Being a white male means living life on the lowest difficulty setting

OPINION: Who knew that an analogy about video games from a 2012 essay could be so perfect?

Corinne Terrone
(Adobe Stock)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Even during Black History Month, they come for us even though we didn’t call them. They pop up on social media or in our class or in the breakroom at work with some little comment about how hard it is to be a straight white man in modern America. They want you to know that, nowadays, they are the real Most Oppressed Class. I mean, they don’t have their own month. Where is white history month? They don’t have their own channel like BET. They don’t have affirmative action. And there are lots of white men who are poor or who worked hard and earned everything they got, so stop playing the race card all the damn time. I’m tired, y’all, but let’s continue.

When we talk about race in mixed groups, there will often be some white man who thinks that the concept of racism in modern America is destroyed by the fact that some white people lack money and success while SO MANY Black people are wealthy and powerful. I mean, look at Obama, Oprah, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, LeBron, Rihanna, Dr. Dre … As a rule, I do not try to convince white people that racism exists. If they don’t believe that then we have nothing at all to talk about. But sometimes, when the ancestors are standing behind me, I might deign to conversate a bit, and I might come up with an analogy that could help the small white male brain understand racism because, hey, if fish don’t know what water is then we have to do something big to get white men to understand what racism is. 

I used to say white privilege is like having a car when no other race gets to have one. You may be a crappy-looking car but no one else even has one. It may be hard work pouring in that gas and driving in between the lines and parallel parking can be tough — finding parking at all can be a lot of work! — so yeah, you worked hard to get to your destination. But you have a car. The rest of your competition is still walking. Or maybe you have a car but you couldn’t afford gas so you can’t drive but you still have a car and just because you didn’t use it, i.e., you didn’t know how to flip your white privilege into success and security, doesn’t mean you never had a car, aka white privilege. 

That analogy worked well sometimes but when we’re talking about breaking through to some of the most purposely obtuse people in the world, we need great tools. These people read Peggy McIntosh’s legendary essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and shrug like Atlas. But today, thanks to this TikTok, I discovered a new tool — one of the best racial analogies I’ve ever heard. Behold my new favorite racial analogy.

In 2012, the science-fiction writer John Scalzi, author of over 30 books and the winner of the Hugo Award for best novel, published a blog post that would get over one million views. It’s titled “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.” I was extremely intrigued.

Scalzi argued that if you look at life like a role-playing game where you get to pick your settings — or where your settings are given to you — then the lowest difficulty setting is Straight White Male. That’s the setting where you get the most aid and encounter the fewest hurdles as opposed to people who are Black or female or queer. 

Scalzi goes on about life at the “Straight White Male” setting:

“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.” 

Being white means you have white privilege. Full stop. It does not mean you will be successful. It does not mean you won’t have to work for success. But if there are hidden coins in the game, you find them. If there’s a secret door to the next level or extra lives or anything at all that helps you get ahead, white males get it. This is part of why Beyoncé losing the Grammy for Album of the Year to Harry Styles hurt so many so much — it is a reminder of a scenario that plays out all too often where a Black woman works super hard only to have a white man get the promotion.

Scalzi is not saying that it’s easy to be a straight white male; life isn’t easy for anyone, but it’s easier to be white than to be anything else. It’s like what Louis CK once said: “I’m not saying that white people are better. I’m saying that being white is clearly better … If it was an option I would re-up every year.”

The thing is, white men often don’t recognize when white privilege has helped them. They don’t see the times the police didn’t pull them over or didn’t take them to jail over a tiny disagreement. They don’t see the home appraiser who values their home at a fraction of what it’s worth because of the race of who lives there. They don’t see themselves getting a hand because of whiteness. You don’t have to be racist to benefit from white privilege, and you don’t have to be aware that you’re benefitting to get it.  

Scalzi, in his essay, says he likes this video game analogy because it accounts for the fact that some people who aren’t straight white men end up having success. “It’s certainly possible someone playing at a higher difficulty setting is progressing more quickly than you are … simply because they play the game better than you do. It doesn’t change the fact you are still playing on the lowest difficulty setting. You can lose playing on the lowest difficulty setting. The lowest difficulty setting is still the easiest setting to win on. The player who plays on the “Gay Minority Female” setting? Hardcore.”

After Scalzi published the essay, he says he got flooded with hate comments from — guess who? — straight white males. In a subsequent essay, he said,

“Upton Sinclair once wrote that ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’ In almost exactly the same manner, it is difficult to get a straight white man to acknowledge his privileges when his self-image depends on him not doing so. Which is to say there is a very large number of straight white men who absolutely do not wish to acknowledge just how thoroughly and deeply their privileges are systemically embedded into day-to-day life.”

As I said, I do not spend my time arguing with white men who don’t already understand. If you choose to do that, just know that they’re either dishonest brokers and/or their self-identity requires them to not believe the notion that their success is partly because they are playing at the lowest difficulty setting. But you and I know the truth.


Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter. Look out for his upcoming podcast Being Black In the 80s.

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