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Privilege and Statistics

By Taylor Marvin

Author John Scalzi has a fantastic piece explaining straight white male privilege in the language of video games:

Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.
This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.

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

This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.”

Scalzi’s piece was later reposted at Kontaku. While Scalzi heavily moderates his site Kontaku does not, and many commenters were angry: lots of talk about “reverse racism” and domineering feminism. What stands our are the straight white male commenters who felt personally insulted or attacked by Scalzi’s talk of privilege.

What’s most interesting here is that these commenters seem to not understand the idea of an average. The concept of privilege observes that a randomly selected straight white male is likely to experience less social barriers than a randomly selected non-SWM. This doesn’t imply that your life is not difficult, or that you face no barriers; only that on average, the barriers facing a SWM are lower than for other groups. An average means that half of each group will fall on each side of the mean. Just because an individual SWM commenter faces barriers and perceived — or real — oppression, or can name a successful non-SWM, doesn’t repudiate the concept of privilege.

It’s often observed how poor Americans comprehension of statistics are, and how much more important statistics are to understanding real life political, economic and social issues than more commonly taught subjects like calculus or trigonometry. Obviously the angry reactions to Scalzi’s metaphor are partially emotional, and not just driven by a poor understanding of means and outliers. But it is a good example of how important this understanding is.

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