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.