“So What if Privilege is the Lowest Difficulty Setting?” A Response to Scalzi’s Post

So, John Scalzi wrote a post about “how to talk about privilege without getting into arguments over the P-word” by using a computer game metaphor, and the Internet exploded.

People have reprinted Scalzi’s post, and rehashed Scalzi’s post, and interviewed Scalzi, and Scalzi has followed up on his post, and commenters are still proving that it is not necessary to actually read the thing you’re commenting to in order to comment, but if you don’t, you’re going to look like a real jerk.

This is not a post to re-re-re-hash the 101-level topic of “what is privilege?” because there are resources for [making it unnecessary to do] that. (Links kept to four because honestly, I have 141 items on Delicious tagged “privilege” and I am not putting them all in here.)

Of the comments NOT made entirely of fail, one emerging theme is the exasperated, and sometimes derail-worthy “well what do you want me to do about it, sit around and feel guilty?” sometimes expressed as “well you’re not suggesting any SOLUTIONS.”  Elsewhere, conversations have de-railed into absurdities like “well how much of your money will you personally give up to your underpaid female coworker in order to resolve this privilege problem?” in a spectacular display of Missing The Point.

So maybe it would be helpful to try to articulate why individuals can’t “give up” privilege in order to resolve the problems of inequality, and also to try to articulate what people with privilege CAN do if they really want to take the next step beyond “OK so I’m privileged; now what?”

This is my attempt at that post.

The first concept that I think needs to be added to the conversation is that oppression takes place at multiple levels.  Some of those levels are internal (stuff we do to ourselves), personal (stuff we do to other people or allow to happen without intervening), and institutional (stuff that is way bigger and older than any one person.)  I need to give credit to the many, many authors who have written about critical race theory for this framework.  Just today I was introduced by a colleague to Camara Phyllis Jones’ article “Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and A Gardner’s Tale” (.pdf), originally published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2000.  I’m going to quote a couple of pieces of her article, which you really should read in its entirety because it is short, pithy, and straightforward, and I think does a fantastic job of illustrating how these different levels operate.  (She is writing specifically about structures of racism, but similar structures operate when we talk about other dimensions of privilege and oppression, so let’s consider her illustration.)

She tells the story of moving into a home with two flower boxes out front, one full of dirt, one empty.  She filled the empty one with new potting soil, assuming the full box was ready to be planted, and spread flower seeds in both.  But the box with new soil grew healthy, strong flowers, while the box with old soil grew only a few spindly stragglers.  Their basic, initial conditions were unequal, and produced unequal results.  Through no fault of their own, some flowers were planted in bad soil, and through no merit of their own, some were planted in good.

Now she suggests a thought experiment:  imagine a gardener wants to plant both red and pink flower seeds, and she happens to prefer red.  So she plants red seeds in the box with new soil, and pink seeds in the box with old soil.  The flowers grow in these unequal conditions with predictable results, year after year, dropping their seeds at the end of the season to prepare next year’s flowers.  Years pass, and the gardener looks at her crop of abundant red flowers and scraggly pink flowers, which just reinforces her belief that red flowers are better than pink ones to begin with.

Now I’m going to quote Dr. Jones.

This part of the story illustrates some important aspects of institutionalized racism.  There is the initial historical insult of separating the seed into 2 different types of soil; the contemporary structural factors of the flower boxes, which keep the soils separate; and the acts of omission in not addressing the differences between the soils over the years.  The normative aspects of institutionalized racism are illustrated by the initial preference of the gardener for red over pink.  Indeed, her assumption that red is better than pink may contribute to a blindness about the difference between the soils.

Where is the personally mediated racism in the gardener’s tale?  That occurs when the gardener, disdaining the pink flowers because they look so poor and scraggly, plucks the pink blossoms before they can even go to seed.  Or when a seed from a pink flower is blown into the rich soil, and she plucks it out before it can even establish itself.

And where is the internalized racism in the tale?  That occurs when a bee comes along to pollinate the pink flowers and the pink flowers say “Stop!  Don’t bring me any of that pink pollen – I prefer the red!”  The pink flowers have internalized the belief that  red is better than pink, because they look across at the other flower box and see the red flowers strong and flourishing.

So then Dr. Jones asks, what can we do here?  Maybe we can try to make the pink flowers feel better about themselves.  Or maybe we can negotiate with the gardener to knock it off with the way she favors the red flowers with her attentions.  But she writes that this will do nothing to change the unequal conditions that separate the pink from the red flowers.

We have to break down the boxes and mix up the soil, or we can leave the 2 boxes separate but fertilize the poor soil until it is as rich as the fertile soil….  And although the gardener may go to her grave preferring red over pink, the gardener’s children who grow up seeing that pink and red are equally beautiful will be unlikely to develop the same preferences.

So, you may be saying, “I’m not the gardener!  I didn’t put those flowers into their boxes!  I don’t pluck anybody before they can spread their seeds, or yank them out of the better box!  I don’t even see flower color!”

Sit down.

If you have privilege (and pretty much everybody who can read this has some kind of privilege, because,  you know, you are ACCESSING THE INTERNET, hello economic and information privilege), you are not (necessarily) the gardener.  You are not (necessarily) in a position to rearrange the whole garden.  (Though you never know – do you teach? Hire? Evaluate? Control access? Apportion resources? Maybe you have power you don’t realize…)

If you have privilege, YOU ARE THE RED FLOWERS.The red flowers didn’t set up the garden.  Not all red flowers grow tall and strong – some get more light, some get more water, some are in areas that get too damp and get drowned, aphids may gnaw some and not others.

But the red flowers are benefiting nonetheless.  And if you look over at the pink flowers and deny the difference between your conditions?

  • If you blame the pink flowers for not trying hard enough?
  • If you blame the pink flowers for causing strife by speaking up about the difference in your boxes?
  • If you also internalize the preference of the gardener for red over pink flowers?
  • If you say “well red and pink flowers are all equal now; that planting stuff, that happened in the past!”?
  • If you say “well if gardeners don’t like pink flowers, it’s up to the pink flowers to do something about it”?
  • If every time the subject of the boxes comes up you want to change the subject to how your corner of the box doesn’t get as much light as you’d want?
  • you are part of the problem.

Structures of power and oppression work at internal, personal, and institutional levels.  Denying the institutional level is a personal act that supports inequity at all 3 levels.  If you have privilege, you can support a system of inequity just by using your privilege to change the subject or make yourself the center of the discussion – a small, personal, but not insignificant act.

So let’s let go of the flower metaphor, and come back to the “But so what am I supposed to DO?” question.

When I worked in Day Treatment with adolescents, staff talked about there being two types of questions:  Information-seeking questions, genuinely asked to get information, and challenging questions, asked to try to challenge or undermine or de-rail the person they’re put to.  So, “Isn’t it time for lunch yet?” might be an information-seeking question from a kid who was just hungry and wanting to know how much longer class lasted.  Or it might be a challenging question, with the subtext “You’re a mean and careless teacher and you guys run this place like a bunch of jerks and you don’t care that I’m hungry so screw you.”

Let’s assume that at least some people asking “So what am I supposed to do?” in this  conversation are asking information-seeking questions.  (I’m fairly sure some are not, but engaging with a challenging question is a fruitless exercise that I leave to those with more patience.)

Stuff you can do if you know you have privilege and you want to do something useful with it instead of harmful.

  • practice saying “not cool, dude” when someone says something racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.
  • don’t make racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. jokes or comments yourself, even if you’re pretty sure no one from the targeted group is around (especially then).
  • when someone says “that thing you said was not cool, dude,” practice the art of the simple, sincere apology regardless of your intent.  “I’m sorry; I’ll do better next time” works pretty well.
  • vote for people who will work against structural inequality and improve the lives of marginalized groups.  (Reproductive justice and health care shouldn’t only be voting issues for women.  Same-sex marriage and civil rights shouldn’t only be voting issues for GLB people.  Improving living conditions and schools in communities of color shouldn’t only be voting issues for people of color.  You know?)
  • make sure your chores are divided equally if you live with other people (this includes chores they think are important that you don’t care about or even realize are being done.).
  • ditto for childcare (if you describe caring for your own children as “babysitting” them?  Step back.)
  • make sure work is divided fairly (in terms of quantity, status, reward, etc.) if you work with other people.
  • consider devoting some of your time, energy, money, skills, etc. to a group promoting social justice.  Maybe even for a group you don’t belong to, as an “ally.”
  • practice collaborating rather than always leading when you’re in a group.
  • practice noticing how others different from you are treated in the same situation as you
  • listen when marginalized people talk, and practice thinking “what does it mean to me if that’s true?” rather than tensing to react against them or start off by saying “But…”.
  • ask people different from you how they’re treated if you don’t notice, in order to build this skill (useful questions: “when do you feel unsafe or targeted in your life?” and “how does your race/gender cause people to react to you?” and “what would you want someone like me to know about living in your skin?”).
  • read writing by people from marginalized groups – Geek Feminism, Racialicious, my gosh the options are far too many to even list here, just find something written by someone who isn’t like you, and start reading.  Follow links to blogs and news articles about marginalized people.  Listen to what people are saying about their own lives and concerns, and practice taking it seriously (see above).  Reduce the chance that you’ll say “but why isn’t anyone talking about ____” when plenty of people ARE talking about it; you just don’t notice.
  • work on changing how you respond to people with less privilege (talking over women or dismissing their ideas, tensing up around people of color, assuming everyone is heterosexual, buying into stereotypes).
  • practice noticing how you have been helped even if your life has been hard.  Consider what your life would be like if everything was the same but you were ALSO without one of your privileged identities.
  • use your privilege to increase the volume or platform size of people with less privilege when they speak, and to hold back the tide of privilege-deniers.
  • teach those like yourself to see and understand structural inequality, privilege, and oppression.  Use your power for good, not evil.

I welcome additions in comments.

Edited to add:  I appreciate the new visitors to my blog.  I hope some of you will add the RSS feed to your readers – I blog intermittently but I try to be interesting!  In terms of comments, I am not interested in hosting an argument over whether privilege exists, or how women are actually the privileged ones, or whether X group just has more merit or works harder than Y.  The conversation I’m willing to provide space for is exactly what I identified as the purpose of this post:  discussion of what individual responses might be useful when you recognize that you have some degree of privilege.

47 thoughts on ““So What if Privilege is the Lowest Difficulty Setting?” A Response to Scalzi’s Post”

  1. Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot says:

    My problem with these types of arguments is that the proponents want to argue on a group level with some things, but not others. Apparently, all white males are doing something bad by not sharing enough. But proponents of that argument never point to the crime statistics and say that black people – for instance – are causing most of the crime in the US.

    And they shouldn’t do that. Why not? Because an INDIVIDUAL black person who follows the law should not have some kind of burden and guilt-trip laid on him for things outside of his or her control.

    But with white men, even the homeless guy who is going to commit suicide in a month apparently has far, far more privilege than Ivanna Trump and Heather Mills. Or else these guys are just collateral damage or “losers” (when white males just get everything *handed* to them in life).

    Men also have flatter curves with regard to intelligence and other characteristics. Women are bunched more in the middle. So more men are at the far extreme of intelligence (maybe explaining why Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs are at the top – it’s because they are right-hand curvers, not because they are men, it’s just that far more men fall into that category). Everyone ignores the fact that FAR MORE MEN are also homeless or in other places that stupid people go (like jail). That’s the distribution.

    1. Axel says:

      WTF – your comment comes across as a pre-formed troll-type post rather than as an attempt to engage in dialogue.
      Is that what you intended or are you genuinely interested in exploring the possibility that you might be wrong, and if so, what would it take for you to shift your position?

      1. Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot says:

        I am open to hearing other points of view. I have thought about this quite a bit.

        Your comment makes it sound like YOU are set on your position, and nothing is going to sway you. Seriously.

        What do you think about an old, disabled, poor person in a wheelchair? If it’s a white male, is he to just be disregarded because everyone knows that *they* just get everything handed to them?

        There are probably times for viewing groups as groups and other times for viewing individuals as individuals. “Social justice” people focus too heavily on the group level when it comes to white males. If you are a black person who follows the law, it must be exasperating to have people attribute characteristics to you that you don’t have – possibly based on characteristics of black people as a group.

        I wasn’t just writing things to write them when I talked about the flatter curves for white males. If men are at the extremes – well, they are going to be at the extremes. More CEOs, but more homeless men. And that’s really how it shakes out.

        Bigotry towards middle-of-the-road white men because Bill Gates has lots of money:

        A man who is under high stress in his job, a bit behind on his mortgage payment for a small house, and paying alimony to an ex-wife who is now living with a new rich boyfriend, not working and driving a Mercedes … doesn’t feel particularly privileged. And he is not. And he has nothing to do with how much money Bill Gates has.

        Even more ridiculous, Heather Mills pointing her bony finger at a homeless man and telling him to admit to his privilege and feel guilt … is simply a bizarre notion.

        1. Ms. Sunlight says:

          I do think you’re kind of missing the point. No-one expects you to feel guilty for being privileged, and no-one expects you to make restitution. That’s a total straw man argument that keeps being brought up. Has Heather Mills ever actually done that?

          You can’t help the situation you were born into or that society and circumstance places you into. It’s not something to be ashamed of or apologise for. Being wilfully ignorant and denying when you do have it better than others (even when there is clear statistical evidence) is profoundly dishonest, however.

          1. Fortran says:

            [Ed. – Sorry but we are not going to have a conversation about whether people who are doing better than others just have more merit/have worked harder. Go back and read The Gardener’s Tale some more.]

    2. Alan says:

      “Apparently, all white males are doing something bad by not sharing enough.”

      I’m sorry you think that, because that’s really not what this article is saying. That a group has privilege does not inherently make them bad. What is absolutely bad is being blind to that privilege, because if you’re blind to it you’re blind to much of the world. When you can’t see the context that we all live in, it becomes dangerously easy to come to incorrect, bigoted conclusions: black men are criminals, successful women sleep their way to the top, Arabian men are terrorists. When you recognize that you have privilege, you are far less likely to accidentally say and do sexist, racist, or homophobic things.

      “Everyone ignores the fact that FAR MORE MEN are also homeless or in other places that stupid people go (like jail). That’s the distribution.”

      To quote the article, “If every time the subject of the boxes comes up you want to change the subject to how your corner of the box doesn’t get as much light as you’d want?” What you’re doing here is called derailing. Intentionally or not, you’re avoiding the topic at hand, trying to shift the topic away from something uncomfortable to something more comfortable. That many men are homeless or in jail is orthogonal to the issue that, generally speaking, straight white men have pervasive social advantages over other groups. It is entirely possible to agree that straight white men enjoy significant privilege in many areas, while simultaneously agreeing that men have problems in other areas.

    3. J.M. Dow says:

      There are some things that I cannot argue with simply because I do not know enough to properly argue them with you. I will mention that just because one has ended up in jail or has become homeless–that does not mean they are stupid. Unfortunately, life is made up of a series of choices, and those people obviously made some bad ones to to end up where they are. However, life, as much as we’d like it to be, is not 100% in our control. There are things that happen to us–say, a tornado come down and destroying our house–that’s simply just crappy luck. It sucks, but it happens.

      But about your argument about how “proponents of that argument never point to the crime statistics and say that black people – for instance – are causing most of the crime in the US.”

      Interesting thing about that statistic is it’s somewhat misleading. To harken back to the argument in the article, remember when she mentioned that the soils are not equal, and so the pink flowers don’t have a chance to blossom like they should? This is one of those instances. Impoverished neighborhoods, regardless of race, have a MUCH higher rate of crime than middle class and rich neighborhoods. And the thing about black people in the US? They are disproportionately more poor than white people. It all comes back to the infertile soil thing. They don’t have the opportunities that a white person might have–even a white person in the same neighborhood–and so they are more likely to fall into the life of crime that is so common in those situations.

      Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t black people who have managed to struggle their way out of those situations. It’s just really impressive that they did. That also doesn’t mean that white people in those situations don’t face struggles. However, let me provide you with a hypothetical situation:

      It’s a fact that black people often get harsher punishments than white people for the same crimes. From the New York Times: “Data collected from state courts by the Justice Department also shows that a higher percentage of black felons than white felons receive prison sentences for nearly all offenses, and also that blacks receive longer maximum sentences for most offenses.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/07/weekinreview/07glater.html)

      If that’s the case, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to assume that if someone gets caught doing something bad, a police officer is more likely to let a white person off with a warning or a lighter fine, etc. than a black person. That one warning might be all it takes to get that white person on the right track to turning their lives around. On the flip side, that black person that got arrested and fined or jailed did not receive that chance, and so will be more likely to be a repeat offender.

      None of this negates the hardships in various peoples lives. Your comment elsewhere about a disabled white veteran who MUST have it easier than some successful, rich minority? Is ignoring this portion of the article: “Not all red flowers grow tall and strong – some get more light, some get more water, some are in areas that get too damp and get drowned, aphids may gnaw some and not others.

      But the red flowers are benefiting nonetheless. And if you look over at the pink flowers and deny the difference between your conditions?”

      I hope this might help you understand a little better what the author was saying. Some of what you’re arguing has already been answered in the endless rehashes of John Scalzi’s article, whereas this one is more of a response to the “Okay, now what?” question.

      1. Viz-and-to-whit says:

        [Ed. – again, this is not a place to argue that some groups of people just have more merit than others. This is a place to have a conversation about what useful responses there are to one’s position in the system of power and privilege.]

    4. Dean Esmay says:

      [Ed. – As I said elsewhere, I am not interested in hosting a de-railing conversation about how X privilege doesn’t exist, or Y group is actually the privileged one. You can do that other places. This post was intended to be a response to, and a conversation about, what actions you can take in the face of internal, personally-mediated, and institutional factors that marginalize some groups at the expense of others. I won’t be accepting future comments that argue whether those factors exist.]

    5. Somebody Else's Problem says:


      Scalzi’s OP did seem to have that subtext from my reading as well, which is why I appreciated Dr. Sheila’s post, esp. the “Stuff you can do” section and its framing. The SWM-guilt is the trifecta of privilege-guilt, and can be very difficult to overcome on a visceral level, particularly for men willing and empathic enough to face their privilege and work toward internal, personal, and institutional change. The roles of ally, support, and listener can all feel like they lack agency, and are certainly counter to the modes that males are socialized to operate in (which is kind of the point, with gender at least). Activists in social justice movements have been known to use privilege-guilt to manipulate or censor white, male, and/or hetero allies, but it’s rarely cynical, more often coming from internalized oppression, or by displacing rage at the general onto the individual. We’re all human.

      Guilt, however, is a weak and unproductive place to be coming from, since the objective is to extirpate systems of oppression from our internal selves, our lives, and the institutions of society, not to replace them with a hegemony of previously marginalized groups. When Huey Newton and Bobby Seale condemned what they considered “black racism” in the separatist camp of black nationalists, this was precisely why. And the original Black Panther Party readily worked with white left and liberal allies, as well as in solidarity with other oppressed groups. Like Huey said in 1970, “We must gain security in ourselves and therefore have respect and feelings for all oppressed people. […] We should try to form a working coalition with the gay liberation and women’s liberation groups.”

      Your point that hierarchies of oppression are useless is well-taken; they’re better observed and described than ranked. Dr. Sheila’s “Stuff you can do” seems to apply to every system of oppression I can think of, even the less frequently mentioned ones like class, disability, age, religion, immigration/nativism, linguistic minorities, etc.

      We’re all deserving of real equality and dignity, but we have to take the time to step back and really listen to each other before we can get there.

      1. Dr. Sheila says:

        Thanks for your comments! I am glad there was something useful for you in the original “stuff” post. I’m hoping to have an (irregular) series of posts on examples of people using their privilege for good. I already have a bunch of tabs open – if nothing else it’s a nice exercise for me in cultivating a mindset of looking for positive examples, because they’re certainly there to be found (just not as obvious as the counter-examples sadly).

    6. E says:

      “But with white men, even the homeless guy who is going to commit suicide in a month apparently has far, far more privilege than Ivanna Trump and Heather Mills.”

      Class privilege is also an important factor, as is ability (including mental health issues), gender, sexual orientation, et cetera. So that “homeless guy who is going to commit suicide in a month” may have white privilege and male privilege but he doesn’t have class privilege. Ivanna Trump has a ton of class privilege.

      Not that it’s a privilege competition. It’s just that these things are nuanced. They’re not meant to be wielded in great, blaming statements, or even to comment on individuals, really. It’s a way of considering the detrimental mechanisms of society and the way that this (negatively or positively) contributes to the way people are treated and perceived, and the way they perceive themselves.

      In short, it’s complicated, but useful.

  2. dying red flower says:

    Pretty much all of the “what to do”s involve responses to social settings or donating money. Is there anything for broke, highly un – social people to do other than vote pro – choice, donate time to a group they are not an ally of, or negate their accomplishments to promote pink flowers?

    1. Axel says:

      DRF. Privilege is a social problem so by its nature, addressing it requires social engagement (money is a form of social engagement).
      A few things you could do:
      Writing letters to politicians
      Watching your behaviour, and changing it if you find yourself supporting or reinforcing privilege,
      Calling people on their bullshit when you see it on-line.
      Read around the subject so you can talk to it knowledgeably.
      Write supportive comments when you read people calling out privilege.

    2. Dr. Sheila says:

      I thought I listed a lot of items up there that are pretty accessible even for the quiet and introverted – read, listen, share responsibilities equitably, observe, etc. But what do you think would be appropriate for folks like those you describe?

      1. dying red flower says:

        I honestly have no idea, that’s why I asked. My work is either done remotely or on a client’s location, so I literally either work from home or I’m on a plane, and have zero co workers. I’m single, I live alone, and have very few friends, none of whom are local to me. I go whole weeks without interaction with human beings aside from walking to the grocery store.

        As for commenting online and reading, I have a chunk of friends who identify as radical feminists and am pretty well read on most social justice subjects (lots of air times means lots of time to read ;)). But as a rule, always refrain from commenting on the subject in blogs or forums because my opinions differ drastically from what most “social justice people” think and I find that in SJ circles, people with “dissenting opinions” are often attacked publicly and have their information disclosed.

        1. practice practice practice says:

          It all just boils down to a consistent practice of basic compassion. Treat people courteously regardless of who they appear to be. When you see people being racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic, say something, whether it’s online or in person.

          A lot of it is just thinking and questioning things that you’ve taken for granted. Like, if you have a friend coming to visit, and your roommate starts cleaning, should you go off and do something else, or help her? (Don’t even THINK of telling her, “Oh, you don’t need to do that.” because you know who will be judged if things aren’t tidy? She will.)

          1. dying red flower says:

            I guess I just interact with such a small subset of people I rarely have issues involving the situations described above. I have never lived with anybody female so the room cleaning thing doesn’t affect me, and as I said, I avoid commenting in public places where people are made targets for their opinions.

            Also, I would be interested in how one is supposed to treat their own accomplishments provided the axiom in this analogy is true. Should a red flower feel any sense of achievement in growing so high knowing that the other flowers never had a shot? It seems to me that red flowers might feel that their own growth is meaningless because there is no way to attempt the game using the harshest conditions.

        2. azurelunatic says:

          It sounds like you really don’t have many opportunities, but especially depending on your field of work, I might be able to think of a few things.

          If you are involved in computer software, see if it can be used usefully with keyboard only, with mouse and onscreen keyboard only, with a very small screen size, with operating system default colors other than white background and black text, whether it has animations or flashing, whether there is important information presented in images or by color distinction, whether it will work with system text at a larger size, whether it will work with scripts turned off, whether it works well with some of the color-and-formatting-stripping accessibility browser extensions, and similar fiddling with the settings which might be optional to you, but could be important to someone with a disability.

          Even if that’s not your field, occasionally testing random websites against some of those things, and letting the site owners know that hey, your site breaks under these conditions, could be useful. One person I’m acquainted with decided to send feedback to every site that didn’t work with her screen reader for a week, and out of about thirty sites contacted, some wrote back nastily, some wrote back unhelpfully, many ignored her, and maybe one said something helpful with intent to fix.

          On client sites and at the grocery store, you might look for physical accessibility features, like curb cuts in appropriate places, alternative routes if some feature steps, handrails, doors that could be opened by someone with low strength, low dexterity, or from seated in a wheelchair/limited reach. Look for passageways that are too narrow for a wheelchair to maneuver. Look for seats that might collapse under a particularly heavy person. Look for cars parked across the sidewalk, or obstructions in the accessible route. You may not be able to comment in every case for fear of alienating the client, but noticing is the first step.

          1. dying red flower says:

            without shattering any of my NDA’s lets just say “testing things of a technical nature to the point of which they break” Is my job in not so many words. This also means that contact with any other employee than my designated contact about my work (or about things I may have noticed during the course of my work) would violate many of my contract agreements.

            In short, my profession requires I be extremely “discrete” with my findings and very “direct” with my reports.

          2. azurelunatic says:

            Not shattering NDAs is a very good thing.

            If you don’t currently mention things that could have an impact on people with disabilities as a part of your report to your designated contact, would that be something you could add? For example, say part of your report is already “and when you increase the text size over X amount, the text overflows the layout and becomes unreadable” (a common website problem); if that became “and when you increase the text size over X amount, the text overflows the layout and becomes unreadable; this would be a problem for low-vision users who must use large text”, suddenly the report also advocates for people with that particular accessibility need. Even though you’re not necessarily telling them that they need to change it, it’s less easy to dismiss a technical problem that’s an accessibility problem when the impact of that accessibility problem (and that it *is* an accessibility problem, because that’s not a connection that everybody makes when noticing an issue with a website or program’s display that only shows up under certain circumstances) is pointed out alongside the problem.

            Five years ago I barely realized that blind people could use computers. Having worked alongside a number of designers with computer accessibility needs has turned me into an advocate for accessible design of all kinds, simply by seeing the questions they were asking about every proposed new feature, and starting to ask those questions myself. It’s been a great relief to them as they’ve trained more people that they’re now not always the one who has to ask “So what about the screen reader users?” Someone else can be the one to bring up the topic for the first time, so it’s not always them every time.

          3. azurelunatic says:

            (And if you are already bringing up broken things that are accessibility needs in your reports to your clients, then congratulations! That is part of the solution, even though it may seem like a little thing.)

        3. Dr. Sheila says:

          I wanted to come back late and say a couple of things.

          First, if you like your life and how it’s working out for you, awesome. If you don’t, that’s a bummer and I hope it gets better for you.

          Second, if you have friends, opportunities will come up to use your privilege in positive ways. Even something that sounds really mundane, like reading a book in a genre you like by an author who’s a woman or a person of color or gay (or all three!) and talking about it to your friends challenges the paradigm of “we mostly talk about issues and consume media wherein people like us are central.” Share a link on Facebook – about the World Health Organization rejecting conversion therapy, or how female farmworkers are sexually abused, or how Asian kids are bullied in schools, or to a petition to re-hire and give back pay to a Safeway employee who was fired for intervening when a guy was kicking his pregnant girlfriend in the store (actually he did get reinstated yesterday, woo!) Yeah, this means you might need to subscribe to some blogs and newsletters that would even make you aware of these issues – that was actually on my original list of things you can do, but maybe you’re already pretty aware, since you say you’re well-read. So move from reading to sharing/speaking, even if it’s just in small ways.

          Third, your comment about being attacked on social justice blogs concerns me for a variety of reasons. It’s not OK to threaten and stalk people because of their ideas, ever, and if that happened to you, I’m genuinely sorry. It’s unacceptable. At the same time, when you say your “opinions differ drastically,” it makes me wonder: how are you doing on that “listening to people with less privilege” thing? Just because you listen doesn’t mean you’ll agree, I understand, but I find that when I listen to people and ask myself “what if their experience is really true as they describe it? What would that mean to me as a person? What effect would that have on how I live my life?” sometimes my opinion changes, or I find myself wanting to ask questions rather than lead with my disagreements.

          Hope something in there is useful to you.

  3. jordan says:

    these are some really great suggestions. i think that increased understanding and awareness of structural inequality can help significantly, by informing how we respond in different kinds of situations (from individual settings to broader social ones).

    i think that there are two persistent problems, though, with asking people in positions of privilege to address inequality (which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do so!). one is that the system of privilege/oppression isn’t random or just an artifact of historical accident. privilege wouldn’t reproduce itself so effectively if it didn’t serve a purpose, or weren’t built so deeply into how we make sense of the world. racial, gendered, and other socially constructed divides benefit the few at the expense of the many, so i think it’s not surprising that those who benefit resist giving up their superior social status.

    the second issue concerns the relationship between power and subjectivity (or selfhood). i think it’s really productive to suggest how individuals, especially privileged ones, can address inequality in their everyday interactions and practices. but i also think the system of power operates to disadvantage so many people precisely by emphasizing individuality over collective sociality (see for example, Foucault, Butler, and others on the cultivation of individual selfhood, especially in neoliberal contexts). so i think it’s also important not to accept theories of society that rely on that atomized view of social organization (i.e. that society is just a collection of independent individuals).

    the good thing is that i do think increased understanding of how structural inequality works can enable people in different social positions to address these issues more effectively. the more complicated issue, though, is that inequality is tied more fundamentally to our social and economic organization, which means we need to address those structural issues (i.e. the quality of the soil, which frankly, the red flowers have little incentive to fix, especially if they perceive there to be a limited amount of fertilizer available).

    1. Dr. Sheila says:

      I agree that we need to make sure the conversation doesn’t reduce oppression to something that only happens on the individual level (the personally-mediated and internalized levels). That’s why I really appreciate “The Gardener’s Tale,” because I think it does a beautiful job of illustrating the need for systemic, structural changes to undermine kyriarchy.

      On the other hand, I hear the frustration of people who feel relatively powerless, don’t see themselves as engaging in a lot of personally-mediated oppression (correctly or not – learning to self-observe the micro-aggressions you may commit takes time!), and don’t feel like they have particular access or resources to make changes at the institutional level (which again may be a mis-perception – the personal is political, after all.) I can definitely resonate with the exasperation and annoyance at feeling like you’ve been slapped with this label, “privileged,” and… now what? “So you’re saying I’m just a terrible person?” was a reaction I had a LOT when I was first challenged in this way.

      I think it’s valuable to start to identify small, personal actions that can transform your relationship with privilege from one that is unacknowledged and comfortable, to one that is overt and thoughtful, where you make the choice to take actions that subvert, reject, or leverage your privilege in some way that may have a disruptive effect on kyriarchy. And I think there is not such a clear barrier between the personal and institutional levels – institutions, after all, are made up of people, and if I say “hey, knock it off” when I hear someone repeat a racist stereotype, maybe someone else in the room with more power wakes up and thinks “we have got to address this issue of workplace culture!” and takes institutional action to hire and promote more people of color or make their voices more central in the institution. (OK that’s a simplistic and somewhat idealistic example but lots of little actions do move things toward a tipping point, As You Know Bob.)

      A lot of the reaction against “privilege conversations” is that most people think of themselves as good people, and get really torqued over the idea that now there’s this Giant Character Defect called their privilege that they don’t know what do do about, and the reactive tendency is to just defend against the whole concept.

      So that’s what I wanted to do with this post, say “having privilege isn’t a referendum on you as a person, and you don’t just have to wear a hair shirt and apologize for existing – it’s way more helpful to figure out how to use your privilege to nibble away at the system.”

      1. Jordan says:

        Hi! I didn’t see your reply till just now. I agree with your points, which is why I really appreciated the suggestions in your post. I especially like your point about how incremental individual change can make a difference in how institutions are run. We definitely should learn to identify and challenge all the ways we’ve internalized racism and inequality, while acknowledging that racial and other inequalities are systemic and not just things or biases a few people possess.

        It’s mostly that, while I think the flower box analogy is useful, it leaves out any account of why there’s poor soil in one box in the first place. Racism isn’t a random or natural part of our history, but a historically specific way of instilling and maintaining difference and inequality, and it’s important to address that in order to change it.

        I also suspect the language of “privilege” is unclear or misleading for many people. Race and gender privilege (and all the others) are the result of subjects’ structural position in an unequal system, not just some set of material (or even social advantages). Privilege confers advantages but isn’t reducible to them. But I think many people, especially those who benefit from the system, mistake the social justice understanding of privilege for the more vernacular one.

        The broader point I’d make about individualism is that there’s a link between selfhood (as individual) and the system of power, and that institutional forms of power have been cultivating a certain kind of individual subjectivity, especially in the last two hundred years, linked to (the creation of) interior desires. There’s a connection between methodological individualism and social inequality that’s worth considering further.

  4. Wahrheit says:

    How can the most privileged group on the face of the earth – attractive women and the subset of attractive white women – lessen and work against their privilege?

    Should they just reject everything that is handed to them? Should they refuse to marry a male CEO (who eventually keels over from a heart attack from the stress) with all the perks, or simply pass along the *same* lifestyle as a CEO but without the work to people who cannot pull that off?

    1. Alan says:

      That’s so loaded, I suspect that you’re not asking it honestly. But just in case:

      Do you see the part in this article or the original Scalzi article about how straight white men should reject everything that is handed to them, or feel compelling to donate/pass along what they get? I hope not, because it’s not there. Being aware that you enjoy privilege is the key first step. As Scalzi said in his followup, what you do with that knowledge is up to you.

      But of course, even that buys into your dubious assumption: that attractive women enjoy particular privilege. All women, attractive or not, are far more likely to be raped than men, and in many ways American culture trivializes the severity of rape. A female video gamer who plays online is highly likely to be taunted with threats of rape. All women face the risk of being sexually harassed by people in power over them, especially employers. All women, but especially traditionally attractive women, face challenges of being taken seriously professionally, of having customers demand to speak with a man, of peers more interested in dating possibilities than work, of being erroneously identified as less capable and thus passed over for jobs or promotions. Women face far more cultural push back to remain trim and attractive for the benefit of others, society is all too happy to judge them for it. (Tellingly, you don’t see a lot of magazine covers dedicated criticizing how men look in swimsuits, but they’re pretty common for women.) As a male, I don’t face any of this. That’s part of my privilege.

  5. ZZ says:


    Men and women have different roles and different pressures in life. You are cherry-picking things about women, and ignoring men. Why?

    Men are under higher pressure to breadwin. An unemployed woman is frequently called … a homemaker. An unemployed man is just an unemployed loser. Because of that men are pressured to take on most of the truly dangerous and dirty jobs that exist. And because of THAT, well over 90% of job-related deaths, disfigurement and maiming involve men. Men are under higher pressure to choose a career that can also support a wife and possibly children. Women can take careers that are more “fun” if they want, or they can have a serious career until they run into a roadblock and then decide to become a stay-at-home wife. Women are much more likely to “marry up” – financially – than men.

    Women can become whatever they want today, but they can also be shielded from real life (“housewife”) with no censure at all. Or they can mix and match current and traditional roles, also over time. Men can pretty much just … work. Or be called a lazy bum.

    Men are murdered and assaulted at a much, much higher rate than women*. Men may also even be raped at a higher rate, but victims of rape in prison are simply not going to report it for the obvious reasons. Part of the assaults are caused by the higher pressure on men to *do something* if a woman is being victimized in public. Help her, you coward. That extends to *doing something* if the defense of the country is at stake. If China attacked the United States, MEN would be drafted. Men are subject to selective service registration right now; it’s a felony if men do not register and they lose student loans and grants, for instance.

    Got a flat tire, is someone harassing you, do you have a problem in public? Women are much more likely to be helped, by men and women. Men fend for themselves, even homeless men. Watch people flock to a crying woman; watch people get away from or even make fun of a crying man. Women are given much lighter sentences in court for the exact same crime (look up “Mary Winkler”, for example – 60 days for shooting her sleeping husband in the back). People are just much nicer to women in general – read the book “Self-Made Man” by Norah Vincent (she was surprised at her treatment when she disguised herself as a man). Maybe that and other pressures are a reason for the fact that men commit suicide at three times the rates of women.

    Financially, the amount of money that is transferred from men to women in the United States is staggering. Men pay 7 billion dollars in alimony a year (http://www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/04statab/fedgov.pdf – Document 477, “Alimony Paid”). Men pay huge multiples of that in portions of child support that are really mommy support (Linda Evangelista recently wanted over $40,000 a month for her child; she likely settled for close to it). Men pay far more in taxes, but tax money is either evenly split or the rest predominantly goes to women. Men are more likely to pay for dates, vacations and informal prostitution. Once married, there is a huge inter-family transfer of wealth from men to women (because women are far more likely to marry a man with more money). Add in the atom bomb of divorce settlements (Heather Mills?) and you are talking about a transfer of hundreds of billions of dollars every year.

    Well, that’s a start. I can really post reams more about female privilege, but let’s see if this post makes it through first.

    * I know the argument that it is primarily men killing and assaulting other men. But let’s take the example of murdered children. If a biological parent did it, it is more likely to be mom. So if a little girl is murdered, it shouldn’t matter because a female killed her? That’s the same kind of logic.

    Plus, what is interesting is that before there were domestic violence shelters for women, the murder rates of spouses were roughly equal between the genders. Women started killing their husbands at lower rates when they got domestic violence shelters. Men don’t have that option, and they can still be forced by a court to pay for the wife among other things. Men can’t escape.

    1. Dr. Sheila says:

      I’m going to approve this, but then say that we are not going to have this argument here because it’s a de-rail. There are plenty of places to discuss “what is privilege?” or “but don’t women have privilege?” but I’d say if this is really an information-seeking question, and not a challenging question (which I admit I feel skeptical of), then starting here is a really good re-frame.

      Comments heading further down the path of “but male privilege doesn’t exist” aren’t the conversation I want to host here and will be declined.

    2. Anne says:

      ‘…but they can also be shielded from real life (“housewife”) with no censure at all.’

      Saying that women who choose to stay home with their kids don’t live in the real world IS censuring them.

  6. A. Non says:

    Dude is a masculine word and by asserting that “not cool, dude” should be your standard response, you’re just perpetuating male-dominant language. Why not use a genderless word if you’re really going to talk about leveling privilege?

    1. Dr. Sheila says:

      Hm, I thought I replied but anyway, a repeat – let the record show that I actually call my friends of all genders “dude,” having grown up in the era of Bill and Ted and living now in California (even if it’s Northern California).

      Use whatever language works for you – “not cool, my friend” or “knock it off” or “wow, seriously?” or whatever fits. No gender was intended to be implied by my particular phrasing and certainly none is needed – people of all genders can say really dumb stuff.

  7. Ben Hamill says:

    Thanks for writing this. Really great read for someone like me: an open-minded person of privilege just starting to get into and understand these topics.

    One thing I think is often missed by, well, me and my ilk, is that privilege is not an on-off switch; it is MANY. So, for instance, a white, elderly, homeless man in a wheelchair is privileged in the his whiteness and his maleness. But disabled and elderly are positions of, uh… I don’t know the term. Unprivilege? And, depending on the individual’s background, he may be economically unprivileged, as well. We haven’t talked about gender, sex or sexual orientation.

    Lots of people are a mix of privileged and unprivileged traits and they have a synergistic effect. So sometimes it makes sense to say someone “is privileged” if they (like me: white, able-bodied, straight, male, educated, unpoor [also can’t come up with a better word]… probably more I can’t think of or don’t see) have MANY privilege switches “on”, but it doesn’t mean they have none to “off” or that someone less privileged than them has none to “on”.

    Anyway, it’s more complicated than a lot of straw man arguments make it out to be specifically on this front.

    Also, sorry if I used some wrong, confusing or offensive terminology. As I said, I’m still learning, so it’s out of ignorance, not malice.

  8. Dee says:

    ask people different from you how they’re treated if you don’t notice, in order to build this skill (useful questions: “when do you feel unsafe or targeted in your life?” and “how does your race/gender cause people to react to you?” and “what would you want someone like me to know about living in your skin?”).

    I don’t know, that seems an awful lot like asking a member of a marginalized group to educate you, which I understand isn’t a very polite thing to do. Plus it’s only effective if you have a large and varied of friends from that group, or you’ll end up (for example) with female friends saying “Women want men to be aggressive, you should absolutely hit on women in the bus!” (I’ve had female friends say that, much to my extended head-desk-ness.)

    1. Dee says:

      …So a better course of action may be to read spaces where people describe their experiences about such things – to carry on with my example of street harrassment, they might read Hollaback.

      (BTW, anyone got recommendation for dealing-with-disability resources, from that perspective? I need to brush up.)

      1. Penelope says:

        You could try looking at the things that have been written for the various Blogging Against Disablism Days. (Certainly the newest one is the largest group of current writing I’ve seen) Also the archives for the no longer updated Feminists with Disabilities site is still a good read. Otherwise I can give you the long list of disability bloggers I read, but it’s not as long as the really good lists and I don’t know that there are any sites really doing much consolidation right now other than some of the sites doing very political anti-benefits reform out of the UK. I don’t actually use sites like Disaboom much because I don’t find them as educational. I do think it’s a place where we need more out there, I just don’t have the energy or contacts to try to get anything going myself.

  9. To me it’s important to assert that this isn’t about “knocking down” anyone, but rather lifting up those who have had less access. (Fertilizing the pink flower pot, not poisoning the red, as it were.)
    To paraphrase Chris Matthews, a smaller piece of a bigger pie enriches the most privileged much more than the other way around.

  10. Scott says:

    I too have thought about Scalzi’s blog post a lot. There is so much I like and yet I do get the other points and think there is validity in the opposing statements. I think what breaks down for me is that analogies only stretch so far and then they break. So, when people start with the big picture things it’s just so hard to stay with it (you lost me at bees) without the critical side shooting the obvious holes right through it. So many people are simply not trained (and yes I mean trained) to sit and listen and watch a rhetorical point grow. We’ve all learned by rhetoric so, much so we’ve grown impatient with it. But, if you push through and take this article at the bottom first, as actions, I could not agree more. Who could argue? The argument against the actions would say far more about you and your view of society than the big picture. After all, big picture can be mutated into outliers, people can point to Bill Gates and people can point to Oprah Winfrey and both could be right or at least have a valid point or two. American society has been pretty downright good soil economically (over time and social pressure of course AND the development of entertainment/lesiure society – think sports) to all race, color and creed outliers. But, it’s the middle of America where it all falls apart with the scrambling to stay in the middle. So, before I don’t take my advice and big picture it, here’s some other thoughts on tactics…

    * Don’t rationalize leaving the public school system as a decision SOLELY based on your kids’ future. Your kids’ future will include kids from all walks of life. Close the gate and move on but, don’t pretend your all about American society. A society with less white babies be born than others now.
    * Be into education for ALL kids, not just your own
    * Vote for less taxes or more of state rights BUT, make sure the money left is going to areas that need it and not pork
    * Stop using faith to uphold privelege
    * Stop denying faith as a a potential incredible equalizer
    * Realize people of faith can be converted to a belief in social justice if you respect their religiion AND get into tactics, not some condescending re-reading of a faith ala our own current and previous Presidents
    * Strive to not condescend
    * Compliment ALL people when things go right. Especially at a store, restaurant, etc.
    * Listen first. Ask if they are done. Summarize what they said. Ask clarifying questions. Ask if they would like your opinion. Then maybe, say something about the topic.
    * Do not excuse or rationalize violence. After all if the pink flowers started plucking the blooms from the red ones, it might be a fun analogy and provide some nice schadenfreude for a bit but, when the red ones started locking the pink ones up for doing it, who could blame them? And then we might be in an endless loop. The one that analogies do little to exit us out of.
    * Do engage in analogies. They tell you a lot about where your head is at and what trip you are on.

  11. s0meguy says:

    The way you are trying to get this message across is awful. It creates an Us and Them mindset casting your target audience as inimical. Do you notice anyone selling beer like this? No? Then it doesn’t work.

    Theoretically I agree that your end game makes sense, I just think your strategy will prove ineffective.

  12. Shane says:

    I think I’ll refrain from making any comments. But regarding information seeking about gender and privilege, I would like to recommend the best article on gender that I’ve come across [and it is a bit of a hobby of mine]. I hope you enjoy it!


Comments are closed.



Send a Message
By submitting this form via this web portal, you acknowledge and accept the risks of communicating your health information via this unencrypted email and electronic messaging and wish to continue despite those risks. By clicking "Yes, I want to submit this form" you agree to hold Brighter Vision harmless for unauthorized use, disclosure, or access of your protected health information sent via this electronic means.