EDIT: Thanks everyone for the lively and educational conversation today. I am worried that we’re soon going to veer into This Is On The Internet So It Can’t Ever Stay Wonderful territory, so I’m shutting off comments at this point. I’d like to keep the excellent conversation the way it is, largely unblemished and full of good reminders for anyone looking into the topic. Thank you again, I really appreciate the effort and thought folks have brought today.
I’m going to talk about my personal experience with privilege and publishing a little, and in doing so on the Internet I recognize I’m taking a big fat gasoline bath and asking folks to strike a match. With that in mind, I ask all of my readers who feel moved to respond here to focus on being positive, constructive, and open with those comments. I’m going to keep a close watch on that as well, and hopefully not strike any sparks while I’m at it myself.
This post was prompted by this tweet coming across my radar earlier this month:
I am by most all perspectives mister privilege: white, male, middle class, and so forth. So when I see something as incisive as the above, it hits home as one of those crystalline truths that doubles as an uncomfortable diagnosis of my state.
As a publisher with privilege, I’ve certainly goofed up in looking straight through that glass. Spirit of the Century – over five years old now — is pretty whitewashed as far as the art goes. I think we did slightly better on gender thanks to Sally Slick’s portrayal, though a big internet blow-up at the time around the depiction of women in SOTC showed me that no matter how decent of a job I thought we did, the one-way glass kept me from seeing the ways in which we fell down. I was not well equipped to hear that at the time and it all turned into a nasty meltdown. I still carry that meltdown with me today as a reminder of what not to do when someone points out the effects of my privilege. But more on that in a moment.
I’ve been looking for ways to address those failings since, though the projects started to do so have had troubles making it to publication. Bruce Baugh’s New Horizons got canceled after a long period of development, in great part because the early 20th Century was not a particularly great time to be a minority group and it became incredibly fatiguing and depressing for Bruce to try to navigate paths of heroism through the research. Jess Nevins’ tour of global pulps outside of America, Strange Tales of the Century, has been spinning around in editorial stasis due to limited resources on Evil Hat’s part — many of the delays have had to do with making the Dresden Files product line happen. Thankfully, we will get to feature a more diverse cast of heroes and heroines in our upcoming SOTC-derived Race to Adventure board game, and we do hope to get STOTC out there eventually.
But I’m sure I’ve goofed in other ways, too, both in and out of the SOTC-verse. Frankly it’s difficult as hell — and this is where the uncomfortable diagnosis of that tweet above is also a strength for me. I absolutely need to put in the hard, careful work of examining art and text for the presence of privilege. But I also need to recognize that I will fail at addressing it fully because I’m trying to hunt and kill something I can’t see or hear. But just because I’m deaf doesn’t mean I can’t learn to read lips. I have to make the effort because I love and respect Amanda, and Quinn, and Steve, and the Daniels, and all the other wonderful and wonderfully different-from-me gamers I know. I want to be worthy of them, and if I don’t make a real and honest (albeit inevitably flawed) attempt to counteract the privilege I bring to the table, I won’t be. I’m far from where I need to be on that point. But every year since Evil Hat published Spirit of the Century, I’ve taken a few steps closer to it. Miles to go before I sleep and all that.
All that said, here’s what I want folks to bring as a take-away from this post, and the quote that started it all:
To the extent you are privileged, recognize that there’s a high likelihood you can’t perceive its presence in the things you create. It’s important to figure out how to counteract that, and it’s rarely as simple or reducible as “well, I got my gay/female/black friend to read it”. People will come along and point out where you’ve goofed, and no matter how much you’ve vetted the material, how much you’ve tried to see the unseeable part of you, they’ll probably be right that it’s there. Listen to these people carefully. Welcome them and do your best to learn how they see. They are bringing you a gift and an opportunity to learn. As someone who’s lived with privilege, there is no better opportunity to grow new eyes and see the world how you, alone, can’t.
[Substantially revised paragraph follows] To the extent you lack privilege, I’d ask you to recognize that those who have it may well be baffled when you point out where the issues to arise. If you want people to work at counteracting the effects of their privilege, to create diverse and inclusive games and other entertainments, it’s possible to help them do that. I don’t think that showing them your (very justified) anger, or flinging labels at them (“racist”, “sexist”, “homophobic”, etc) will create the change we both would like to see. While it’s absolutely my job as someone who enjoys privilege to work on recognizing it and circumventing it, I can say that over the last five years especially I’ve watched what happens when that tactic is employed, and inevitably the privileged party digs in its heels, goes on the defensive, and shuts down. That’s not going to get you what you want and deserve. You have no obligation to teach the privileged, for certain. But please realize that many of them, myself included, would welcome it if you’re willing. If you are willing (and thank you for that), think instead about how to help the blind woman see, the deaf man hear. As someone who’s lived without privilege you can’t help but hear the roaring awful sound of its presence, but the guy who lives inside of that presence simply does not hear it. If you are able and willing, help him hear, even if it’s by proxy. Of course this won’t always work. Many aren’t ready to hear the hidden message of the world. In the end, the privileged need to learn to have empathy for your experience, and many of them are willing to make that effort but are terribly uncertain of where to start. If you think you can offer some empathy in kind, I’m confident a bridge can be built. A little safe harbor to understand the problem, to learn how to see it in the first place, will go such a very long way toward preventing it in the future. If you’re able and willing, please provide that harbor. In the end, the “one way glass” metaphor doesn’t help us at all unless all people in a discussion keep in mind what it looks like from both sides of the pane.
When it comes down to it, as a publisher and a person I might have privilege, but that doesn’t mean I lack interest in inclusion, in diversity in the things I help create or bring to market. To get right down to the brass tacks, as a publisher, I need to have an interest in it, I need to learn how to hear and see what I’m normally unequipped to perceive, because there’s a wider market out there than the white male gamer, dammit. And if I let myself walk around with the blinders on, I’m going to miss them entirely, or find them but lose them to the expression of privilege. That sucks, and it doesn’t create the kind of gaming world I want to play in.
I’ve been learning, and I’ll keep trying to learn.
If and when you can, please, gently, teach me.