guys” of privilege: people who don't want to be sexists and racists, but feel confused and uncomfortable when people point out that these are still problems.

It probably won't help your racist uncle. Don't send it to him; I don't need more mail from right-wingers.

I'll talk about what privilege is, how you can tell if you have some, and what you might do with that information.

I'll also cover the most common objections that come up, time after time, when these issues are discussed.

—Mark Rosenfelder, September 2017
 

Oppression and privilege

Oppression starts out stark and unembarrassed. The powerful used to argue openly for white supremacy, male supremacy, and Christian supremacy. The law reflected this, and when law wasn't enough, there was no hesitation about using out-and-out violence.

Things are better now. Most people deplore open oppression and want a world where there's no racial or sexual supremacy. And that's great! It's the result of decades of struggle, and it's a huge, welcome change.

But it's often assumed that these problems are over, and they're not. A lot of people are just not aware of continuing problems. This unawareness is of two kinds:

  • They don't notice open oppression from bad actors.
  • They don't notice covert discrimination from otherwise nice people.
You can be a white person, see and work with black people, and just not notice either the open or the hidden racism. You can be a male and just not notice either open or covert sexism.

I'm going to assume that you dislike open bigotry. I think 2016 made it clear that open bigotry is a lot bigger problem than it had seemed. But that's not what this page is about. We're going to talk about why there are still problems even when open bigotry is suppressed (or just less visible).

We'll start with privilege.

Origins

The term was popularized by Peggy McIntosh, of Wellesley College; a key text is her “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies” (1988).

She described white privilege in the form of statements generally true for the privileged group— a format not unlike my culture test. Some examples:

  • I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
  • I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  • I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race.
  • I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.
I emphasize right off that privilege does not make you a bad person, and that we're often unaware of it. I like McIntosh's way of putting this:
I found myself going back and forth in my mind over the question, Are these nice men, or are they oppressive? I thought I had to choose. It hadn’t occurred to me that you could be both.

You should be aware of privilege in your life, not to feel shame, but to be aware of how different other people's experiences are, and to make sure you're not making them worse.

Male privilege

Here's an attempt to describe some aspects of male privilege:
  • As a male, pretty much any profession is open to me.
  • A male point of view, and male aspirations and fantasies, will be the default in books, movies, and video games.
  • Any consumer product I want, and any medical procedures, will take my needs into account.
  • My job, my school, my church, and my government are likely run by fellow males— as you go up the hierarchy this becomes virtually certain.
  • On almost any subject, I can speak my opinion without it being challenged because of my sex.
  • I can go anywhere without worrying about being physically assaulted by women.
  • I can expect to be the initiator in dating and sex; unwanted sexual attention can be annoying but not frightening.
  • I don't need to spend much time on my personal appearance, and I don't need to worry that my school or job performance will be judged based on it.
  • I can expect positive feedback if I choose to devote myself mostly to my work.
  • I really don't have to think much about “being male”.

Playing defense

Reading this stuff, at some point, perhaps right now, you're likely to feel very defensive. It's unsettling, it feels weird, and you want to get rid of it.

This is normal. No one really wants to learn that they're part of an oppressive system— even if they're assured that they're still nice guys. We'll go over some objections later, but there's one thing I'd like you to ask yourself when and if you feel this way: Why do I feel defensive?

Think of some time in your life when you had to protest something unfair that happened to you. What kind of reaction did you want to have? Did you want the people who did wrong to completely deny the problem? Of course not, you wanted recognition. It's natural to feel defensive... but it's also the opposite of useful.

(If you're wondering, I'm no saint! I've felt resistance to various feminist ideas, and I was simply ignorant of a lot of racism until I started reading about civil rights. I am still often surprised to learn about sexist or racist things that are obvious to the people affected. The advantage of growing up in the pre-Internet era is that the stupidest things I wrote are in notebooks rather than online...)

Life on easy mode

One of the best approaches to understanding privilege comes from John Scalzi. In the massive role-playing game that is real life, Straight White Male is the lowest difficulty setting. It's Easy Mode.
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.
The lowest difficulty is easier, but that doesn't mean it's easy. You can still have a hard time in life; you'll still die, perhaps horribly. But it's still easier overall than playing on higher difficulty settings, from the slightly harder Straight White Female to the very challenging Transgender Disabled Black Male.

Unfortunately, most of the people playing as Straight White Male don't even realize that there are higher difficulty levels. If they can make it, they think anyone can. But just because you can beat Clayface on Easy Mode— and congrats if you can, it's a hard boss fight!— doesn't mean that New Game Plus isn't harder.

In a game, difficulty levels are a fun optional challenge. But in real life, they're a bug, not a feature. You don't get to pick them, so they're unfair burdens. Everyone should be able to play at the level Straight White Males do.

If you're a Straight White Male, you have to make a few adjustments.

  • Recognize that there are higher difficulty levels. Do not pretend to be an expert on playing the game at a level you've never experienced. (Typical example, which I found on Daphne Shum's twitter: a Japanese woman who'd married an Australian talked about how she preferred the greater freedom for women in Australia. Some white guy told her that no, Japanese women actually had it pretty good. Because a white foreigner is more of an authority on being female in Japan than a Japanese woman?!)
     
  • If you've overcome some other disadvantage, such as a disability, you're still not an expert on the modes you haven't played. There are people, after all, who had the same disability and also aren't Straight White Males.
     
  • The people who are experts on those levels are the people who've played them. The experts on racism are people of color. The experts on sexism are women. The experts on homophobia are lesbians and gays. You don't know how it is for them, so don't lecture to them; listen to them and learn something.
     
  • Understand that it's a fantasy that everyone can succeed with the level of assistance you get. They're playing on a harder level. So either those barriers need to be removed, or they need more overt assistance: equal opportunity laws, access to health care and education, income assistance, anti-harassment policies, whatever.
     
  • It's not all about you. Whenever issues of race or sex are discussed, some Straight White Males are distressed and demand reassurance and attention. It's really pretty tedious. Making Straight White Males feel better about themselves is not the responsibility of other social movements.

Some stuff to be aware of

Defense mechanisms

When we look at oppressors we're clearly not involved with, we assume they must be eeeeevil. Nazis, communists, inquisitors, gangsters, slavers, and terrorists do terrible things and we assume they're aware of it and like it. We picture a comic book villain.

Even for these outsiders, that's a pretty poor analysis. Although there are psychopaths who really don't care about other people, the supply of these isn't enough to run a wide-scale oppression. Ordinary people run evil organizations, and they find a way to justify it to themselves. People do not like to actually step on other people's faces for no reason.

How? They tell themselves:

  • The repressed people deserve what they get
  • The repression isn't that bad (the most sordid tasks are always delegated to people at the bottom, and most of the oppressors never see them)
  • The repression is necessary to avoid some terrible fate
  • The worst things are in the past anyway
  • If the repressed people behaved better, harsh measures wouldn't be necessary
  • There's just a few bad apples (people quoting the proverb always forget that the bad apples spoil the batch)
  • There's a natural hierarchy and it would be absurd to try to invert it
  • We're helping to civilize them
  • Everyone does it
  • God told us to
  • Not doing it restricts our freedom
  • Reformers are dangerous radicals who cause more harm than good
Exactly the same mechanisms operate with garden-variety racism and sexism— and with their modern derivative, privilege.

Remember, that doesn't mean you're The Joker. The system doesn't run on psychopathy. It doesn't even run on an explicit ideology of supremacy. It keeps going just based on inertia, apathy, lack of empathy, fear of change.

When you feel that defensiveness creep into your own reactions, ask yourself if you're being rational, or just rationalizing. Your brain doesn't want to see you in a bad light, so it uses the above evasions. So think hard about whether you're doing that.

Not all isms are alike

The civil rights movement, feminism, and the LGBT movement— as well as other progressive causes— parallel each other and share tactics and activists. But there's important differences.

With feminism, the most important difference is that women don't live as a separate group. For the most part, they live with men. By necessity, feminism spends a lot of time on issues of male/female relationships: divorce rights, reproductive rights, the ability to work, safety from abuse and rape, the imbalance in emotional labor, right down to sharing household chores and child care.

This intimacy has advantages and disadvantages. Men always know some women, and can care deeply about their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. On the other hand, this can cause a strange intensification of the denials and defense mechanisms of male supremacy. People will happily accept that racism is bad and declare Martin Luther King Jr. a hero, while ostentatiously proclaiming that they aren't feminists. (Can you name a generally admired feminist parallel to Dr. King?)

As Gail Collins points out, sexism looks a lot more like other oppressions when women don't live with men. The discrepancy in pay, for instance, matters a lot more to single than to married women, and more to lesbians than to straight women.

With the civil rights movement, there were some really huge injustices that could be publicized and undone: demonstrators being fire-hosed in the streets, separate and unequal schools, loans refused in black neighborhoods, blacks being kept out of the army, professional sports, and universities. But the movement bogged down when it got to the mundane everyday stuff. Earlier oppression left blacks poor, living in segregated neighborhoods, and harrassed by the police. Now, being poor is easily solved: get a bunch of money and you are no longer poor. But this solution isn't popular. The mere idea of giving ghetto schools as much money as suburban white schools sparked a tax revolt that hasn't cooled down in forty years.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has suggested that racism won't disappear till the idea of whiteness disappears. He's on to something. America is actually very good at assimilating minorities— in the 1800s people saw the Irish, Italians, Slavs, and Jews as separate and inferior races. That seems ludicrous today: we've accepted them as white. But for some reason, whites can't seem to let the process work with blacks.

Maybe it would just call into question too many self-congratulatory ideas Americans have about themselves. I can't explain it myself, but it's stupid. I don't see what we lose when we admit that our ancestors were racists. It means that America isn't a nation of extraordinary virtue, but so what? Humans can be very crappy to each other. If we could acknowledge the nasty parts of our history and do better in the future, that's virtue enough.

Gays and lesbians have yet another set of differences. They're spread through the population, and that can be an advantage: it's harder to hate someone if they're your own child or classmate or neighbor. On the other hand, prejudice against them is reinforced by religious doctrine, as well as by the cult of machismo. More the latter than the former, really.

And other groups have their own stories, too. Longstanding white policy toward Native Americans, for instance, was that they should just join white society— discarding their own. Naturally enough, what they want is often to be able to reclaim their religions, languages, and cultures, and to have treaties respected which the white man broke.

Intersectionality

Various minority groups intersect: you can be a black woman, or a Native American gay man, a disabled Asian woman, and so on.

Now, sometimes, experiencing one oppression, you can more easily understand other people's; thus e.g. the historical alliance between blacks and Jews. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen; people privileged on one axis may be oppressive or oblivious on another. That is, people have had to struggle to recognize the problem of intersectionality. The term comes from Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.

Some examples:

  • The early civil rights movement was full of unexamined sexism. Both blacks and whites ignored women's problems and sidelined female activists.
  • White feminists (especially in the '70s or earlier) were often uninformed about the problems of women of color, and downright hostile to sexual minorities. They agitated for economic opportunities for themselves, but paid little attention to the general problems of poverty and racism.
  • Blacks were slower to get aboard the LGBT rights train.
  • The easiest abuses to correct are those that affect the middle to upper class— people who have resources for protest, access to the media, powerful friends. Problems of the poor can get forgotten.
  • There are still feminists who vilify trans women; and trans activists have sometimes found that the only attention paid to their concerns is adding T to LGB.
All this matters because people, even progressives, tend to forget the people in the intersections. Plus, if you're a straight white male, be aware that you've got at least three type of privilege going for you.

The orc invasion

Let me give you a science fiction scenario. (Producers wanting a 25-page treatment, have your people call me.)

The Earth is conquered by a species of interstellar aliens. They're larger and meaner than humans, so rather than use the unpronounceable grunt from their own language, we call them orcs.

Unfortunately, they don't just want to pillage and leave; they stay, as an occupying army. Every institution gets a layer of orc overlords; the government is run by orcs; they even take over the churches and make themselves popes, pastors, bishops, and priests. We've misunderstood God, they tell us: God is an orc. They own the movie studios, so movie stars are mostly orcs. They use our institutions, so in theory we retain our rights and can even take orcs to court... but it's no secret that they look down on humans, judges are mostly orcs, and cases will almost always be decided in their favor. The human population is disarmed— the orcs have a monopoly on violence, and they're not afraid to use it.

Orcs and humans are not reproductively compatible; unfortunately, they're too bull-headed to be dissuaded by this. They like recreational sex and plenty of it. Most of them play only among themselves, but plenty of orcs consider any human, man or woman, fair game. We have orifices, and that's all that matters to them. Some of the 'uninterested' orcs are friendly, but they become unfriendly very quickly when this problem is brought up.

At your job, at a party, walking down the street, you see all these orcs— eight feet tall and muscular, snarling or cranky, and used to having their way. You never know which ones are horny and violent, so you are wary of all of them. You try to act humble and inoffensive around them— this sometimes appeases them, though it may also have the opposite effect. If they do choose to attack you, you can of course go to the police... which is run by orcs who will protect their own. (If you try to be aggressive… well, how do you think an orc will take that? They can easily out-aggress you.)

This is— as you may have guessed— what it's like for women on Earth: surrounded by physically stronger beings, any one of whom may be a threat. It's better in that they're actually the same species and natural romantic partners, but it's worse in that if you are abused or raped, well-meaning people will assume that you deserved it somehow, or wring their hands over how you might be making it all up.

Keep the orc scenario in mind when you hear about, say, a woman late at night, sharing an elevator with a male who propositions her. “Not all orcs!” some of you will say. “Yes, they took over the planet by force and historically promulgated orc superiority, but perhaps this one legitimately likes humans.” In the orc scenario it would be asking a lot of a random human to give all orcs the benefit of the doubt: many are violent and you have to be prepared for that. And it's the same for women. Women have to develop a street-smart wariness about men... no matter how much the 'nice guys' don't want to hear about it.

Objections

Aren't racism and sexism over?

Many people— mostly white males— think that racism and sexism are pretty much over. We should all be color-blind now; affirmative action oppresses whites somehow; and we elected a black President.

Not so fast there, sparky. If you want to declare the race problem solved, you have to show, not assume, that it's no longer a problem. You have to look at the data. You have to talk to the people affected.

A lot has changed, but we're not done. On the whole blacks still get the short end of the stick: worse jobs or no jobs at all, worse schools, mistreatment in the courts, everyday racism.

  • Obama's presidency makes it very clear that overt racism is still with us: no white candidate is asked to prove that he was born in America, or depicted as a jungle savage, or accused of “Kenyan post-colonialism”.
  • Overt racism and sexism were big issues in 2016— and if anything they enhanced the prospect of the racist and sexist Trump.
  • If you send out the same resume with a stereotypically white or black name, the 'white' resume gets 50% more responses. People hearing white and black voices saying the same thing rate the blacks as less intelligent.
  • Blacks and whites use marijuana at the same rate, but blacks are arrested four times more often for it. Blacks get 20% longer sentences for the same crimes as whites.
  • Blacks are disproportionately put in prison, live in poorer neighborhoods, have worse schools, have poorer access to business and college loans, and are routinely hassled by police.
  • Black unemployment is twice that of whites; they make 12 to 22% less than whites of the same education and experience level. With wealth the gap is even larger: on average white households have 7 times the wealth of black ones.
  • The government programs that built up middle-class America— Social Security, FHA loans, the GI Bill— weren't extended to blacks until the sixties.
  • Republican governors who refuse to implement Obamacare in their states are harming millions of people, but a disproportionate number of those affected are black or Latino.
Similarly, women aren't yet equal when their wages are consistently less than men's for the same job, when men predominate in legislatures and the boardroom, when 18% of women are sexually assaulted in their lives, when women are routinely sexually harassed, when a women complaining publicly about any of this gets rape and death threats, when women are constantly presented in the media as exaggerated sexual objects, when male legislators write laws to force women to bear unwanted babies.

But I didn't create all these bad things!

We hear about victimless crimes, but racism is the weirdest crime of all, because it seems to be offenderless. Blacks have been enslaved, lynched, murdered, denied employment, denied housing, denied education, their homes burned down, shot while unarmed... but amazingly, there's never a perp. You can still find the victims, if you want to, but no one's done much for them either.

But fine, you personally didn't do any of those things. So what? It's still part of America, still a moral debt that America owes, still something we need to get right. Blacks were cheated of their wealth and their opportunities, and when someone is cheated it's not enough that the offenders merely stop the worst cheats. (And I emphasize, the cheating is still going on— e.g. the problem in Ferguson wasn't just that police felt they could shoot a black man, it was that the police milked blacks through routine, petty harrassment.)

It's also economic stupidity to maintain an underclass that's perpetually underemployed and undereducated. And not having personal responsibility doesn't mean that there's no moral responsibility. We went and beat Hitler even though we didn't start Naziism and we weren't Europeans. Jesus said to give to the poor, clothe the naked, heal the sick, even if you personally didn't steal their money and clothes and get them sick.

Go back to McIntosh's list of things indicating privilege. Even if you are not responsible for the situation, there's still an action item: get rid of the disparity in privilege. You get to play the game on Easy mode; we need to extend that possibility to everyone.

But I'm not a ra[c,p]ist!

Also known as the “Not all men!” response.

As McIntosh says, having privilege and being a nice guy are not exclusive choices.

Look, we're all a bit racist and sexist. Even the disadvantaged classes: women are sexist toward other women, blacks are racist among themselves. These attitudes have been baked into our culture for centuries, and thus into us, and it's going to take time to really confront all the damage they've done.

But the whole point of privilege is that you don't even have to feel any overt hatred for the out-group. Privilege works its dark magic even if you're completely unaware of it. Look at McIntosh's examples again: whites benefit from a whole slew of cultural and institutional benefits just by being white, without realizing it.

But the thing is, privilege affects your thinking, too. If you're a white male and you think any of these things—

  • that everybody in the US can succeed if they work hard
  • that you didn't need government assistance, so no one does
  • that you and your family never got government assistance
  • that it doesn't matter if your company has no women on the board
  • that it doesn't matter if you don't work with any blacks
  • that it's OK to keep trying when a woman keeps rejecting your advances
  • that that one guy in your social circle who touches and hits on every woman is maybe a little weird but basically all right
  • that it's bizarre when people want movies, books, and games that aren't all about white males
  • that it's no problem if people on your gaming server hit on women and insult blacks or gays
  • that people won't have trouble with the authorities if they did nothing wrong
  • that even if sexism and racism exist, there's something wrong with any attempt to change them
—then, sorry, dude, but you're part of the problem. But hey, it's a solveable problem— you can get better!

Also worth asking is: does your empathy always leap immediately to the embattled white male? Why? E.g. a woman complains about sexual harrrassment. Do you immediately sympathize with the poor male? Why not empathize with the woman instead?

Why can't you be nice about it?

This objection comes up so often it has a name: the tone argument. No matter how soberly, calmly, and sensitively someone brings up a complaint, she'll be accused of being too shrill, too angry, too insensitive, not nice.

And sometimes, she wasn't nice! At all! But if you look at a forum discussion of the subject, what would strike a Martian observer is that it's the white males who are invariably the nastiest. If niceness is that important to you, why not help make sure the men deal with the complaint nicely?

The Martian would also observe that, even if the original complainer is not nice, plenty of others will explain things very nicely. Harassment makes people crabby; but some people have a special gift of explaining their own experience in a way that outsiders can understand. Listen to those folks.

Also, recall that asking nicely generally does zilch. During the Jim Crow years, blacks asked nicely for more rights for a century. It didn't do a thing to get the vote or open up restricted jobs or stop the lynchings. Feminism had an even longer incubation cycle— Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley and Abigail Adams asked nicely for the vote a hundred years before women got one.

If you pay attention to these issues, you're going to see a lot of anger and passion and frustration. Sometimes it'll make you mad as well. But be aware that anger— and sometimes incoherent or overgeneralized anger— is the natural human response to oppression. You'd be angry if the orcs took over, and possibly not very accommodating to orcs who feel hurt by your words.

Why wasn't I informed?

You may have never noticed that women or minorities have it so bad. That's OK; things are set up (by inertia more than by present malice) so you didn't have to notice.

But it's not OK to think that because you didn't see it, it didn't happen. Most likely you also don't know, say, the history of India, but that doesn't mean nothing happened in India.

As in any field, you have to look into these things to know about them. Have you read any book about the civil rights movement, about feminism, about LBGT rights? Have you listened to people telling their own experiences?

Maybe you know women or minorities who don't seem to complain about these things. But be aware that one of the things that happens with privilege is that the disadvantaged learn not to speak up when it will only lead to trouble. In the '50s, there were Southern households with black servants, and their employers might ask them what they thought of civil rights. When the person who writes your paycheck asks questions where there's only one acceptable answer, there's a lot of pressure to give that answer. If you think your informant never complains about men... well, it's about as likely as you never complaining about women.

Other women have it worse

This is the Richard Dawkins response. It may seem reasonable enough, but in practice it means “Shut up and stop complaining.” Seriously, do you think people lose the right to complain when the oppression meter goes from 90% down to 50%? That's equivalent to saying that we never need to fix the remaining problems.

Besides, both major and minor aggressions come from the same place— the old, old idea that women don't count as full human beings. Sometimes that means a women gets raped, sometimes it means she gets harassed online, sometimes it means she's constantly propositioned, sometimes it means that she gets ignored at work. The aggressors stick to minor things if that's all they can get away with. But they'll keep doing it if no one stops them.

And, no one applies this logic to anything they really care about. “You don't have cancer, so you don't need to treat your broken arm.” “So what if the dishes are dirty? The house isn't on fire.” “You can't criticize Star Wars eps 1-3 because Batman and Robin was worse.”

The Calvin's Dad response

This one is rare, but is sometimes expressed with eloquence and seeming wisdom. The basic idea is that suffering is good for you. The teller may have experienced great suffering himself and he came out OK, so why can't everyone else?

And there is spiritual strength to be found in overcoming suffering. But paradoxically, this is not a gift you can give others. That is, you can't inflict suffering as a way to improve other people. Suffering in general doesn't produce saints. It just produces miserable people.

Notice that the people who talk so inspirationally about their own travails generally don't put their own children through it. This exalted view of suffering turns out to be one more excuse to keep other people down.

A common, and decidedly unspiritual variant, is to maintain that the poor won't benefit from what everyone else wants and gets— especially when it comes to money. You're guaranteed to hear it whenever school reform comes up. Supposedly it's been proved somewhere that more money can't fix the schools in poor neighborhoods. It hasn't, because no one's ever tried actually equalizing payments to rich and poor schools. But it's easy to see how unserious this argument is: no one who advocates it wants their own children's school to run on half the money.

I'm oppressed too!

As a general tactic, this can be divided into good faith and bad faith versions.

The bad faith tactic is to use your supposed oppression to oppose other people. It makes no sense to complain that you're being discriminated against, and also that everyone else's complaints about discrimination are wrong. It just makes you sound like an alien who's discovered that these hu-mans oppose injustice, and tries to get in on the action without understanding it.

Is there oppression against conservatives, against Christians, against men, against white people? In general no, because these people created the system and still run it. You're not oppressed when people of another group start doing these things:

  • talking
  • complaining
  • writing a blog post
  • going to your school
  • getting elected
  • coming into your store and letting you take their money for services
  • pointing out problems in your favorite art form
  • not accepting your religion
  • following some other religion
  • appearing on your TV
  • coming to your convention
  • playing video games with you
  • appearing in pixel form in your video games
  • asking you to understand your privilege
  • not having sex with you
Something to think about: in school and work discussions, studies have found that men do most of the talking, talk for longer, and get more responses. And if women increase their participation, they're perceived as dominating the discussion, even when the men still dominate. That is, once women get a little more visible, people get the illusion that they're suddenly all over.

(I don't know if gamers are particularly bad at this, but it's worth noting that Rock Paper Shotgun ran the numbers and found that 0.5% of their articles were on social issues... which for some people created the impression that the site was talking about nothing else.)

The good faith version is to point out additional injustices without denying other people's problems. Maybe intersectionality works for you! You can get attention for your problems without denying other people theirs, or demanding that they devote all their time to your issue.

Is there such a thing as reverse racism? The standard answer would be that it's impossible in a system where whites still hold almost all the levers of power. You could probably scrape up some situation where a black man has some power over a white man and misuses it, but even if you could, it doesn't make white privilege disappear. Indeed, the white man could almost always escape that situation or appeal to the authorities for help.

Reverse sexism is trickier. Feminism generally holds that rigid gender roles hurt men too, and perhaps it hasn't always taken that claim seriously. Men do hold most of the levers of power— but women do hold some, and they are not immune to the human tendency to abuse power. Still, you get no points for pretending that women dominate society and can do as they like.

I do get it, but some of these activists are really, really annoying

You know, this is true! Sometimes people blow things out of proportion, or get snarky in a really alienating way, or take a position that's kind of incoherent. (And sometimes they're having a bad day. And sometimes they're teenagers who are more passionate than educated.)

At the same time, I've read many discussions on these issues over at MeFi and elsewhere, and in general it's the privileged group that behaves the worst. They're nastier, they demand more attention, they try to shut other people down. By contrast people who are genuinely respectful of other groups rarely have problems.

If you do get into an argument, you might look at my page on effective arguing. If you get too heated up you may be doing yourself no favors.

Also, you don't have to agree with everything said by feminists, people of color, etc. Lack of privilege isn't a guarantee of rightness; and anyway, there is debate within these groups. On the other hand, get knowledgeable before you get combattive. A lot of the process of understanding privilege is learning to see things you never noticed before— something that will never happen if you're always resisting.

Feminists are so humorless!

This one comes in a couple of flavors. One is to defend offensive comments as jokes. Now, people do say things they really didn't mean... but mockery is often just what it seems like, disdain for the people mocked.

When you're with your pals, you can make all the jokes you want. Humor is transgressive, and things can be funny without standing up to ideological scrutiny. But some jokes that are appropriate for your living room or your chatroom should stay there.

Sometimes the idea isn't that feminists can't take a joke, but that they can't make one. But feminists can be pretty funny. Mallory Ortberg is hilarious. Molly Ivins, Alison Bechdel, Diane DiMassa, Jennifer Camper, Emily Flake, Kate Beaton, Leanne Franson, Nora Ephron, Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, Lena Dunham, Allie Brosch, Noelle Stevenson, Kate McKinnon, Samantha Bee, Tina Fey, and Wanda Sykes are all funny. Of course, if a man who complains about feminism reads or watches some of these women, the argument is going to reverse so quickly it'll make your head spin: he'll find something terribly offensive and demand that somebody put a stop to it.

Also, if you were doing “ironic racism” (or sexism, etc.)— keep that in your chatroom too. Let's put it this way: some person of color has gone through their day and experienced real, outright racism. Then they come on your blog or whatever, and you're expressing “ironic racism.” Is that pleasant or amusing for them? No, it isn't.

But political correctness!

There are people who are terribly worried that people asking for justice are endangering free speech, or silencing others, or in general are creating trouble for later.

For one thing, no, the other side isn't being silenced, god no. They are not sitting, lips tight, pencils broken, in the wilderness. They've got their blogs and their columns and their followers.

For another, to be terribly concerned about “political correctness” you actually have to look at this nation—

  • where a man can win a major party’s presidential nomination by attacking Mexicans, Muslims, and women
  • where the right wing has its own universities, think tanks, newspapers, magazines, TV networks, radio stations, and cash-dispensing billionaires, and controls Congress and most state governments
  • where dedicated gangs of Internet thugs can drive uppity women out of their homes and fire them from their jobs
  • where right-wingers are the biggest domestic terrorist threat
  • where most media is written by white males, stars white males, is run by white males
—and decide that the real problem is when an activist goes and yells at someone.

It may well be that activists don't act according to your precepts. But I like the response of antifa spokesman Daryle Jenkins to this sort of criticism:

If you think what antifa is doing is wrong, then you stand up and do what’s right. Do what you feel needs to be done out there. If you don’t think we have the answer, then you better be putting the solution into motion. You can’t be an armchair quarterback on this. You’ve got to do something.

I don't care about diversity in my media, why do you?

Or as one white dude put it, “I don’t buy the argument that biological similarities like race or gender strongly affect whether or not the player identifies with a character.”

Once again, sorry, you can feel that way because the media already cater to you. If you start to listen to women and minorities, you'll see this again and again: it's really empowering and mind-blowing for them to see protagonists of their race and gender. Contrariwise, if you never see yourself in movies, books, and games, you feel like you're invisible and unwanted.

As just one example, here's an autism advocate's reaction to seeing a good depiction of autistic characters on the screen:

To see someone who is like you, who moves like you on TV, when you’re not used to seeing that, is—it’s hard to describe. It’s like trying to describe water to someone who has never drunk water. It’s such a simple thing, and you weren’t even aware that you didn’t have it until you do. I had no idea that I’d been waiting to see an autistic character played on Sesame Street until I saw that clip with Abby and Julia. They make me feel real.

The irony is that this objection is reversed, in corporate boardrooms at least, whenever a movie is set in Africa or Asia. It seems that the protagonist has to be white, even if we're dealing with apartheid or samurai culture or something.

The Chestertonian objection

Sometime people come up with novel, clever objections that don't really hold up. I name them after G.K. Chesterton, who once wrote a very clever essay against female suffrage, suggesting that women don't need the vote because some class of people should be kept clear of the corrupting mud of worldly politics. Or there's Yahtzee Croshaw's suggestion that men shouldn't worry about writing female characters because they'd do such a bad job of it.

These come off as arcane rationalizations, for several reasons:

  • They invent reasons for just this one case. (Why do we need a class that's kept out of politics?)
  • They fail John Rawls's thought experiment: would you apply this logic if you had to be placed in the world with a random sex / ethnicity? (If votes are so corrupting, shouldn’t Chesterton volunteer to lose his own?)
  • They ignore the wishes and rights of the unprivileged class. (Whatever his intentions, Chesterton wants to make a rule for women without their input; and Croshaw simply assumes that women's desire for representation need not be addressed.)
  • The author has rarely checked their clever idea against the real world. (Men have been writing good female characters for thousands of years.)
As I said above, our brains are very good at coming up with rationalizations in order to keep from losing face. Arguments for maintaining inequality should always be subject to an extra level of scrutiny.

Just as a hypothetical…

You have a thought experiment in mind, you're just wondering about some issue, you have an analogy from an even more fraught domain, you decide to reverse the races or sexes in the example, you'd like to play devil's advocate for a moment…

This will not go as well as you expect.

What you need to realize is that this stuff isn't hypothetical to unprivileged groups. They face real problems, whether it's dire stuff like violence or losing jobs or right-wing harrassment, or aggravating stuff like everyday ignorance and disdain from people who ought to know better. They get impatient with hypotheticals and just-wondering, all of it stuff they've heard many times before.

Go back to the orc invasion. Is it helpful when a nerdy orc talks about what might happen if humans invaded an orc planet, or opines that orc theorists have really interesting biological theories on why orcs are better rulers than humans, or worries that bad wording of complaints might turn off otherwise sympathetic orcs? No, it's not; it's just distraction from the actual real orc oppression that's going on.

The bottom line is this: actual reactionaries are out there who believe that women, blacks, Muslims, lesbians, gays, trans people, and so forth are not 100% people: they don't have full rights to life, jobs, housing, health services, police protection, wedding planning, etc. There's really no middle position any more; it's not OK to say that some people should be satisfied with 90% human status, or that those who don't accept everyone as human are just expressing themselves or something.

Women never look at Nice Guys like me!

Yeah, this isn't exactly an objection to privilege. But a lot of geeks have some feeling of this kind— a feeling that the jocks and fratboys get all the female attention— and it can poison their views of women, and it often derails discussions of sexual harassment. In extreme cases they become MRA assholes, asserting a right to get laid while still insisting that they're Nice Guys.

For help with this you need an advice column or something, but let me just get the basics out there:

  • Geeky guys in their teens or '20s who don't have a girlfriend can feel pretty unhappy, and this can produce a certain whininess. This is normal. Teens and twentysomethings are all whiny to some degree.
  • You may not be aware of this, but an air of being a sad sack is not very attractive. Also, getting obsessed with a girl, though it's the subject of poems and stories since time immemorial, is also not very attractive.
  • No one owes you sexual attention. Hopefully you'll get some soon, but please don't start down the path of getting mad at women because you're not getting laid. This is extremely not attractive.
  • This seems to occur very late to some geek boys: try the geek girls. In high school all the boys want the same three girls, and all the girls want the same three boys, but you should grow out of that in college.
  • If you're awkward and worry that you'll be taken as a harasser— don't worry, women can tell the difference. E-Z test: the harassers don't feel embarrassed when they do something bad.

But I fear change!

People usually aren't that honest, but that's what it comes down to sometimes. Society is a delicate balance, and it always feels like things are getting worse.

The cartoon at right (click to enlarge) is instructive: the cartoonist, Harry Grant Dart, imagines a bar filled with women as a satirical response to the feminists of 1908. A hundred years later, our reaction is more like “That's a pretty cool bar.” The world didn't fall apart when women started voting, drinking, smoking, or playing the stock market.

The impulse some gamers feel to drive women out of games must come from a similar psychological place. Women writing about games, making games, playing games isn't a rational threat, but it's change, and they don't like it.

Change is stressful, and it's not always clear which changes are beneficial, which are meaningless, and which are ominous. But as a rule of thumb, if a change undermines privilege, fearing it is regressive. We don't need to preserve what remains of male and white supremacy.

All these issues only divert attention from The Revolution!

Some progressives are very concerned that people protest only in time-approved ways. They need to focus on The Man and not bring up side issues, especially ones that make the the men in the movement uncomfortable.

The thing is, we've had revolutions, and we've had revolutionary movements for more than a century. We know what happens: putting aside sexism and homophobia means that the new regime will be sexist and homophobic. The Soviets did trumpet sexual equality, but the system was still run by men, and women still had to do all the housework. The Cubans put homosexuals in prison camps. A British Trotskyite party recently divided when the old guard circled the wagons to protect a leader accused of rape.

More modest versions of this objection suggest that sexism is part of the patriarchy and/or capitalism, and won't go away till these things are abolished. That sounds wise, to some people, but it's another way of sweeping the problems under the rug. Capitalism isn't going to be abolished any time soon, if ever. It's actually more likely that we can get rid of racism, sexism, and homophobia first.

Privilege with grace

Let me try to summarize all this as positives rather than negatives.
  • Treat people as people. Respect and interest go a long way.
     
  • People playing the harder modes understand them better than you do. Listen rather than lecture.
     
  • If you hear someone complaining about sexism, racism, or whatever, empathize— “That must really suck!”— rather than get defensive— “Not all orcs!”
     
  • Seek out voices you wouldn't normally hear. (Hint: you know what's easy and fun to explore? Comics!)
     
  • Be aware of when the system is broken. Are your actions helping to fix it or keep it broken?
     
  • That guy in your social group the women all complain about isn't as harmless as he seems. Stand up for the women, not for him.
     
  • Help explain all this stuff to people like you. E.g. if you're male, call out sexists and make your spaces welcoming for women.
     

Caveats

I've seen a lot of discussions of these issues, mostly on Metafilter, sometimes elsewhere. And 95% of the time, the problems are on the relatively privileged side.

But sometimes no. Privilege theory is an intellectual tool, and like any tool it can be abused, or used against bystanders.

I would suggest that if you're about to write an angry comment and any of the following is true—

  • You're going to go off hard against someone who happens to be unprivileged on some axis
  • You're a white dude but you get it, so you're going to take charge of the discussion and explain everything to everyone
  • You're a minority of some kind, so you're going to go ahead and attack people of some other minority
  • You're an American, so you're going to assume that in the rest of the world the villains and the problems are the same
  • There are huge structural problems in society, but rather than deal with them it's totally necessary to pile onto this pop star or blogger or whatever
  • Someone said something embarrassing, and the last twelve replies and zingers were not enough
  • You feel that the situation will be clarified by an analogy from a completely different axis of privilege
—then maybe think before venting. We're told to “punch up, not punch down”, but it's not always so crystal clear who's up and who's down. There are other tools to use than just punching.