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Recognition of privilege

I chose to write about John Scalzi’s essay titled “Straight White Male is the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.” Race relations and privilege are topics that are seldomly discussed on the floor and to be fair, neither are politics. My class prefers to talk more about what projects people are working on or where the next TNO is going to be. It’s not so much that we shy away from these types of conversations as it is our having to deal with our privileged position in life. Just take a moment to look at our class and ask yourself if this is representative of the general US population. There isn’t one black male in our class. There may be many reasons why this came to be but I haven’t heard anyone express concerns. Whether we recognize this shortcoming or not is on us. How did this come to be. What prompted us to apply and attend ITP. We must have had some guidance or have a disposition to art and technology. Perhaps maybe we had the power and the privilege to be exposed to certain information that ultimately led us to where we are today. Maybe some communities of people are not privy to these opportunities.

I’ll spare the reader the musings of my growing up in a humble household as a quasi-nerdy Latino male in an inner city (Newark) where on different occasions I lost three of my close friends to gun violence. I’ll write on the broader topic of privilege and how we all have it. You may have not been born into wealth or high society, but privilege manifests itself in various ways. We don’t worry about food or general safety. We have access to computers, job opportunities, and healthcare. I myself  am full of privilege, in spite of my upbringing. I am healthy, educated, and well traveled. I’m in a graduate program that I love in a city that some people just dream of visiting. I eat well, have a healthy family, and have great new friends. I also have the privilege to live in a democracy like the United States – by no means is it perfect but it’s among the best we have. Privilege in essence is the ability and opportunity to pursue what you desire.

Some may have mixed feelings overall about the essay and generally do not believe in the author’s assertions. The essay may have bothered some people, namely straight white males, forcing them to recognize their privilege. Yes it wasn’t their choice to be born a straight white male and I can understand why they may feel annoyed at the author. They even may feel no reason to be ashamed for their position in life. They may believe they worked hard their whole life and deserve all the accolades that is due to them. But privilege is not distributed equally. You can’t claim a homerun when you were born on third base. Pretending you have a right to your privilege is by no means the best way of dealing with it. The best way of dealing with it is by living up to your privilege.

It’s hard to recognize and question our own privilege. We have to make it visible to ourselves and let others confront us with it. And whether you believe that you do not have tremendous privilege, it does not mean you have none. Accept and own whatever gifts you have. Privilege also has a price. Making the most of it requires enormous amounts of effort and risks and it may not always be fun. Recognizing your own privilege and accepting its price allows you to understand how best to use such privilege to advance society – creating value and enriching the world gives a person purpose. This brings to mind the general idea behind ‘noblesse oblige’ – ‘privilege entails responsibility.’ Yes this may seem like a reference to Spiderman, but this is really what privilege is all about.

The general reaction from the 800+ comments that the essay generated showed a level of entitlement. The “Straight White Male” in the article and by consequence those who commented spent their time defending their privilege,  showed irritation and believed they worked hard for their privilege, protecting, hoarding it, and refusing to recognize it. In essence they wasted it. It doesn’t matter where it came from, more importantly it matters where privilege flows. And this is where privilege matters most. It gives us the ability to be heard, to be seen, to change norms – it gives us the ability to give others access to privilege. Perhaps our privilege will give us the means to get more under-represented minorities at ITP.




6 comments to Recognition of privilege

  • Erin Smith

    Since you mention under-represented minorities, it’s also worth looking at the realistic percentages of women working in the tech sector – the most generous of statistics (which includes all non-technical administrative positions at IT companies) has women in the states accounting for less than a third of the tech workforce. (American Tech Association) I think that it’s significant that our class has a female population slightly over 50% and shows an active interest in citing and encouraging this development. Coming from a background of male dominated working environments (carpentry, rigging, and film – (film is astonishingly male dominated – I have thoroughly appreciated entering a new working life where my gender wasn’t an anomaly. I strongly hope that ITP continues to pursue applicants from a wide range of backgrounds and encourages more minority representation.

  • HannahMishin

    I am reminded of Utah Phillips. He is this union-ist folk singing historian guy. He related a story on one of his records (all of his records are a confluence of stories and songs and song/stories and story/songs) about an Anarchist named Ammond who attempted to give Utah some snippet of awareness of living in this day, in this age, in this place and urged him to be a pacifist. Utah agreed to temper himself, and Ammond responded, No, that he (Utah) was “born a white man in mid-20th century industrial America. [Utah] came into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons. The weapons of privilege, economic privilege, racial privilege, sexual privilege. [Utah] you want to be a pacifist you are not just going to lay down knives and guns and fists and angry words, you are going to have to lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.” – Meaning, that for Utah to embrace a truly pacifists’, truly egalitarian existence, he must first recognize and understand his born privilege and let go of it (thought o be fair, he is always going to eb a white male in 20th century industrial America, and I don’t think anyone can change that).
    I myself, come from very meager, distraught and epically “wtf” background. I bear certain markers of that past, and embrace them to remind me of where I come from. That being said, were I of another color, would I have “escaped”? Were I of another color but of another economic class would I be involved in the arts? Were/would/could? These are important queries, but none of these queries can I ethically purport upon anyone but myself.
    So we are lacking a black male in our class. We have classmates that I am astounded we do, given the backgrounds/cultures/etc that I am certain they have come out of. I am proud of that. I don’t know that any group, to be considered diverse, must have a black male to be considered diverse (I know you were offering an example). I think, however, that offering financing to students/ offering one full ride per term (if it isn’t done already), is the means of assuring that not only the “privileged” attend ITP.
    That aside, and ITP aside: We all must be aware of who we are, where we came from, who our ancestors tread upon (for somewhere in all of our histories someone was over someone else at some point in time), and use that to shape who we are. It is common to leave our pasts behind, to omit certain concepts (such as racial, sexual and economic privilege) because we are not our ancestors (but we are, but not really, but kind of). That is a difficult thing. To be honest with ourselves about who we are, and then to apply that to our ethical modes of daily existence is difficult, but not impossible.
    Peter Singer taught me about Utilitarianism (his book “Practical Ethics” specifically). In it, he makes the argument that giving equal creedence to “others’ needs as highly as you would your own is the only real means of dissolving privilege in the world.
    So, in my life, I make avid and ardent attempts to understand who I am and have where I come from (and where my folks and their folks came from) backlight the person that I am times ethical standards which relate in some way to this topic.

  • Nancy

    These comments bring up a lot of good points. HEre’s a question for you to think about. We don’t recruit people,they find us. We wouldn’t know where to recruit people, b/c we like that people come from such off the wall places. We don’t recruit in colleges b/c we prefer people who have been out of school for a while.. lived a little. That said, we do think it is a deficit in the program, which other wise has greater diversity…and therefore, perspectives…. than most tech oriented programs. So any help or suggestions on that front would be great.

    To Steve’s point…I think the author made his point very well by using the game that white guys wouldn’t get their back up. If you’ve never been marginalized, it comes as quite a shock. And you always want to think that you got where you are on your own.

    Erin’s right about the # of women in technology. And it’s gone down in the last decade (%age-wise). And it is true that in any industry you can name, women have had to learn how to deal with men more than vice-versa.

    It’s not about quotas…it’s about embracing different POV;s

  • William Lindmeier

    Excellent points regarding privilege. There was a This American Life episode that touched on a similar topic when the economy cratered. They interviewed a number of bankers who still had a job after the TARP bailout, and none of them would concede that the government actions may have played a role in their fortunes. It’s difficult to get out of the mindset that you conditions aren’t solely the product of your own actions, especially when they’re favorable.

  • mam1286

    Really excellent response Steve, you make some really great points. I read this article a while ago, but never really had a chance to discuss what the implications mean to me and how they’ve affected my life. Overall, privilege is something I think I’ve been acutely aware of for most of my life. I’d like to share my experience of being a privileged straight white male. Being the youngest child and only son in an Italian family, I got teased by my sisters a lot because my parents were a bit loose with enforcing some rules we had growing up. To this day I get a lot of “prodigal son” jokes when I visit home. Besides the occasional sibling fights, my response was mainly to work really hard to make my parents proud and prove that I was earning my keep, and not just coasting on my parents good will. It also made me really averse to accepting anything I saw as a handout.
    I also went to public school on Long Island in a relatively middle class town, which exposed me to a lot of economically diverse friends. I saw how much my poorer, mostly Latino and African American friends struggled sometimes, and I saw how entitled my wealthier white friends were sometimes. I think that this drove me towards humility and being thankful for everything I have in a way that my wealthy friends, who eventually went to private schools, never really developed. That’s not to say that there aren’t private schools that exhibit diversity. I think that seeing the gap between rich and poor probably influenced my decision to take the job I had in Birmingham, bringing technology into city schools. I think that the gap between schools with predominantly white and predominantly minority students is one of the biggest factors in the differences people experience in difficulty settings. Being a straight white male with the education and resources that come with it, I did my best to affect that gap.
    In one of the follow-up responses by Scalzi, he says that his response to privilege is to try to make the other life difficulty settings easier, not make his own worse. I think this is pretty close to how I’ve tried to live, though it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that working hard or even making life better for people with a harder difficulty setting means you’re not privileged. In times that I’ve struggled, like while working in poor, 100% African American classrooms, I’ve had to remind myself that, whatever behavior problems I have to deal with from them, their lives are, on a fundamental level, that much harder than mine. This isn’t an excuse, it’s just something I’ve noticed about my experience.
    When I think about privilege, one of the first things that comes to mind is discomfort. I’m uncomfortable with playing on the lowest difficulty setting because it’s a gift that I didn’t work for at all. I don’t have to worry about racism, discrimination because of my sex or sexual orientation, rape or poverty, not to mention the systematic disadvantages other people experience. I could live my life totally ignorant of these things. But I know that my privilege is directly related to these things, that the fact that I am privileged means that other people are not and have to fear these things, and that if I don’t worry about them, they aren’t going to stop. This is uncomfortable, and it should be. I think that when straight white males acknowledge that they’re privileged and get uncomfortable about it, the things that make the other difficulty settings harder will happen a lot less, because they’ll do what you’re suggesting, Esteban, and live up to their privilege.

    On another note, Louis CK kind of hits the nail on the head with this bit about being white, particularly in the last 30 seconds:

  • In regard to the lack of women in tech, I think it’s important to look past the numbers and evaluate the cause. Why aren’t there many women in the tech sector?

    So often this sort of topic comes up and there is an unspoken assumption that this is pure discrimination: men conspiring or just unconsciously dismissing women in the workplace. The problem with that idea is that modern computing was born (in part) out of the counter-culture/hippie movement. These people started out with liberal views (yes, there was still some inherent societal influence and there were assholes). This was a new industry without some legacy gentleman’s club. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist, just that it’s not as big an issue as it is in other sectors

    Is this a cultural issue? Does society encourage girls into non-technical roles from a very young age? Discourage nerdy things? Is it only cool to use things like iPhones and not build them? Yes, this is likely a large factor.

    Is this just basic human brain chemistry? Are men’s brains just more likely to be wired to favor analytical problem solving, 3D thinking, and mathematics? From a behavioral perspective, I noticed while working in the software industry that aggressive male behavior in meetings and in general climbing the corporate ladder discouraged many women I worked with.

    The other question is, what should we do about it? Certainly STEM education and the maker movement are encouraging all youth to be more interested in engineering. These sorts of cultural shifts have to start from a young age and can taken multiple generations to see substantial results.

    Is it even a problem? If this is just the way it is, maybe we should just let things be. Personally, I think diversity is really important in engineering. If you are building something, you need to understand who you are building it for, and that is very difficult in a mostly straight male environment.