on straight white male privilege.

Over on his blog, John Scalzi kicked loose a bit of a shitstorm a few days ago by posting an essay on Straight White Male Privilege. You should go over there and read the whole thing because Scalzi’s a great writer who makes cogent points, but the Cliff Notes version of it is that “Straight White Male” is pretty much the lowest difficulty setting in the game of life.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people took issue with the premise of the essay. Also not surprisingly, most of the people who took issue are straight white males. They accused Scalzi of sucking up to the Matriarchy and being ball-less and “profoundly unhandsome”, and Straight White Male Privilege doesn’t exist except as an invention of the Feminazi Homo Agenda and whatnot.

As a straight white male, I’d like to add my two cents to the discussion in a slightly more expansive format than a comment post on someone else’s blog.

I’m not much for self-flagellation. I happen to have been born a straight white male, and I feel neither guilt over this circumstance nor a desire to apologize or do penance for it. That said, I acknowledge that Straight White Male Privilege exists, and that it has worked in my favor many times in every aspect of life.

It’s not that Straight White Male is the “easy setting” in life. In our society, it’s the default setting. The vast majority of entertainment, for example, is geared toward the assumption of someone who looks like me as both the default protagonist and customer. A lot of the novel covers on the bookshelves out there feature straight white males, and those who don’t are likely to be found in some literary ghetto within the store—YA, African-American, chick lit, and so on. From a marketing standpoint, it’s the default choice, and from a reader’s or viewer’s standpoint, it’s the default assumption. (How many of the Marvel superheroes in the last batch of superhero flicks have white skin and opposite-sex preferences? The Avengers features four straight white males, one straight white female, and one straight white demigod. The only black character is admittedly a bad-ass, but he has a supporting and supervisory role and does not do the front-line ass-kicking.)

It’s 2012, and mainstream America and its corporate marketing departments don’t mind black characters in positive roles—and very occasionally starring ones—but on the whole, it prefers its protagonists to be straight and white and ideally male. Put a strong female protagonist into a film or book, and see her subjected to instant and in-depth character analysis aiming to clarify that she’s really not that strong or upstanding—see Katniss in The Hunger Games, for example. And filling the role of Rue with a young black female had some people commenting that they felt less sympathy for her character when bad stuff happened to her. (This is despite the fact that Rue is clearly described as “dark-skinned” in the book.”)

So no—when it comes to entertainment, I don’t have to ask for anyone to cater to straight white males. We’re the heroes by default, and putting a protagonist into a movie or novel who isn’t a straight white male practically requires the creator to engage in some sort of explanation or justification. I’m the default setting.

But what about everyday life?

I’m clean-cut, reasonably decent-looking, and polite in public. People don’t watch their purses or change sidewalks when they see me walking toward them. I don’t get followed by store detectives when I go shopping, and nobody wolf-whistles when I walk past a construction site.

When I went on dates and didn’t feel that things were shaping up the way I wanted them to, I didn’t have to worry whether my “no” would be taken seriously, or whether I was obliged in any way to make myself sexually available to my date.

When I go shopping for outdoor items or a new target pistol, I don’t have to suffer any condescending suggestions regarding color choices, my likely lack of technical abilities, or opinions on what I can or cannot handle.

When I’m at the shooting range, I don’t get accosted by anyone trying to “improve” my stance.

When I interview for a job, I can rest assured that my white male face goes with pretty much any office décor without anyone fearing that hiring me will “ethnify” the office, and I know that if I get hired, I get the best possible salary among any race/gender combinations.

I get the best shot at apartment leases, and nobody fears that my presence in their neighborhood will bring property values down.

I can walk hand in hand down the sidewalk with my spouse without having to fear anyone yelling or throwing things at me.

When my love and I wanted to get married, I could have gotten a marriage license in every state in this country without having to beg for the privilege or explain to someone else why I should want one, and I didn’t have to settle for some second-class legal status.

The very ease with which I became a resident and then a citizen of the United States was one big, long exercise in Straight White Male Privilege. I came to the US in 1996, acquired Permanent Residency, and became a citizen in 2004. At every step in the process, I noticed that I was treated in a preferential manner because I’m white, speak the language fluently, and look pretty much like every other white male on the street here. The INS officers were nothing but courteous, there as no snag in the process anywhere, and I got to skip to the head of more than one line while waiting for my name to be called. (For my citizenship interview in Memphis, I walked into the waiting room after checking in with the clerk, and was called up almost as soon as I had parked my butt in a chair, despite the fact that the waiting room was full of people. They were mostly Hispanic, and I wasn’t.)

In contrast, one of my friends experienced nothing but roadblocks and delays going through the very same process, and she had to leave the country after the INS failed to approve any of her applications prior to her work visa’s expiration date. She’s vastly more qualified than I was, holding a doctorate in a medical profession that’s in high demand in the US…but she’s a black female from Nigeria, not a white male from Germany.

Is there such a thing as Straight White Male Privilege? Damn straight there is. I know this because I’m very aware that I am enjoying the benefits of it. And it had nothing to do with my merit or the content of my character, just a lucky roll of the genetic dice. Anyone who says it doesn’t exist (or who claims that straight white folk are actually the persecuted underclass these days) lacks the ability or willingness to walk through life with open eyes and put themselves into someone else’s shoes.

Recognizing this fact is consistent with observed reality. It doesn’t make me ball-less, or un-whatever, or a tool of the Matriarchy or the feminists or the gays, or whoever is trying to mess with the red-blooded Americans these days. It doesn’t mean that I have to give away my possessions, walk around in sackcloth, and purify myself through pain and self-abasement every day to atone for the misfortune of being born a straight white male. But it does require that I go through life a bit more aware of the fact that I have a leg up on others in many ways. Just so I don’t end up being an ignorant asshole and pass up a book because the face on the cover is black, or claim that I felt less compassion for a character because the movie’s director cast her with someone who doesn’t look like my daughter. Because boy howdy, does the country already have plenty of those morons.

28 thoughts on “on straight white male privilege.

  1. White male here.

    Absolutely agree with your comments. Although I see some negatives in such a status, they are so much less than others. And I definitely have gained from many of the same positives that you have listed.

  2. Straight female here. I wonder if SWMP fades somewhat when it comes to certain professions and employers. Anecdotes are not data, but several associates, all pale males, have had extreme difficulty finding work in their fields in 1) academia and 2) federal employment. Combine the two and it gets even stranger. While I was at Flat State U, I served on a search committee, one of three in progress in the department. After finding the most suitable candidates and making the offers, the department then had to worry that HR would not accept the candidates. Why? According to the department chair, HR had let the department know that it wanted to see more females and people of color joining the department. Since only one female and one non-European male were being hired, if the new hires tipped the balance too far in the “pale male” numbers, HR would not (could not?) approve them. Apparently the non-European male counted towards the diversity credit, so all were accepted by HR, but here was one case where SWMP became SWM penalty.

  3. I’m not going to go into details about snooty gun shop clerks, mechanics and the reality of job discrimination. It’s there. And it’s nice to come across one straight white male who recognizes the reality of straight white male privilege.

  4. It’s a deep drive to center field, it could be, it could be, it is…..STRAIGHT OUTTA THA PARK!!!

    Great piece Marko.

  5. LittleRed1 hits a valid point. Right now, we’re so race-conscious that there’s a concerted effort to avoid SWMP; in some circumstances (and my employer, though private-sector, is just as bad as the government) there is an positive effort to promote based on minority membership, even to the exclusion of a more-qualified majority candidate.

    Does SWMP exist? Absolutely it does. Does being a SWM also work against people at times? Again, yes. We’re not going to get anywhere in this country until we quit judging people on the color of their skin and start judging them on the content of their characters.

    Sorta sounds familiar, now that I think about it.

  6. Very well written, and persuasive. But hardly the well-thought-out point of view of a libertarian or conservative person. This line of “reasoning” is simply a re-versioning of Political Correctness. I see no quantifiable evidence offered to support the position.
    I disagree with the assertion on two points.
    For instance, drop your “Straight White Male” into a geographical location for which he is a distinct minority. LA’s Chinatown, NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen, or go live in Tokyo, Shanghei, Baghdad, Istanbul, Timbuktu, Rio de Janero. What happens to “Life Difficulty Level” for the “SWM”? My point is, that of the 308 million citizens of the United States, 37 million (12%) are black. This is the single largest non-white demographic. 40 million (13%)are Hispanic/Latino of any color. (2010 USA Census)
    “The vast majority of entertainment, for example, is geared toward the assumption of someone who looks like me as both the default protagonist and customer.” Because it makes sense to produce a product for 40,000,000 Americans and ignore the 260,000,000? The goal is not to sell to SWM, the goal is to sell to the greatest number of people. Pick any minority, of any population, of any demographic you wish to choose, and they will at the least know that they are out-numbered within that population.
    Secondly, fear of the different is an instinctive, self-preserving reaction in all living things. The origin of “guest” or “stranger” lies in or is synonymous with “enemy” for many languages. “Comanche” is the Ute word for “enemy”. There are similar etymological origins in Greek, Anglian, Apache, and others. Point is, “different”, “strange”, “enemy” are the root of fear, leading to prejudice and discrimination. It is the degree of prejudice and extent of the reaction that differentiates humans. Not whether they have a dick and what color it is.
    This does not make life more difficult in America for non-SWM. The handicapped person offers their experience as proof. Consider this; an injured pro football player loses contact with the remaining healthy squad (as related by former pro now local talk show host). The un-injured do not care to think too deeply about how close they are to being in that condition. This is a natural reaction by the healthy toward the injured of a given population. Again, it is the degree of prejudice and extent of the reaction that differentiates humans. Not whether they have a dick and what color it is.

  7. Your “default setting” strikes me as being truer than Scalzi’s “easy mode”.

    But even though I agree with the majority of what both you and Scalzi are trying to say the preachiness that tends to come off from articles like these really turn me off.

    If I wasnt turned off by the preachiness the whole “if you disagree with me in the slightest you are a racist/misogynist/homophobic idiot” vibe that seems to come along with posts on these subjects would finish the job.

    I also dislike the reliance on anecdotes. They are way to easy to disprove.

  8. I am a straight white male making a mid-career change to academia. I have seen some evidence in support of the information related by LittleRed1 above, but I expect I will find a suitable position because there are openings in my field (it’s not like English, where a few years ago Invisible Adjunct reported something like 700 new PhDs every year against something like 300 available positions), and I am good at the job.

    I can say with certainty that SWMP ain’t helped a lick with data collection for my dissertation, but then in my area, nothing does. ;-) It’s all blocking and tackling, and one just has buckle one’s chin strap, hitch up one’s trousers, and get it done. :-)

  9. I totally agree with everything you wrote, especially the conclusion.

    However, in my experience, for most of the people who would (a little too gleefully, IMO) throw around phrases like “check your privilege” or “your privilege is showing”, SWM-ness does in fact, mean that you should give away your possessions and purify yourself through pain and self-abasement every day to atone for the misfortune of being born a straight white male.

    I think this is the reason why so many SWMs dispute the issue. It’s not that they don’t notice. It’s that for too many people, to acknowledge the existence of SMWP is tantamount to an admission of guilt. And guilt is followed by punishment.

    P.S.: Congrats on the new digs. Is there any way you could switch on comment previews with little effort?

  10. My trouble with Scalzi’s essay (and definitely not yours) is that he offers no evidence of systematic privilege, institutional racism or sexism. He doesn’t offer evidence, doesn’t think he has to, and is shocked that his readers took his statements seriously enough to treat them like an argument.
    I’m not saying it doesn’t exist. I know it exists. Even one person at Kotaku who poignantly cited himself as an outlier said that a better article on the topic was definitely warranted.

    I don’t take the tack that it’s a metaphysical absolute that is evenly and perfectly filtered out such that, as Scalzi believes, no matter how bad your situation it would always be worse if you changed those three parameters, even where completely superficial and not germane to the situation. I didn’t think it was possible to be so deeply racist that one’s racism is a metaphysical position. Is race a metaphyiscal concept? Maybe some neo-Marxist nutcases believe that but they’ve always been obviously unbalanced and their desperate attempts to remain relevant in the wake of Communism’s failure have never failed to amuse in a slow-motion-wreck kind of way. Taken at face value, Scalzi’s conclusion is more racist than DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Perhaps we should give him a mulligan – someone dumb enough to fail to grasp the importance of evidence in the context of an argumentative essay is also someone dumb enough to dig too deep into the earth and unleash the Balrog out of impetuousness or foolishness rather than malice.

    One last point; Scalzi’s original essay and follow-up both fail to take disability into account. I think that should be at least one trump card in this conversation. In a post-industrial information age society like ours, the mentally retarded and incurably illiterate and innumerate have it far worse than anyone else. Even cripples of at least normal intelligence can still perform valuable tasks. Assuming able body and mind, no combination of orientation, race or sex could possibly default to worse than ‘lacks basic survival skills for their environment without the possibility of acquiring them’.
    Two last words on the form of Scalzi’s argument and I’m done: Ipse Dixit.

  11. I think you’re thinking inside the box far too much.

    Many institutions have rules set that are far more lax for minorities because they’re afraid of appearing racist, as a SWM I’m at a disadvantage if I apply for a job or want to go to college, that’s not an opinion, that’s a damn fact. Also, I remember tons of times in school when blacks got off with a slap on the wrist for things which whites would get in real trouble for, this is evident everywhere, you needn’t look farther than the Travon Martin case, when there’s national attention at a man who killed a black teen, who by all accounts appears to have been a bit of a thug, when scores of whites have been murdered by blacks since and you’ll never hear peep about them in the news media.

    Next, you talk about race, which the importance of is drastically overstated and not at all about culture, the importance of which is drastically understated. While you’re a SWM you’re also a cultural mainstream American, I’ve known tons of Asians who are mainstream just like you, and haven’t had an ounce of trouble in their lives for being non-white, same with many Blacks, Hispanics, etc I’ve known. I’ve also known gays who haven’t had issues, probably because they conduct themselves like normal people, but I’ve also known gays who have had issues, why the difference? I’m thinking that it’s because the gays who have had issues speak in an effeminate voice with a lisp, this has far less to do with who they’re attracted to than conducting themselves like jackasses.

    Here’s a thought, do you think Al Roker would be able to get through life with the ease you speak of yourself having? I think he could go into a car dealership and have no problem getting someone to attend to him, a Lil Wayne clone might not be so lucky, but it’s not because of his color, it’s because he looks like a thug. I’ve also known SWMs who have had a lot of difficulty in life but it might have something do with the fact that they’re tatted up (even their necks) and look like extras from Slayer video, why would I want to rent an apartment to someone who looked like that when I can rent to someone who doesn’t look like they’ll be conducting human sacrifices in the place?

    Long story short, straight white males ARE at a disadvantage in many areas in our society, just look at a UNH job application the next time you’re in the seacoast area for proof. Next, the default setting for society has far more to do with culture than race.

  12. I think that a lot of the issue is that to properly try to address the concept of “privilege,” you have to write a book.

    There is an over-reaction because most of the people talking about privilege are concerned about it in a “we should fix this” sort of way. There are two results of this that I see causing conflict.

    1) In focussing on the positives of being a SWM, they leave out the negatives, and thus leave a gaping hole in their argument for people to feel offended in. There are areas where it sucks to be SWM, and where it’s good to be female or minority. The net balance is still on the “it’s good to be a guy” side, but you can’t *just* list all of the good things about being a guy and say you have it easy. You have to look at the broader picture.

    2) Many people do use this as an excuse for flagellation, or at least expected flagellation. Others use it as an excuse to ignore one’s opinion. Both of these are done in the interest of fixing the problem, but they’re still not going to garner support if you don’t feel inclined to white guilt.

    I think that privilege is often too poorly defined. Does it mean “things X people have easier, because their parents worked their way into the middle class” or “things X people have easier, because other people who looked liked them kept other people down.” I think there’s a moral difference, even if the net impact is sometimes the same. Some things should get a “huh, I didn’t consider that perspective”, and some things should get more of a “there ought to be a law.” When you lump them all together, it trivializes the latter and aggrandizes the former.

  13. What interests me in the attacks on majority privilege – something you can find anywhere, not just in America – is that the frequent ignorance/hypocrisy of those leveling the accusations. Throughout history there have been privileged groups in societies – it’s a function of human nature. At least in America, the hard codified discrimination of the past has been pretty thoroughly done away … and if it hasn’t, it lives in the shadows and is but an employment-discrimination lawsuit away from being exposed to the lethal heat of the legal system.

    People – on average – tend to identify with people like themselves. There’s no simple universal set of attributes that can predict whether one person will be able to identify with another, but the more they have in common the greater the likelihood that it occurs. Some people need racial attributes to identify, other cultural attributes, and some can make it happen on almost abstract attributes.

    What seems to hurt some ethnic groups in the macro sense is their insistence on maintaining distinct cultural identities that exclude them the mainstream that’s in power. All other things being equal, in a group of ten any given individual should expect to exert 10% influence over the group … if you make an effort to stand apart from the other nine, your level of influence might not even be 10% due to the alienation you cause. If you work to endear yourself to the rest of the group, you may well exceed 10% influence. I see this situation all the time in work environments where people choose distinct cultural (or individual) identity at the expense of group cohesion and they wonder why it hurts them professionally and personally. When in Rome…

    In the case of white male privilege, as Marko has clearly stated, that’s the group that tends to be running things in America, as such they exert greater influence over norms than anyone else. And for all the outcry over this demographic inevitability, the inequities seem to keep shrinking. I suspect that the current discontent has shifted from complaints about equality of opportunity to equality of outcomes (without fully acknowledging the shift) – which is an entirely different matter.

  14. Hi all~

    Yes I am still a round and I am watching the munchkin very carefully! These kids are untr stworthy and require constant supervision! Ha ha!

    I learned all about fellers like you off another forum Munchkin! They call guys like you ‘Beta Males’. They are the kind of men that let women wear the pants in the famly, they agree with them to shut them up and of course they have no idea of what it means to be aman so they buy into the gay agenda and are butt blaster symps. Or they are metro sexuals or emos and other ghastly parodies. That being the cas of course you will approve of white male priviledge and ‘benefit’ from it ina n unsavory manner.

    Contrary to you and that black baboon in the Whitehouse i never got anything because I was white, I had to work for it just like everyone else. I aim to keep all I have too. You sob and groan because some young chickie has to put up with some condescention at the gun counter. Sheesh – I have to put up with everyone thinking I’m stupid because I’m an old fart.

    Rusty

    Rusty

    • You sure do spend a lot of time thinking up euphemisms for homosexual anal intercourse, there, Rusty.

      Perhaps you should finally put that burning curiosity to rest instead of just wistfully wanking into a washcloth to Justin Bieber photos in the sadness of your lonely nights…

      • I have the same thoughts every time Rusty pipes up. For someone so disgusted with the mechanics of male gay sex, he sure seems to spend a lot of thought on them.

  15. I was stopped by police in Texas after driving too fast through a school zone. From where the police were esconced, they could only see my (black) wife in the passenger seat. On hearing the siren, I turned the corner and pulled into a diagonal parking place, and got out of the car before the police could get into position to stop me. I spread eagled against the side of my van and held very still.

    The police asked me if I was under duress… Didn’t understand at first why I, a white male, would be driving a black woman through their town… They let me go with no ticket.

  16. A few thoughts:

    Being SWM doesn’t mean that the person loses all opportunity to ruin the advantages they got with that status.

    Nor is the life of an SWM completely sheltered from opportunities for society to dig out the thumb-screws and set to work on him.

    I don’t wish to say that you are wrong. I do wish to say that with such a large number of cases, it is easy to find examples that perfectly fit the pattern and examples that go completely counter to the pattern.

    On the other hand, I have seen the challenges (cultural, educational, and legal) which have beset many non-white children who grew up in the nearby urban center. It’s sad and shocking.

    It’s also the kind of thing which cannot be fixed (absent an honest-to-God miracle). Changing that cultural setting would require many millions of people to change their attitude overnight. And to stick to the change, while they disassemble and reassemble many cultural and systemic structures that have been built up around, and/or perpetuate, the problem.

  17. You’re certainly not wrong Marko, and I thing overall your arguement is better written and presented then Scalzi’s (and I do like some of the guy’s books). However, as others have pointed out, the SWM default/advantage/etc is definately both locational, and occasionally situational.

    I live in the great, central north (IE, North Dakota.) Where the vast majority of the population is most certainly *white*. We do have a notable minority of various types, but outside of the Indian reservations, your average walk down the street will make the norm fairly obvious.

    However, I’ve visited parts of both Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and London (off the top of my head) where I was definately in the minority, and beyond sticking out like a sore thumb, in a couple of cases not horribly welcome. My money spent as well as the neighbors, but I bet if I’d been living in the neighborhood and trying to find a local job – I’d have had a tougher time of it.

    Because there, the default, if you were is quite different.

    Which, is completely understandable.

    However, there is a reality in this country that your average SWM is going to become a minority – simply due to birthrates probably in the next generation or two. It won’t be a tiny minority, or anything – but it will be a minority in this country unless certain factors change. The telling thing will be – if perceptions change a generation or two after that and the new ‘default’ (Be it Hispanic/Latino or simply ‘Mutt’ (as Coreia would say, too deep a racial background to parse, or matter)) if the perception changes…

    Or if beaing Straight, White and Male will still be viewed, at least by some as an advantage. Hard to say.

    • You can be in the numerical majority and still be the minority when it comes to power and social status or mobility. Case in point–South Africa in the apartheid days.

      • True. However with apartheid you could easily argue that the Minority also had the military and if I’m not mistaken, the majority – if not all the guns.

        And has been pointed out many times in the past – those whom have the ability to slaughter those who disagree with them… and are completely willing to use it – tend to make the rules. Right, wrong or otherwise.

        Unlike many countries in the world – this one hasn’t fallen down that hole, yet.

        It remains to be seen if that remains true.

  18. And, before someone makes the comment of “What about the Native Americans!?”

    I’ll revise my comment and state: “In Modern, post expansionist United States.”

    And leave it there.

  19. I have to take exception to this. I happen to be a ‘SWM’ and it’s not really done me any good. couldn’t afford college, so I went in the army. got passed over for promo because I was male, and white. We have to promote the right people you know… So, being white and male work against me there.

    Divorce and child support. if there are two things more slanted against white males, I can’t think of them. spent 18 years living in indetured servitude, giving up 80% of my income so that my ex could laugh in my face when it came to seeing my kids. Oh but surely, there’s relief in the courts, right? scuse me while I go laugh myself sick.

    and I can think of a -number- of jobs I did not get, or promotions I did not recieve, simply because I was male, and white.

    Being white and male might have been a free ride 40 years ago, it sure as shit ain’t now. And people not being scared of you isn’t a privalige, it’s being aware that you’re not a threat.

    I also note that neither you, nor Scalzi touch on the rather stunning amount of crime against whites, -because they’re white-.