Straight White Male: The lowest difficulty setting there is.

This article, Straight White Male: The lowest difficulty there is has been passed around in the Twitterverse for the past week or so.  I think it does a very good job explaining the concept of 'privilege.'  If life was a video game, being a straight white male would be the lowest difficulty setting, the easiest way to play the game with all else being equal.  

To me, there's something missing though.  As a straight white male, I realize I have things very easy.  But things would be even easier if I was Christian or even just religious.

It'd be easy to throw up my arms and say it is all part of God's plan and just assume I'll be rewarded with eternal life in heaven.

It'd be easy to be part of the majority and not part of a minority studies have shown to be the least trusted in America.

What do you think?  Is being non-religious somewhat equivalent (in terms of privilege) to being non-straight, non-white and non-male?

NB: If you don't agree with the concept of 'privilege' at all, there's no point in commenting on this.

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Comment by Karen Lollis on May 24, 2012 at 11:54pm

Interesting question. I do think that the basic point of the article is dead on - with the caveat of all else being equal. (Probably just stating the obvious here ... but a straight white dude who's deaf and was raised in poverty will likely have it harder than an ablebodied rich asian lesbian. But the gal is still going to face more obstacles than a rich SWM.)

@Kris, you say “The old white boys network sure as hell doesn't offer its hand down to me or to millions of other white males.”

I expected the next words to be “I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps.”

Forgive me if I’m reading too much into a rather short post, but you don’t recognize your own privilege. At least you have bootstraps, figuratively speaking. Some people don’t even have shoes.

The thing is, in our current economy (and by current, I mean the last couple decades), no one is getting the leg up they used to. I’m pushing 50 and solidly middle class and pretty much no one I know is as well off as their parents were by our age (one salary to support the whole family and all that). Many of us had expectations that didn’t pan out due to circumstances beyond our control. The reaction by some SWM I know has been to place blame on others – to complain, in essence, that “I made my own way with no special treatment – why should we still be talking about affirmative action or women’s rights?”

Odds are, if you were not SWM (and all other things being equal), not only would the old boys network perhaps not actively offer you a helping hand, but you may well have your fingers stepped on as you tried to reach up just one more rung on the ladder.

But I digress. The question was about whether atheism is part of the picture of privilege. Definitely! Add atheist to any set of identifying characteristics and you've added another roadblock. There are certain things that are nearly off limits to atheists in America. Holding public office is a big one.

It’s not just a matter of putting up with others’ opinion of you. As noted in the article, privilege is bestowed (actively or passively, consciously or unintentionally) and can expand or contract your options.

I lived most of my life in fairly progressive urban areas. For the last decade I’ve been living in a very different land. It’s less urban, more religious, less educated. The good ol’ boys are alive and well here. In my company, people have jesus crap posted in their cubicles. I have a white board where I put a ‘quote of the day’ – but I haven’t been brave enough to post anything specifically atheist. I have come out to a few people I work with, but I’m cautious. Christians here have no such concerns. It doesn’t even cross their mind that their religious views might keep them from getting a well-deserved promotion.

As a girl, I wasn’t consciously aware of being treated differently. I was smart, and that was valued in my family. But at some point (early 20s, I think), I realized I had a habit of playing down how smart I was. (Look, I’m not talking genius, but I liked school and it came pretty easy to me.) I worked hard to start participating in conversations the way male coworkers did. Just throw in my two cents without apologizing for speaking up. Seriously, listen to a woman on a panel with men.

The thing about the people who have privilege is that they don’t think it’s privilege. They think it’s just the way things are. And they don’t realize how different it looks from the outside. That definitely applies to religion in this country. I mean, browse through the yellow pages. Look how many businesses have a jesus fish symbol. I don’t even think it occurs to them that they hold a privileged position and people from other religions, or no religion, couldn’t advertise their beliefs with their business without fear of losing customers.

Comment by Sean O' Byrne on May 25, 2012 at 5:39am

I think this completely depends on the society that you live in. I can understand in the US how you would feel this way, I've read the article that shows atheists are the least trusted group of people in there! If you were in some of the Scandinavian countries this would be completely different as a high percentage of the population is atheistic. Being religious there isn't going to be very helpful in getting on easier in life. 

Also consider sexuality, I know in practically every country there are people bigots, but at least in Canada homosexuals are given the same marriage rights as heterosexuals, but in Sudan for example you can get the death penalty. 

As for being male, well yes in some case's but no in others. A simple example is in several cafe's, deli's etc in my home town, practically all the employee's are female! I know this isn't a great example but it's still one! 

Overall I think your right but only in certain demographic's!! 

Comment by Karen Lollis on May 25, 2012 at 2:01pm

Apologies in advance for the length of this post ... and going kind of off-topic here, but thinking about the subtle ways sex-and race-privilege work can inform our understanding of religion bias as well.

@Kris - like I said, maybe I was reading too much into your post. My 'bootstraps' comment was definitely a knee-jerk response to your complaint that being white and male hasn't helped you. The thing is, though, privilege is harder to recognize from within. You ask for an explanation of the direct privilege you as a white male have received, Kris. I'll start with broad sweeping generalizations. 

Men are more likely to be offered better paying jobs than women (correcting for factors like experience, age, etc.). Same is true for whites compared to blacks. Blacks are far more likely to be sentenced to longer jail times than whites for the same crimes. Boys are more likely to be called on in class than girls - and teachers are more likely to engage the boys more fully. Women are far more likely to be victims of sexual assault, and the kind of crimes that women are more likely to be victims of is called "domestic violence" or "date rape" - terms which somehow downplay the seriousness. The people with power (CEOs, politicians) are still overwhelmingly white male (and that's not because they are just more capable). In conversation, women are interrupted more often than men. Men are offered better prices when buying a car than women, even when using the same negotiation tactics.

The list is actually kind of endless and there's plenty of data to support these claims. While individual stories don't prove anything, sometimes the narrative helps make sense of the numbers:

A black male acquaintance was 12 years old and traveling with a white family when they were refused service at a restaurant specifically because he was with them. (This was in Pennsylvania, more than a decade after passage of the civil rights act.) As a white male, your sense of self worth didn't have to take that kind of hit from strangers, and that's a kind of privilege. He's the one the department store security guy follows – he becomes aware of how his every step is being evaluated. You don't have to watch yourself like that, and that's a kind of privilege. He calls to make an appointment to rent an apartment, but when he shows up a half hour later, suddenly it's not available – he ends up living in a less desirable neighborhood, which increases his day-to-day stress which negatively impacts his health. You, on the other hand, only have to worry about whether you have the money to pay for the apartment of your choice, and that's a kind of privilege.

So while you may not have actively been given a hand up, you start from a more beneficial default position. You don't have to be better than average just to get in on the ground floor. Maybe we are making progress on equalizing opportunities in some cases, but you are still privileged. When a privileged group begins to lose their special status, it feels to them like they are being actively discriminated against. This is definitely the case with christians in this country. When they are required to play on equal footing with others, they cry "Persecution!" In fact, they have the same freedom of religion as everyone else – they just don't always get special treatment.

I probably sound like I have a chip on my shoulder. I don't. I have a fine life. But I am aware that in some ways, being a woman means I am more vulnerable, less privileged.  I worked at UPS and for awhile, I was the only female on the sort line. We were evaluated for speed and accuracy, and I regularly outperformed the whole line. I had to. If I was only as good as the lowest performing guys, I would have remained a (lower paying) clerk. 

That subtle privilege is sometimes at play with religious bias as well. Where I work, people frequently make religious statements. Belief in god is the default position. There will be an email about someone's personal situation, asking others to pray for them. Someone will say thus-and-such didn't work out because god has something better in mind. There's no awareness that they are making belief statements that might cast them in a negative light. When someone gives god credit for a good thing, I want to scream – "it wasn't god – it was you who worked hard and made it happen!" But I couch my words, and just compliment them on a job well done. In the workplace, the more you have in common with the decision makers, the more likely you are to advance (whether it's race, gender or faith). So exposing myself as "other" might impact future opportunities and I do feel I need to gauge how much I'm willing to risk before I speak.

There's another weird thing that happens for people who are not part of the privileged group. If you behave as though you have as much to contribute and deserve as much as they do, you might be criticized for not staying in your place. @Arch, this is part of what I was getting at when I talked about acting less smart. I totally get your point about engaging on a par with others – being aware of your audience and connecting with them. But in my case, I was putting myself below them. It's related to the idea that an opinionated man may be described as strong, while a similar woman (or gay man, for that matter) is called bitchy.

Here's a good compilation of research at ... click through the links to the primary sources. And this is a thoughtful relevent article:

Comment by Karen Lollis on May 25, 2012 at 3:36pm

@Arch, Isn't it just startling that these things are still happening? A couple of years ago, a mile or two from my house, a cross was burned on the lawn of a mixed race couple. Around the same time, just down the street, I saw a guy walking along carrying a sign reading White Power. And even the uber-liberal neighboring town recently tested racial bias with landlords and found instances where a black renter was told the unit was not available when it actually was.

Religion may not be the cause of bias, but too often is it still used to justify treating others badly.

Comment by John Kelly on May 25, 2012 at 6:18pm

One of the books I am going through with my multicultural counseling class lays out a format with an acronym ADDRESSING.

Age and Generational

Disabilities -

Disabilities -

Religion and Spiritual                                                  

Ethnicity and Race

Socioeconomic Status

Sexual Orientation

Indigenous Heritage

National Origin


For each category of underprivilege, a star is marked next to the letter.  The combination of stars is called your constellation.  I think these match the difficulty settings in the game a bit better than the article, but I think it is an important analogy to draw from and perfect.  Given that we have no religious orientation, my departure from the original Hays format would be to mark two stars under religion.   

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