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On Privilege (Part One): What It Is, and Why You Have It

Jason Beck
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Alexandria
Virginia
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love being a little more self-aware (or not)

I’ve put up a lot of posts on this blog, many of them calling for tolerance, acceptance, understanding, and a more welcoming approach by geeks to our hobby on both the macro and micro levels. I think this is an important topic (why, I even write a blog about it!), not only because this sort of thing is the Right Thing To Do, but also because there are positive consequences for everyone when the atmosphere of a game night or a tournament or of the hobby as a whole is more inclusive, more welcoming, more inviting.

Whenever I talk about tolerance, however, this blog gets/has gotten/will-almost-certainly-get a fair number of comments from people who draw the false equivalency (inadvertently or otherwise) between the "discrimination" or "intolerance" that they (usually white, straight, Republican, males) face and the discrimination and intolerance faced by queers (and others). This is a problematic attitude, but right now I’m less interested in the false equivalency that’s being drawn in this kind of a comparison and more interested in why this kind of equivalency gets made.

From the outset, I ought to note that this post isn’t intended as a personal attack on anyone- either people who’ve made those sorts of comments on this blog or not- but rather an exploration of a topic (privilege) with the intent to open eyes. The problem here is the lack of perspective: The idea that, for example, someone’s distaste for you because you vote Republican is equivalent to the hatred and discrimination that marginalized groups face (like, say, getting killed because you’re a gay) is demonstrably untrue, but the people who make these sorts of points aren’t doing so (usually) to be deliberately disingenuous, or because they want to be jerks, or whatever. Rather, these comparisons and equivalencies get made because the group making them enjoys a certain amount of social privilege and is unaware of the (sometimes, total) absurdity of what they’re saying, at least from the viewpoint of said marginalized group.

Privilege can be a difficult topic to explore, because groups that enjoy it often feel as though they’re being attacked when it is discussed, pointed out, or otherwise criticized. It can be hard, at times, to turn the microscope around and examine ourselves, after all, which was why I explicitly noted that this post isn’t intended as an attack on anyone, but rather as an exploration. After all, I enjoy a great deal of privilege: I’m white, male, able-bodied, and from a favorable socio-economic background. I will also freely admit that I may have been resistant or even hostile, in the past, to the ideas that I’m now putting forward because, again, when you’ve been catered to all your life (in one aspect or another), the removal of that privilege (or the examination of it) can seem like a personal attack.

Okay, blah blah blah, but what is privilege, actually? "Privilege" is an advantage or a benefit that a certain person enjoys. This is the foundational definition of it, really. When we’re talking about social privilege (i.e. like in this blog post), we’re talking about a set of circumstances that benefit a person or (usually) a group of people basically by default.

"But Jason!" you might say, "I’ve had a hard life! Things haven’t been easy! Where’s my privilege been this whole time? Some privilege might’ve been nice!"

A fair point. Let’s go ahead and note that I’m talking in generalities because I have to; I can’t endlessly nuance every statement that I make to note that some people have it harder than others; that some people enjoy fewer benefits from certain types of privilege than others; or that the audience reading this blog post right now might enjoy very little privilege. So that’s the great big caveat: Different types of privilege apply to different types of people in different circumstances to greater and lesser degrees.

Okay, but back to privilege. Privilege is problematic because it’s usually silent, it’s usually the social default. People get used to privilege, and oftentimes it’s actually impossible (or nearly so) for people who’ve enjoyed privilege their entire lives to wrap their heads around it. That is, they lack the proper vantage point; they’ve lost perspective; or, rather, they’ve never had the perspective.

I’m using a lot of rather vague language here because I’m trying to establish a foundation for this conversation before I move into something more specific, something more relevant to this blog, to this audience, and so on. Let’s have a quick example: Because of the economic background in which I was raised, I lack the perspective to understand the mentality of someone for whom going to college isn’t just a given. Not only was it expected that I would go to college, it was assumed that I would do so. And why wouldn’t I? So, for me, attempting to put myself into the shoes of, say, a teenager who is faced with the idea of dropping out of high school in order to take care of their brothers and sisters because they’re simply too poor to afford for anyone to just up and leave like that is problematic.

This is not, of course, to say that I am incapable of that kind of introspection or empathy, but rather that it is difficult for me because I lack the foundational perspective from which it’d be an easy thought experiment. Fortunately, self-awareness, philosophical self-examination, and the experience of the other side of privilege (let’s just call it discrimination, for now) can help put us into a frame of mind wherein we are capable. Of course, it’ll always be more difficult for me to empathize with someone because of their socio-economic background (I’m just harping on this as an example, here) than it will be with someone because of their sexuality, because in the latter case we’re both experiencing the same kind of discrimination (or, at least, the same kind of lack of privilege).

In short (too late?), privilege is something that impacts our mentality, our worldview, our perspective: privilege is about being catered to, it is about enjoying benefits, circumstances, and even legal rights that other people simply do not enjoy because of their personal backgrounds (be those related to ethnicity, sexuality, economic status, gender, or whatever).

Whenever someone talks about this being "a man’s world", this is shorthand for male privilege. Here’s an interesting take on male privilege that contains a lot of excellent (and still relevant) examples of male v. female privilege in modern society in the form of a Male Privilege Checklist. For example, "I am far less likely to face sexual harassment at work than my female co-workers are", or, "If I’m a teen or adult, and if I can stay out of prison, my odds of being raped are relatively low".

This, of course, is true. And you can enjoy multiple types of privilege and discrimination at the same time. I enjoy male privilege, but I don’t enjoy heterosexual privilege. That is, I can (let’s go with the example above) walk down the street with relatively little fear of being raped, which is privilege that my gender affords me, but there are streets I can walk down with fear of being harassed because of my sexuality. The flipside of this is an heterosexual male, who can walk down a street without fear of either of those, or an heterosexual female who doesn’t need to fear harassment because of sexuality, but does need to fear it because of gender, or a queer female who has to worry about both.

This is just a primer, after all, on privilege. It’s a complex and varied topic and one that can engender a lot of hostility in one side or another if not explored in a manner that is mature and reasonable. It’s no use, after all, asserting that people who enjoy privilege are bad. Privilege is inherently neutral. Privilege just is. There are reasons for the rise of certain types of privilege that may not be inherently neutral, to be sure, but it’d be unfair to blame someone just because they were born white, or male, or straight, or whatever.

The inherent neutrality of the existence of privilege is dispensed with, however, when one is made aware of the privilege and/or when one abuses it. So, someone might make a rather ignorant comment from a relatively innocent (albeit privileged) perspective. Were this to be explained to him, then it would be incumbent upon him not to keep making those kinds of comments (because they’re ignorant) and to understand why that kind of comment is misguided. We shouldn’t, as I said, necessarily hold privilege against someone, but should rather aim for education (and, for example, on this point I am sure that I have plenty more to go, too). The condemnation ("That’s just privilege talking!") can only (or ought only) come once people are aware of their privilege but abuse it anyway.

In my next post, we’ll discuss how privilege is experienced from both sides. The examples provided so far are merely meant to be illustrative; we can return to the issue of what it’s like to have privilege, as well as explore the issue of what the difference is between social privilege and the benefits it confers (or doesn’t) and the experience of individual prejudice.
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