Speaking about race and whiteness…

…There are a couple of pieces I have been meaning to link to for awhile. As someone who spent way too much of my childhood playing video games, I am predisposed to like John Scalzi’s post at Kotaku using the easiest difficulty setting of a game as analogous to the concept of privilege experienced by heterosexual, white men in this country.

So, the challenge: how to get across the ideas bound up in the word “privilege,” in a way that your average straight white man will get, without freaking out about it?
Being a white guy who likes women, here’s how I would do it:

Dudes. Imagine life here in the US – or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world – is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?

Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.

The analogy is blunt, assumes a uniform set of goals, and doesn’t exactly undercut the aversion a lot of people have for the word “privilege,” but I like it. World of Warcraft is past my time, but I know the difference between being a Banker and a Farmer in The Oregon Trail.

That said, the piece also reminded me of a post written by Ta-Nehisi Coates a little bit earlier this year, replying to a commentator who likened his own childhood experiences to those of Coates despite being given “given all sorts of privileges withheld from [Coates]“:

I don’t want to speak for any other black person, or any other black writer, but it needs to be understood that my identity isn’t founded on the losing end of “white privilege.” I understand the use of that term for social scientists and perhaps literature critics. But I generally find it most powerful and most illuminating when linked to an actual specific privilege–not fearing sexual violence, not weighing one’s death against the labor of birthing, living in a neighborhood bracketed off by housing covenants, not having to compete for certain jobs etc. In its most general invocation, I’m often repulsed because I think these sorts of questions often break down in the face of actual individuals.

In short–you need to know that I was privileged. I can run you all kinds of stats on the racial wealth gap and will gladly discuss its origins. But you can’t really buy two parents like I had. Money can buy experience and exposure–but it can’t make you want those things. It can’t make your parents curious about the world. It can’t make them moral, compassionate and caring. It can’t make them love their children. As I have moved on up, in that old Jeffersonian sense, I have seen families who allegedly were more privileged. But ultimately I find merit in who they are as humans. I am unconvinced that money trumps all of their flaws

Finally, Jason Antrosio, writing at Living Anthropologically, uses Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s statement, “The West is not in the West. It is a project, not a place,” as a jumping off point for considering the concept of whiteness:

Substitute whiteness and white privilege for “the West”: a fiction, yes, but an ongoing exercise in global legitimation. Whiteness is a projection of power, not a phenotype. And on this point, Khan may be correct that rather than a globally legitimizing fiction, whiteness could re-emerge as a marked identity politics. Outcomes are uncertain, unpredictable, contingent–but permeated by power at every moment.

All three pieces are worth a read.

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About Adam Van Arsdale

I am biological anthropologist with a specialization in paleoanthropology. My research focuses on the pattern of evolutionary change in humans over the past two million years, with an emphasis on the early evolution and dispersal of our genus, Homo. My work spans a number of areas including comparative anatomy, genetics and demography.
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One Response to Speaking about race and whiteness…

  1. Hi Adam,
    Thank you for the link–and really looking forward to that summer seminar you discussed in your previous post.
    Jason

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