politics tech

Understanding privilege

So it turns out my first proper post on my new blog is going to be all touchy-feely politically correct sociophilosophy crap. So be it. Nerdery and gaming obsessiveness will come soon, I promise.

Brianna Wu, the third big target of GamerGate, tweeted about one of the benefits she enjoyed as a child of what would appear to be wealthy parents:

Being someone who now has a gigantic target painted on her back at all times, the backlash was immediate, with the following tweet being typical of the responses she received:

Steve Wright, owner and namesake of video games blog Stevivor, also added his thoughts:

Two things were clear: Brianna Wu’s detractors wanted her to check her privilege, but none of them actually understand what that means. Wright even stated as much:

Okay, so I might have been a tiny bit far too passive aggressive and snarky with Wright (I’m not proud) but hey, I’m not one to pass up an opportunity to educate. If people still don’t get privilege, despite there being countless brilliant explanations already on the internet, then fine, I’ll write my own, and you – lucky little weblog guinea pigs that you are – get to read it.

Having privilege means that something about you – your gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, or whatever else – gives you a specific advantage in life, or at least shields you from a specific type of disadvantage. There are lots of different types of privilege, and people will typically be privileged in some ways and not in others.

Look at me, for example. I’m a white man living in Australia, which automatically places me into one of the most privileged groups of human beings who have ever existed. I’m also bisexual, which would have potentially been a major disadvantage in my life a couple of decades or more ago, but it now pretty passé. This means I kind of have straight privilege and kind of don’t – being bi is a grey area in more ways than one. I’m lucky that I married a woman; if I wanted to marry my boyfriend, then things would get tougher.

The only real lack of privilege I have in my life is wealth, and even that is relative. Despite coming from a large family with little money, I still got to attend private schools and go to university. Sure, I can’t afford a fancy car or a holiday house in Byron Bay, but I can feel comfortable that I’m unlikely to be sleeping on the street any time soon.

It might sound like I have a pretty sweet deal, and I do, but I don’t feel guilty. You know why? Because privilege is good. There is not enough bolding or underlining in the world to stress that point.

Having privilege is great. Being in a position of privilege does not make you a bad person. Privilege is not something you should feel ashamed of. Hey, most of the types of privilege we have are just built-in and we couldn’t change them if we wanted to.

Having white privilege means that I won’t have racial abuse shouted at me from a passing car, or be turned down for a job because the boss thinks I look untrustworthy or that I will lower the perceived status of his business. Having male privilege means I’m far, far less likely than my female friends to be sexually harassed, raped, have my opinions ignored, be treated like my spouse is the important one and I’m just in their support network, and so on.

Now, let me be clear: being white gives me advantages in life, but it does not make me superior to non-white people. Being a man is great, and makes my life way easier, but it does not make me better than women.

How could these things make me better or more moral or admirable, though? It’s not like I chose to be male or white or cisgender. If I had the option, I certainly would – like Louis C.K. says, “If it were an option I would re-up every year!” – but the mere fact that I belong to these groups doesn’t make me a good person or a bad person. It’s just how the numbers came up in that big celestial dice roll.

So, then, what is the problem with privilege? Why do people go on about it? It’s simple, really: not everyone has it. Women don’t get access to male privilege, the vast rainbow of non-white folks don’t get access to white privilege, many trans and intersex folks miss out on cis privilege, and queer people on straight privilege.

This is why it is so important to be aware of the privilege we have. Other people who lack your privilege have had stumbling blocks thrown under their feet that you can’t even imagine. When people say “check your privilege” they are simply saying “remember”. They’re not saying your life was easy and you’ve never suffered, but simply that others may not have the same privileges you have.

This brings us around to Brianna Wu. In her $200,000 tweet, she makes it pretty clear that she enjoyed wealth privilege in her youth, at least to some degree. There’s nothing wrong with that because, that’s right, privilege is good. But why is she being told to check her privilege?

Fuck knows.

If she was being explicitly ignorant or insensitive about the challenges faced by people who had a less privileged start in life, or telling struggling start-ups to “just get money from your parents, d’uh!” then sure, she’d be ignorant of her privilege and deserving of being told to check it.

The simple fact that she enjoyed that privilege, however, and no doubt still enjoys ongoing benefits from that start in life today, does not mean she has anything to be ashamed of. God, imagine how good it would be if every talented tech start-up could get access to that kind of money. So many of the hugely talented people I know could quit their day jobs and pour their passion into their amazing projects full time if they had access to that kind of cash. It would be awesome. Note

They don’t, though, so they have to work on their amazing video games and mobile apps and other funky projects late at night or on weekends while they work jobs they hate to keep the bills paid. It sucks, but this doesn’t mean that the lucky few with a financial advantage are lazy or hypocritical or strangle kittens or whatever.

So there it is: privilege is great, but not everybody can access it, so if you have it please be considerate toward those who don’t.

Better yet, as a friend reminded me today, why not work on making everyone privileged? The more we eradicate sexism from tech and gaming, for example, the fewer barriers women working in the industry and participating in the community will have to push through.

If you’re sick of hearing about privilege all the time, that’s the one surefire way to shut us up.

– James “DexX” Dominguez

Note – I was worried this aside was going to detract from the main points about privilege, so I’ve stuck it down here in a footnote.

I’m pretty sure Wu’s tweet was simply referring to the total cost of a Bachelor’s degree in the US. Instead of dropping $200,000 in tuition and rent and textbooks and whatnot over several years to send a student to a top university for three to four years, she suggests that a lump sum to start a business may be an alternative to consider. The outlay would be similar, but Wu’s opinion seems to be that the real world experience she gained in her unsuccessful start-up was more beneficial to her than what she learned in her degree.

If my interpretation is correct, then that means the same anger being directed at Wu could justifiably be directed at anyone who got an Ivy League degree in the US. Regardless of how or where the money was spent, it was still spent on setting them up for the future. So go on, go yell at your tech heroes for daring to have degrees.