Archive for December, 2014

An Exceedingly Long Post About Race, Media, and Privilege

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

Where to begin? I haven’t posted in a while, so let me start with the usual gaming updates: I played some boardgames, especially an old favorite called Goa, and also reviewed a number of new games including two that I especially enjoyed (Johari, Villainy). I also wrote many humor columns including two that I especially enjoyed (Terrifying Bear Danger Rating: A Fear Chart, Bard-Mitzvah: A Shakespearean Travelogue). And I played various video games, including two that I especially enjoyed (Wasteland2, Jade Empire).

I also performed poetry at a few different locations, comedy at a few different locations, and just last night, went to see a comedy performance by Hari Kondabolu. I was chatting with the strangers at my table, a couple from Northampton, and we wondered if one of the reasons people got excited by Kondabolu is that he brings a new edginess; half a century ago it was edgey to swear in your act, or to talk about religion. Nowadays such is commonplace on the comedy scene, but harshly calling out racial privilege repeatedly amidst your comedy act may be the new edgey. (Yes, such may be commonplace in certain small circles, but edgey has always been saying on stage to a wide mainstream audience what you’d normally just say among your friends but not in a room full of strangers.)

Anyway, listening to him talk about such things — and talk about the importance of talking about such things — has prompted me to re-post here a more private journal entry I made a few weeks ago. It is not, alas, funny, but perhaps you will find it worth reading nonetheless:


“The Clueless White Guy Chronicles”
or “Epiphanies of the Obvious”
or “Intellectual Knowledge versus Emotional Knowledge”
or “Sometimes Issues Are Sufficiently Large That It’s Hard to Choose a Single Title”

Perhaps some of you are familiar with a video game called Skyrim. I played the hell out of that game, well over 100 hours. A year or two ago, I recall having dinner with two friends of mine, M and Z, as I explained that Skyrim had been a bit of a weird experience for me insofar as my character received continuous random hatred from a majority of the NPCs in the entire game.

I’m playing as an Elf, but most of the people in the world are not Elves. They are Nords. And you start out the game imprisoned by this imperial alliance trying to kill you, and then you’re rescued by a group of rebels fighting the imperials, but it turns out that the rebels think Skyrim is for Nords and they tend to dislike Elves. So of the two opposing sides, it seems like neither really cares about you. And then you can just be walking into a random town, and people will start insulting you because you’re an Elf.

And there’s this one group of NPC heroes who are supposed to be the “good guys” in the game, but their main hero was someone on record as wanting to kill all the elves. And basically, across all of Tamriel, everyone is looking down on me or being a jerk to me for no reason and I don’t want to get in fights in town unnecessarily but it’s hard to just sit there and take non-stop insults and ill-mannered treatment from the entire gameworld, and if I respond in kind it starts a fight, and the town guards show up with a bias against me just because I’m an Elf even though the other guy started the fight. I explained to my friends that this was really frustrating and demoralizing to feel constantly harassed just based on your race.

“Yes, how interesting that must be for you,” my friends said, mockingly, “and how nice to experience that in a video game.”

At this point I should probably mention that my friends M and Z are of Filipino and Iranian descent, respectively. And so for them, a constant casual racism is not so much an anomalous feature of a particularly involved video game, but an all-too-familiar feature of the world. This kind of thing is very old news to half of the country. Now obviously I know this intellectually, but I’m guessing I’m not the only white person who ever found that experiencing racism for a few dozen hours in a video game (even though it’s obviously nothing like dealing with it in real life) makes you understand it in a different way than merely knowing it exists intellectually.

Last week I was thinking about all of that because I had a similar epiphany of the obvious. I’d been binge-watching movies on Netflix, and my recent selections had included a number of films like Shaft, Django Unchained, Harlem Nights, &c. And after a half-dozen films I found myself automatically suspicious of and/or ill-disposed towards any white people who appeared on-screen. I knew they were not to be trusted, and the counter-example of Django’s partner did not change my overall perception. He was “one of the good ones” who was “not like all those other white folks”, and I still knew that I could presume random white guy was probably up to no good, not just a friendly innocent black guy.

My brain did that after two days of movie binge on a very small particular subset of movies in the world. So what happens to the brains of society at large after decades of representation in the other direction? Again, this is in no way a new observation, having been experienced by, pronounced, and written upon by countless people (including many of my friends) for decades. But while I’ve always known intellectually that media representations of minorities are an important problem, it was still a moment for me last week where I said, “Wow, look at the kind of effect I experience on my perception.”

So that is a thing about which I have been thinking lately. And I debated a bit whether to post this where people could see it, both because a) The world is not desperately in need of another white guy’s opinions on race, and b) I’m pretty sure I do not come off looking too bright by saying “Hai guyz, did you know racism is really a thing?” when this is painfully obvious to many people who will read this and less painful but still obvious to most of the rest of you. But I guess that’s what invisible privilege is: The luxury to not think about racial issues, or at best to acknowledge intellectually that they exist but not have to experience or deal with them. So since I have that luxury, I guess literally the least I could do is to mention it, even though it does not make me look great.