Saturday, May 19, 2012

Scalzi, Privilige, White People, and other nice things

Recently John Scalzi took on the issue of "Straight White Male Privilige."

I've been thinking about it and would like to address it. Specifically I'd like to address alot of the controversy involved. I think that alot of people, overwhelmingly white men but I will not rule out some women or other types of folk, may think that stings. They feel angry, betrayed at Scalzi for calling them out for doing exactly nothing.

You think that Scalzi, personally, went over and kicked you. You think everyone a smidgen left of centre is attacking you for no reason. Feminists, woolly headed professors, self important Hollywood celebrities, can't-let-it-go black people, unrepentently decadent gays, among others are dressing you down. You think that suddenly its now immoral to be, well, white/male/straight. You haven't burned any crosses; you haven't spat in a black man's face, etc. You wonder what went wrong.

Hell, I'm white. Very white. It wasn't an easy read for me either, and I could conceptually agree with where he was coming from.

I've thought over it myself. I would like to share my thoughts. Don't feel the compulsion to agree with me. One of the great philosophical strengths is the ability to entertain a thought without automatically agreeing with it---and I'm not asking you to. Just enterain the thought: listein to it, don't accept it as gospel truth just because you're being made to listein to it. Try to understand it.

I don't agree 100% with him.

So don't. Only person you will ever agree with a hundred percent is yourself. I don't agree with a hundred percent of what he said. His words are not mine, any more than my words are yours.

What do you mean, "Privilige?"

A fair point, so let's examine it. I think that its this term, precisely, that is the reason hackles are raised. "Privilige" entails that you get something and you, and I am assuming, you think that you do not owe anything because nothing is owed by or to you.

Kinda true. Kinda not.

Its a nuanced point and I'd like to get into the nuances.

I do have one objection I'd like to address.

My family came from [insert country/ethnicity/religion] [number] of years ago and we didn't ask for anything, we were spat on, prejudicied...

"White" is a spectrum, not a monolithic bloc. Jews, Catholics, Irish etc. have all had harder rows to hoe. This is not in dispute; I do not disagree with it. Its no more fair than what happened to black people, or native americans, or that great entity I like to call "The League of Everyone Else." Thing is, we need to draw a line somewhere or we're going to constantly fighting battles of balkanizing the human experience. "White" is not a perfect place to start but we need to start from somewhere.

Nobody gave me anything!

True. The second you emerged from the womb nobody handed you a diploma that you were damn lucky to be born white and could now do abcxyz. Nobody offically. You don't owe anybody anything and as such you are correct.

As a history major I find thought experiments useful to understanding how and why people acted the way they did in the past.

Mississippi, circa 1930

You are born to a family living in poor conditions in a Southern Town. Your grandparents---perhaps even your parents---remember what slavery was. What it was to be property, to be owned in a way thats inconcievable to you and probably the white population of the state. Nobody in your town is living high off the hog, white people are living in dire straits themselves.

  • You can be extrajudiciously murdered with no guarantee that your assilants will be prosecuted (yes, white people were lynched but if you check the states you'll find the numbers pretty skewed against them)
  • You cannot drink from white drinking fountains and this is probably the mildest indignity you'll have to suffer: walking down the street you're lible to be called obscenties, spat on, etc.
  • You'll be dismissed as "uppity" for trying to address these indignites in even the most elementary fashion
  • You can only sit within desginated sections of public busses, assuming the driver is merciful to let you aboard
  • You are limited to specific areas of public and private buildings
  • Your education suffered from poor conditions (little, if any, money contributed to your learning materials or the physical condition of the school itself) and your options for higher education are limited (try going to any university in the south as a black person---try, triple dog dare you)
  • Your career options are limited to positions involving manual labour, and it always seems, no matter how high you climb or how many achievements you obtain, that a white person doing half, or even less, of the job you do is more valued than you---and if you don't think so, you won't have to wait very long to find out
New York, circa 1960

You are a young, university educated woman. Allow me to flatter you and assume you graduated with high academic distinction from a major university. You want to start a career, particularly in...well, let's just say you want to start a career.

  • The career ads are deliniated between "Men's Work" or "Women's Work"
  • The chance of obtaining the same income as a man, for doing the same ammount of work, even if you go above and beyond the call of duty, is preciously slim
  • If you leave to have a baby, you are no longer employed. No other male employee is obligated to abandon career prospects for a child
  • If you are verbally or physically sexually harassed (yes, words matter)
  • You cannot open a bank account or get a credit card without a male patron, husband or father
  • Being physically abused---or God forbid raped---does not guarantee that your assilant, especially your partner, will be arrested or you'll otherwise be protected. Hell, people will think you're the one with the problem!
  • Try and be taken seriously especially in the sciences
San Francisco, crica 1970

You moved west for greater freedom, intellectually if not politically. Your parents are not speaking to you since you admitted your sexual orientation: you grabbed the first Greyhound out of whatever Midwestern town you lived in for the coast. Now you're here, ensconded within the relative safety of the Castro, trying to find an apartment, a job.

  • You can be and/or likely were physically or psychologically harassed: queer, dyke. All you did was walk down the hallway
  • Good luck trying to see your partner in the hospital if he's sick, or trying to press charges against the unscrupulous people who abused you: they might think that you're the problem and deal with you accordingly
  • You are considered abberational and deviant and you have never molested a child or participated in an orgy. Some people have, across all walks of life throughout history. But you are, for reasons beyond your control, an exception that proves the rule.

Plenty of blacks/feminists/gays are bigoted. Black people throw "nigger" around like its punctuation! Women drool over hunky underwear models! Gays run around half naked!

I'm not denying that there are bigots in their camp. Their reasons are probably as shallow as the reasons given as to why women/gays/blacks, etc., shouldn't expect a fair deal from white people. Yeah, I think that some behaviour is unacceptable whether black or white, man or woman, and I think it is to the detriment of this argument that they are not being called on it. I wish that happened more frequently.

Look, being shat on does not mean (much less entitle) you should shit on people in turn. Do onto others, let he who is without sin and all that jazz.

I had a hard life as a white person [biographical details follow] and nobody helped me!

If thats the case, thats not fair. It is not. White, black, Martian, whatever. If you had to suffer, and I mean really suffer, if you were born into poor Southern or Appalachian towns or an urban ghetto or a company town that had fallen into hard times and disreapir; and had limited job prospects and a subpar education; and if you were sexually assualted or beaten up or threatened with the same; or called 'Kike' or bullied from the time you were six until you graduated high school because your name sounded funny; and if you had to join the military to extract you from that situation or had to put your nose to the grindstone and work like Hercules---that is not fair. I will not deny that. Nobody should endure that. If you pulled yourself out of that you are truly an exceptional person.

Black people have the United Negro College Fund, Women have the National Organization for Women, gays have GLAAD. Among other such foundations and instituions in addition to practises such as Affirmitive Action. You wanted a hand up when you needed it and didn't get it and thats not fair and I won't fight you on that.

Two things.

  1. This is not a game of who had it worse. Nobody will win that fight.
  2. The point is societies are not based around the exceptions but the collective experiences. On average. It may seem that your accomplishments are not appreciated. Pound for pound, straight white men did have it easier---that does not invalidate your experiences. Remember: on average straight white men have had it easier.
Easier is a relative term. White people have gone through shit too but on averge (remember that: on average!) their burden has been slightly easier in part because the game is rigged in their favour.

Its hard to put yourself in another person's shoes. I will not deny that. You can't argue with your entire life, if it has been great or terrible its not easy to envision anything else. I will not ask you to assume that it is easy. Don't think that it is. You need to get outside of yourself and view the big picture, tilt your head and say, "Huh." Do I think that is something that can be done overnight? Of course not! Scalzi's still doing it and so am I!

You will have the rest of your life to get it right.

If you have not performed any active act of bigotry and are confused as to why you are somehow being lumped in with the bigots I respect your confusion. This may be too much too fast and you want to fight it. Resist that instinct: you are not being called to the carpet vis a vis purely being alive. What is being asked of you, which I'll get to in a second, is not a tremendous sacrifice.

What about class? Rich people have an easier ride than poor people!

Speaking historically you have a point. I frankly think that Scalzi is being very blithe by dismissing this. However the devil is in the details.

Two hundred years ago, white people segregated themselves by class as dramatically as by race. A hundred years ago that was certainly true. Hell, the first third of the Twentieth century that was so. Not as much now. White people have a greater chance at social mobility (or, until the last five years ago they certainly did). The odds are in straight white men's favour. Maybe that will change for the worse way things are going.

Let me put it this way: I don't consider that a perfect argument, and I fervently pray that it never becomes one.

What do you want me to do about it?

That's the beautiful part: not much.

Nobody is expecting you to fall on your knees, rend your garments and atone for several centuries of straight white men being all evil. That is not very logical. It is not fair: you didn't create the system. Benefited from it certainly but you did not wake up one morning and say, "Gee Willikers! Let's fuck over the Darkies!" But you can do things about it. Best part is, it is as simple as switching on a light.

  • Don't harm any woman not engaged in the enterprise of trying to kill you
  • Don't assume "All them blacks" are lazy because they don't have jobs and they're poor because they want to be and because they enjoy getting fat welfare cheques. I've been on unemployment benefits myself, and let me say that will motivate you more than anything else on this planet to find a job
  • Don't think gays want to abscond with your child into the night and molest him and that their fight to get married is somehow a great conspiracy against a fundamental institution.
  • Don't assume any other non-Christian, or unfamiliar Christian denomination, is a Satanic cult of some kind.
  • Don't think "political correctness" is some kind of curse.
Don't be an asshole, that is literally all we're asking. Think if what you say or do may be misconstrued as prejudice. Will you be perfect in this endevaour? Hell no---I will not hold myself as a criterion to be emulated. I fail this test at least three, maybe four times a day. You will too. So will they: nobody is perfect. There is no great yardstick by which we are all measured.

If I can boil this down to one "tl;dr" sentence, it is the following:

You can fuss as much as you want about the nuances, but accept the validity of the broad strokes.

Thats it.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I thought Scalzi's post was brilliant, and I hoped it would spur thinking, creativity, discussion and tolerance. In the immediate aftermath of course, that may not be how I would characterize the reaction. Of the positive responses he got many asked "So what do I do?" Your post is excellent - balanced, respectful, gentle (as in non-poke-someone-in-the-eye), and provided a short and easy list of actions in answer to "what do I do?" Yes! on all of them. Thank you for writing the next in the series of thoughtful posts on the subject!