Wrex and the Art of the Privilege Check

I’ve written a lot about Mass Effect previously, including a rather long criticism of some of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) gender bias at play in the universe BioWare has created. For my last post, I’d like to take a look at the character of Wrex and how his situation as well as that of the Krogan species is used to teach players about privilege.

Wrex from Mass Effect

Wrex from Mass Effect

Conversations between Wrex and the other members of the crew are clearly meant to mirror conversations about race and racism on Earth, with Wrex delivering withering smack-downs of ignorant privilege. My first example, a conversation between Kaiden (in my game it was Ashley) and Wrex on an elevator, makes this connection obvious, referencing a racist attitude that even those with minimal knowledge of racism can usually recognize:

YouTube (starting around 1:37):

KAIDEN: I haven’t spent much time with Krogan before, Wrex, and I have to say, you’re not what I expected.

WREX: Right. Because you humans have a wide range of cultures and attitudes, but Krogan all think and act exactly alike.

KAIDEN: Well, I–I didn’t mean… forget I said anything.

WREX: Done.

This conversation is an obvious allegory for racism on Earth; most people recognize that treating or talking about an entire race as if they are all the same is racist (at least, I hope so…). However, the game goes deeper than that, exposing a more subtle act of privilege:

YouTube (relevant portion is at the beginning)

WREX: What can I do for you?

SHEPARD: What’s your story, Wrex?

WREX: There’s no story. Go ask the Quarian if you want stories.

SHEPARD: You Krogan live for centuries. Don’t tell me you haven’t had any interesting adventures.

WREX: Well, there was this one time the Turians almost wiped out our entire race. That was fun.

SHEPARD: I heard about that. You know, they almost did the same to us.

WREX: It’s not the same.

SHEPARD: It seems pretty much the same to me.

WREX: So your people were infected with a genetic mutation, an infection that makes only a few in a thousand children survive birth? And I suppose it’s destroying your entire species?

SHEPARD: You’re still here. It can’t be all that bad.

WREX: I don’t expect you to understand. But don’t compare humanity’s fate to the Krogan.

SHEPARD: I was just making conversation. I wasn’t trying to upset you.

WREX: Your ignorance doesn’t upset me, Shepard. …

Some privileged people make the mistake of trying to show non-privileged people that they relate to their struggles by comparing experiences that really aren’t comparable. For example, a white person saying they can understand racism because they experience discrimination for being a nerd, or whatever. This statement may not seem as racist to some white people, but it minimizes the systemic nature of racism and how deeply it affects people of color. (See also Derailing for Dummies’s “But That Happens to Me Too!“.)

Even better, Shepard follows it up by making the intent excuse–don’t get so offended, Wrex, he didn’t mean to upset you! Which is more crap, because intent doesn’t matter: what Shepard said was still offensive and wrong.

A lot of the racism allegories in Mass Effect are anvil-like in their obviousness, things that have been done over and over in fantasy and science fiction–but on occasion the game goes deeper and explores some of the more subtle aspects of systemic racism and privilege. Have you noticed any other examples of this in the game, or in other games? Do you think this is an effective way of subtly teaching players about the nature of privilege?

About Alex

Alex posts some of her sewing projects and cosplays on her Tumblr; you can also find her babbling about sewing and games and Parks and Recreation on Twitter.
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59 Responses to Wrex and the Art of the Privilege Check

  1. DM says:

    “Offensive and wrong” seems a little harsh. I think well-intentioned attempts to connect to others ought to be encouraged while using the opportunity to point out the difference of privilege. It’s easy to get offended, but that just leads to people keeping their feeling inside; it doesn’t actually change their minds through dialog and inquiry.

    • Ann says:

      This is one of the first issues addressed in the Derailing guide about privilege, interestingly enough.

      The point made, in short, is that the duty of education should not be automatically placed on others. It’s not their responsibility to educate the privileged.

      • Shouldn’t the first target in the battle against privilege be the removal of ignorance?

        By that I mean for a person in a significantly privileged position, such as myself (Straight, White, Male, TAB, cisgendered), the blinders that come with that privilege are thick and have been formed over a long time.

        I know I have caused great offense in the past with comments I have made through ignorance. The intent of such comments is utterly irrelevant as offense was caused regardless. However being told that I have caused offense is often not enough to even dent those blinders of privilege. It can feel akin to being told: “You know what you did wrong.” Often I really don’t have a clue what I’ve done wrong, and absolutely no idea of where to start in my journey to understand what I’ve done wrong. The onus shouldn’t be on the oppressed to explain why they are oppressed but when the blinders of privilege are so thick that something needs to give, so maybe a game like Mass Effect is a good place to start.

        It is troublesome that Wrex eventually relents and explains why Shepard is exhibiting privileged behaviour, as it implies that all those in positions of privilege need to do is talked to someone who is oppressed and they will magically fix us. But in the context of the game there is little other opportunity for Privilege 101 other than directly discussing the issue with Wrex

        It’s a difficult line to walk, it can so often be difficult to even comprehend than your behaviour is causing offense the gulf of personal experience can be vast. By that I do not mean to infer than my difficult in any way approaches the difficulty of having to deal with privileged behaviour on a daily basis, I have no way of understanding that and would not presume to do so. Fortunately sometimes a good work of fiction is able to give me that kick up’side the head I need to realise how offensive my behaviour is and chip away at that shroud of ignorance.

    • Brinstar says:

      1) Intent does not matter. If you step on someone’s foot, obviously you didn’t intend to hurt the other person by stepping on their foot. The other person still got hurt by your carelessness, so you have to own up to the fact that you hurt someone, and try not to do it again.

      2) It is easy to get offended when someone calls you out on your privilege. When someone says, “What you did was racist” usually the privileged person’s automatic response is “OMG WTF I AM NOT RACIST”. When that isn’t even the point, the point isn’t who you are–it’s not personal–the point is what you did (the racist thing). The best response isn’t to go insane, but to say, “Oops, I’m sorry, you’re right. I’ll try not to say that anymore” — e.g. acknowledge your privilege, and try to do better. See #1.

      3) When a member of a marginalised group engages with someone and calls out privileged language, it is one of many, many battles that this person chooses. It can be a difficult thing to wade into, given #2 above.

      • Twyst says:

        I, like many others here, I am sure, am constantly learning about inclusivity and such, and i admit, that i need to be better versed when it comes to abilism.
        I am wondering about the sentence:

        The best response isn’t to go insane, but to say, “Oops, I’m sorry, you’re right. I’ll try not to say that anymore”

        and the use of ‘insane’. I am thinking, perhaps a better phrase might be “The best response isn’t to get immediately defensive, but to say …”

        • Brinstar says:

          Ah shoot. You’re absolutely right. My usage of “insane” was ableist in that it can be hurtful to people with mental disabilities or illness. I apologize for that, and I will try to be more creative in my use of language.

        • Thank you, Twyst. It does privilege certain cognitive and communication styles. And it relies upon and reinforces ableist assumptions that neurodiversity and mental illness are always objectively bad. It was clear from context that this meant ‘get defensive in a way that uses privilege to avoid examining privilege while making marginalized people uncomfortable.’

          • Twyst says:

            Indeed!
            I was very oblivious to abelist language until my dad (who introduced me to gaming) was no longer able-bodied. Privilege is so comfy and insulating, it is work to learn, but work that i am happy to undertake.

    • oliemoon says:

      I disagree that it’s “easy to get offended.” The degree to which we do or do not feel offense is not a conscious decision that can be controlled, ergo it’s not something that comes with ease or hardship, it just is.

  2. Chris Lepine says:

    DM said pretty much where I’d go with this.
    I like where the post started, but it fell into the trap of self-victimization that I’ve seen too many times. The attempt to bridge cultural and gendered gaps does matter. It clearly does. What is offensive here is complex, but understandable. Shepard comes at Wrex too directly, without showing sensitivity to the possibility that Wrex is uncomfortable talking about his race. Wrex does not want to be encapsulated in what he believes is Shepard’s limited, humanocentric, understanding of the world. The conversation fizzles out in disappointment and anger. I’ve seen that kind of situation tons of times in my life, in relation to all sorts of touchy subjects.

    What matters here is your presumption that non-“white” people and Krogans (in Mass Effect) are by definition non-privileged and their worlds stand outside of “white” understanding. “You couldn’t possibly understand me because you’re not aboriginal.” I’ve caught myself thinking that more than once.

    At the same time, that statement is a complete farce. People of all different kinds of backgrounds *do* understand me all the time, *when I make the effort to be understood*. The intention or desire to be understood matters crucially. When someone senses that I’m trying to offer a piece of my world, they can either retract completely (out of the kind of fear you seem to be talking about), or try to form a consensual space. Pretending that I know if someone is “privileged” or not (or believing that I am somehow inferior to them) is fantasy.

    If someone intends or “means” to upset me or offend me, you’re damned right it is a different thing than being offended accidentally. I’m still offended in both cases, but my options for relating to the other person are extremely different. In one case it’ll turn into a shouting match; in the other I’ll get mildly irritated and may call them out on their presumption.

    It seems to me that in this dialogue, Wrex takes on a defensive tone that serves to (1) protect himself from possible offensive owing to his belief that no one could possibly understand the Krogans, and (2) prevent any consensuality of people from other races. In effect, Wrex is wildly racist in his defensive expressive style. Shepard in this video, owing to his own defensive style, makes things worse by not offering anything of himself of value. Neither of their intentions are in “good faith” and that results in the nasty exchange.

    But I’ve seen plenty of understanding come out of ‘good faith’ exchanges. Games that encourage the player to step back and admit that they don’t know a damned thing about an NPC before they start firing off 20 questions. Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura has moments like that; so does Knights of the Old Republic. Specifically, conversations with Carth Onasi can go one of two ways: the defensive route where you presume him to be some kind of “privileged” guy and never develop a friendship, or the ‘understanding’ route where you really show some sensitivity to his unwillingness to talk about the past.

    In terms of the characters I like to role-play, and the way that I like to get to know people in real life, I’ll always go for option #2.

    • Brinstar says:

      Your comment regarding “self-victimization” falls under “victim-blaming discourse”. Instead of criticizing Wrex for reacting the way he did (victim-blaming), we should analyze the power structures that Wrex, Shepard, Krogans, and Humans are embedded in, to reach an understanding of why Wrex reacts the way he did to Shepard.

      At the same time, that statement is a complete farce. People of all different kinds of backgrounds *do* understand me all the time, *when I make the effort to be understood*. The intention or desire to be understood matters crucially. When someone senses that I’m trying to offer a piece of my world, they can either retract completely (out of the kind of fear you seem to be talking about), or try to form a consensual space. Pretending that I know if someone is “privileged” or not (or believing that I am somehow inferior to them) is fantasy.

      The marginalized group is oppressed by the privileged class, it is not the responsibility of those oppressed by privilege to make the effort to be understood. Rather, it is the responsibility of those belonging to the privileged group to reach out to the underprivileged, and to educate themeslves. Privilege isn’t about inferiority or superiority. Please see our Helpful Resources page for more about privilege.

      If someone intends or “means” to upset me or offend me, you’re damned right it is a different thing than being offended accidentally. I’m still offended in both cases, but my options for relating to the other person are extremely different. In one case it’ll turn into a shouting match; in the other I’ll get mildly irritated and may call them out on their presumption.

      As you pointed out, you’re still hurt regardless of whether the other person intended a slight or not. You can choose your response, obviously, but what you may not understand is the lived experience of the marginalised person. Since we’re talking about race, let’s talk about race. Krogans probably deal with racist situations multiple times a day, every single day, every single week, every single month. How a Krogan chooses to respond to a problematic situation is always negotiated. People in marginalised groups choose their battles. On one day, they might have encountered racism only once, and so they might be in a better mood to respond to racism. On another day, they might have just been in one of the most draining, emotional, and angering racist situations in their life, and the next incident would be the last straw. You don’t know. You’re operating from a position of privilege because you assume that everyone entering debates like this is entering it on equal terms, when it simply is not the case. A member of a privileged group, they can only talk about racism in theoretical terms, whereas the member of the marginalised group deals with it in their daily lives. It is not theory to them.

      • Chris Lepine says:

        First, thanks for the reply Brinstar. I appreciate that we’re going to take things “head on” here as it’s a topic of serious discussion.

        If this is a case where we don’t want to blame victims, the sword cuts both ways. This is precisely the point I was trying to make re: Wrex. We don’t have a moral grounds to blame Shepard for being “offensive and wrong” OR Wrex for being defensive. They’re both caught up in a defensive, and altogether demeaning, social exchange that they are *jointly* responsible for. Implying that Wrex has some kind of moral superiority because we’ve decided that he belongs to an inherently oppressed or underprivileged race, carries the kind of racist connotation that I’ve been trying to avoid.

        To develop that a bit further – for both Wrex and Shepard the power structures they live are self-imposed to some degree. Power, as in social power and disciplinary power, is not some “out there” nebulous thing that constrains behaviour regardless of the agent. Power finds its expression in little situations and dialogues where it becomes all too obvious whose hands it lies in. My embedding in power “structures” is always expressed in my language, in my bodily expressivity, in the options afforded to me to express myself. The way I address other people, and welcome their addressing me. But power is not totalizing, and there are always other languages and opportunities outside of what I assume to be the established discourse. Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty all recognize the variegation of power, and that it is full of cracks and opportunities for establishing genuine common relations with other people of varied backgrounds.

        In response to the Krogan race. Sorry – I’m not going to presume anything about how Krogans live. The game does not cover any of their day-to-day life, and projecting my own assumptions about Krogan life is loaded with all sorts of rhetorical claims about their culture (even as an imaginary one) that I won’t touch with a 10 foot pole. The problem isn’t a “position of privilege” – it’s a presumptuous and projective understanding of other people based on my own assumptions. The *only* thing I have here is Shepard and Wrex. They are, whether they like it or not, my only entrypoints into human and Krogan culture. I can’t step outside of the game.

        In the three times I’ve finished Mass Effect, Shepard and Wrex maintained a respectful and fairly intimate relationship based on a common desire. Wrex opens up to “my” Shepard tons of times. Why? Because I help Shepard set up a space where Wrex sharing his background, history, is possible. In my playthroughs Wrex (despite his worry that he won’t be understood) eventually softens a bit and starts sharing his story. He wants to be understood, and treated like an equal. Sure, Shepard and Wrex get off to a rocky start, but the outcome is worth the hours spent in trying to get there. I help Wrex get back his family’s armour. And he helps me destroy the genophage cure base, despite him wanting the opposite. There’s true consensuality in that. The BioWare writers were at least prescient enough to realize that an ultra-totalizing power hierarchy between Wrex and Shepard was unfair. They let the player discover a way out, and that way out is only achievable by trying to be understood, and trying to understand.

        Did anyone actually play the game?

        • oliemoon says:

          It should be obvious that at least Alex has played the game, but either way you final comment is pretty dismissive.

          • Chris Lepine says:

            I was not implying that Alex had not played the game. My point is that I’m concerned the discussion surrounding the video has become tangential.

            Could you elaborate on what you find dismissive? My intent was to address Brinstar’s comments directly.

        • Brinstar says:

          First, thanks for the reply Brinstar. I appreciate that we’re going to take things “head on” here as it’s a topic of serious discussion.

          If this is a case where we don’t want to blame victims, the sword cuts both ways. This is precisely the point I was trying to make re: Wrex. We don’t have a moral grounds to blame Shepard for being “offensive and wrong” OR Wrex for being defensive. They’re both caught up in a defensive, and altogether demeaning, social exchange that they are *jointly* responsible for. Implying that Wrex has some kind of moral superiority because we’ve decided that he belongs to an inherently oppressed or underprivileged race, carries the kind of racist connotation that I’ve been trying to avoid.

          I don’t believe that morality or moral superiority has anything to do with this. I’m not really sure where you’re coming from on that.

          Secondly, having privilege doesn’t mean that someone is racist. Pointing out that someone belongs to a marginalised or oppresed group does not mean one is racist. Privilege isn’t something you are, it’s something you have.

          Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty all recognize the variegation of power, and that it is full of cracks and opportunities for establishing genuine common relations with other people of varied backgrounds.

          Agreed. However, I still place more weight on the fact that society does not automatically place everyone on equal footing. Just because there are places where one can resist doesn’t mean that this micro resistance actually changes the macro level power structures.

          In response to the Krogan race. Sorry – I’m not going to presume anything about how Krogans live. The game does not cover any of their day-to-day life, and projecting my own assumptions about Krogan life is loaded with all sorts of rhetorical claims about their culture (even as an imaginary one) that I won’t touch with a 10 foot pole. The problem isn’t a “position of privilege” – it’s a presumptuous and projective understanding of other people based on my own assumptions. The *only* thing I have here is Shepard and Wrex. They are, whether they like it or not, my only entrypoints into human and Krogan culture. I can’t step outside of the game.

          Fair enough. Based upon that, it sounds like you don’t agree with the underlying premise of Alex’s post.

          I feel that this thread has been derailed pretty far off track, and it feels to me that we’re looking at this issue from different perspectives that don’t necessarily coincide at all points.

    • oliemoon says:

      My understanding of the phrase “intent doesn’t matter” is that it means “intention is irrelevant when it comes to assessing whether or not harm done and whether or not the harm was reprehensible.” The damage done whether or not intention to do damage was there is still damage that the offender is responsible for.

      • Chris Lepine says:

        Absolutely agree with you. But the point, to me, is that intention-to-harm and intention-to-understand open up a different kind of relational space between people. The damage is done, absolutely. But the whole point is – what do we do now? Now that you’ve kicked me in the groin, how should I respond?

        Seems to me that every situation we’re faced in life follows that kind of theme. People with very good intentions come to do very unintended things. And we’re stuck trying to interpret how we should respond to it. But curtailing a relationship by simply saying “You are WRONG WRONG WRONG” ends up with everyone stomping home with their collective soccer balls.

        • DM says:

          Yeah, this is what I was getting at. You might feel better about telling someone’s privileged ass to read a wiki, but they’re not likely to do it. Whereas if you reach out to them, you’re much more likely to actually get somewhere. It’s not a certainty, but regardless of “whose responsibility it is” I think the pertinent concern should be “what leads to better understanding, harmonious relationships, etc.” Otherwise we really are at home alone with our soccer balls.

          And I didn’t say that well-meaning intent meant the offender shouldn’t apologize. I just think, as Chris Lepine says, that someone who did it accidentally is someone who can be reasoned with and helped to not repeat the mistake. Someone who did it on purpose is a shouting match.

          In the sense of preventing future damage, intent matters a hell of a lot.

          • Brinstar says:

            However, what you don’t seem to grasp, which I’ve been trying, multiple times to get across, is that the very act of telling someone “Hey, what you said there was racist” (e.g. calling someone out on their privilege) can be an extremely difficult thing for the marginalized person. So what you’re asking here is not only 1) for the marginalized person to struggle through the pain they feel due to the privileged person’s carelessness, but you’re also asking the marginalized person to 2) reach out to someone who has caused them pain and 3) risk further pain by continuing to wade into an argument when 9 times out of 10, even if the marginalized person is “nice”, the privileged person is already getting defensive. That is quite a burden to put on the person who belongs to the marginalised group. It’s a lot to ask of someone who has experienced oppression based on race, day-in, day-out to do these things. Can you understand why, then, the burden of this education should not be placed on marginalized groups? Can you see why it’s important for people with privilege to take control of their own education on concepts of oppression?

          • I said I didn’t have energy to do pre-101 education but I guess I do today.

            No. Marginalized persons and groups do not have the time or the energy or the power or the responsibility to educate every single privileged person in the world when it’s convenient for the privileged folk. It is exhausting — there are an awful lot of y’all asking the exact same things and there aren’t that many of us.

            There are schools and libraries and books and wikis. They very helpfully contain all this stuff in a form that anyone can access at any time without placing unreasonable demands upon another person. The people with the power to change society are the people who have power in society. We can do only so much. At some point it becomes your responsibility to do the rest of it — to work on your internalized bigotries and to recognize when privilege benefits you by working to the disadvantage of others (because it always does) and to strive to not take advantage of that.

          • oliemoon says:

            I just think, as Chris Lepine says, that someone who did it accidentally is someone who can be reasoned with and helped to not repeat the mistake.

            In an ideal world, this would be so. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Here’s an example from my own life. Several years ago I was having a friendly conversation with a co-worker and when referencing something he didn’t like he called it “gay.” I calmly pointed out to him that that usage of the word “gay” could be offensive, particularly to gay people like me (a fact about me which he had already known), and asked him to please not use the world like that. I doubt he intended offense or meant any harm by his statement: he made it out of ignorance not malice. So how do you think he responded to my request? He blew up in my face, told me point blank that it was his right to use the word however he wanted, my feelings be damned, and then accused me of sexual harassment.

            The take home message is that yeah sure, sometimes people with good intentions listen and care when you tell them that what they did was offensive/hurtful. But there is no guarantee that they will and most of us marginalized folk can recount plenty of stories like the one above of instances when trying to educate others or plead for our humanity to be respected has resulted in the privileged person getting enraged, defensive and abusive. Well intentioned or not, both scenarios have led to plenty of shouting matches for us, so why should we give any given well intentioned person the benefit of the doubt? You really never know how the person is going to respond and if it is going to be worth your effort to try and reach them.

            Another thing I am sensing from both you and Chris is that attempts to reconcile the situation are the best thing to do because that’s the only way progress will be made so that everyone can go home happy. This is false. Discussions of privilege and oppression can be incredibly draining for marginalized people, even when they go well. Something that might be a “win” for the privileged person (because they’ve learned something and become a better person or whatever) might not feel like a win to the marginalized person because the experience of trying to get through to the privileged person was too stressful and/or emotionally/physically exhausting and upsetting.

            This blog post : The Privilege of Politeness is a good primer for this particular issue.

          • Cuppycake says:

            I actually have a question for Brinstar and Kaninchenzero, and this isn’t meant to be sarcastic or argumentative, I genuinely want to know the answer to this. :)

            I COMPLETELY understand that it is the responsibility of people with privilege to learn everything they can about marginalized groups and oppression. What I don’t understand – is who is expected to teach them? I have only recently become aware of the entire concept of privilege, and only because I read the internet a lot of read about LGBT-related equality. I am self-taught, but I feel like there is WAYYYYY more that I don’t know.

            So if marginalized groups are not expected to teach because it is emotionally painful to do so (which I totally understand), does the entire burden of education lie on allies? Of course in a perfect world, everyone would educate themselves but I feel that personally that is rather idealistic and unlikely.

            An example is that my boyfriend is a wonderful person, a great guy, and not disrespectful intentionally. He occasionally uses the word “lame” to represent things that are not the way he wants them to be. He had absolutely no idea it was offensive until I told him. It’s not that he’s an ignorant privileged person, it’s that he has never sought out information on disability and offensive terms. Thankfully, as an ally I told him that it is offensive. However, I do doubt that it was as powerful (me speaking with no experience being disabled and not personally hurt by the word) as if someone who was not able-bodied had told him.

            Know what I’m saying? :)

          • DM says:

            From the politeness and privilege post: “Why do I (or anyone) have to be polite when we are offended?”

            Because I would like to think it’s more effective. Maybe it’s not, and if you have some research/experience that finds that people are more likely to change when others react in anger as opposed to politeness (or whatever non-anger you want to call it) I’d be glad to read it.

            Yeah, I agree it’s hard. I agree it’s not fair. And I agree it shouldn’t be the job of the marginalized individual to educate. But your approach seems to focus on an idea of what’s “right” or easier for the marginalized person instead of “what will work the best.” I’m not going to begrudge a person who doesn’t want to have a long, patient discussion about the same topic with yet another ignorant individual. I realize it takes a toll and you don’t have all the time in the world.

            But, in my experience, if the question is “how do we BEST prevent this happening in the future,” it’s most likely to happen through that discussion. Again, it’s not fair. It just strikes me as more likely to be effective. Not always. Just more likely.

          • Alex says:

            Tami: Yes, it’s important for allies to call out their fellow privileged folks on bigoted language, etc. And with the way privilege works, white people are more likely to listen to *other white people* about racism than people of color (for example). And, people from marginalized groups have *already* done a whole lot of educating by writing books, creating organizations, organizing movements and protests, and so on. And I fully believe in encouraging people to educate themselves using the many, many resources that are out there.

        • The problem is Chris that you DM and I seem to be approaching this as a theoretical problem. In theory education is the best response to somebody doing something stupid.

          But imagine if every day you have to live with a majority of people taking an aspect of your personal identity, a part of what makes you who you are, and corrupting that to serve as a slur or insult. Imagine telling them that it was a problem and trying to explain why and getting little but defensive anger, or worse in response? Imagine that conversation happening not once or twice in your lifetime, but multiple times a day, every day, forever. Imagine not only being marginalised and routinely oppressed on a daily basis, but also being asked to explain to those oppressors why they are in the wrong, with no idea of how they will react and whether they will lash out either verbally or physically at you for calling them out? Try and imagine that as not a theoretical exercise, but as a fixed immutable fact of your life… It’s difficult to imagine, and I in all likelihood no matter how unsettling the imagined version is it’s a fraction of what it actually feels like. You are likely NEVER asked to explain the actions of every person with whom you share a gender, a race, or a sexual preference, you don’t have to live with that.

          Try hard to imagine what that would conceivably be like, and then ask yourself how you’d respond if yet another person asked you to explain what they were doing wrong. Or worse tried to tell you how you should respond to that marginalisation, a marginalisation they will almost certainly have no direct personal experience of.

          Oppression is a fact of life for a lot of people, too many people; you shouldn’t be surprised when you receive an angry response for telling them how they should be acting. You’ve just asked them to once again become subservient to your desires, you requests. However politely and with however much good intent, what you’ve done is once again indicate that you think not only that they owe you something (Education), but also that you know better. Arrogant is maybe the most polite word for such behaviour. That the only response you got was anger is quite frankly a miracle.

          I doubt you meant offense, but it happened, realise that please.

  3. I liked how the conversations with Wrex started. For me I’d have liked them to stay at “I’m not going to educate your privileged Human ass Shepard. Go read a wiki already.” That he gave in to Shepard’s badgering in the end was meh. And Shepard really should have known better. Diversity training is a part of military service right now; why would it have been forgotten by the time of Mass Effect? Especially for command officers?

    Of course there’s the ‘they had good intentions’ argument. And Bioware might have had the best intentions in the world. Though as an activist for social justice I stopped caring about intentions a while ago.

    (I don’t care about my own intentions either. If in carelessness and/or privilege I say something harmful or bigoted it’s my responsibility to apologize to the person or people I’ve harmed most directly, to make amends as best I can, and to do better. And I’m not perfect. I’ve hurt someone I cared about within days and I’m still working on the making amends part. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t mean to hurt that person.)

    So it doesn’t matter that Shepard was trying to be friendly and to learn more about the people in Normandy‘s crew or that Bioware didn’t mean to have Shepard fall into patterns of privileged behavior. That is what happened. I don’t care that it’s just a game or that it’s kind of harsh for something that’s supposed to be entertainment. Bioware made the decision to establish the Krogan as victims of genocide. They came up with the motive: punishment for the crime of daring to consider themselves at least equal to the people who had given them access to spacefaring technologies and being unwilling to accept only the territory they’d been given. These are kind of harsh themes.

    When Bioware started down that path they had a responsibility to do a better job with the Krogan. It’s not like these are new concepts or difficult to acquire; non-privileged identity studies have been academic (and not so academic) fields for decades.

    • Twyst says:

      I feel that the Krogan were done a large disservice in the game. Why cant you save them? You can right so many other wrongs, why can you not help this whole race of people that have been dealt this blow by the Turians-judge-jury-and-executioner.

      • Couldn’t Shepard saving the Krogan race, be seen as “the outsider deigning to save the lesser species with his superior power” with all the uncomfortable associations such a representation would include?

        • They could have at least tried. Maybe they’d have done it badly and I’d be criticising them for that but they wouldn’t have just left it out there.

          • Twyst says:

            Exactly. The outsider saves everyone else in the game, or is given the chance to take some action, such is the nature of the game. Maybe Wrex takes some action. Maybe anything… SOMETHING, other than uncovering all this terribly sad information and being able to do nothing with it.

          • To my chagrin, I’d forgotten the circumstances surrounding the potential Genophage cure.

            On reflection it is indeed very strange that Shepard was given the option to make the grand choice for the entire Krogan species and destory the Genophage research while the alternate option to preserve it and actually cure the Genophage was not provided.

    • Alex says:

      While I can understand the gameplay need to have Wrex explain-o for the player’s benefit, I agree that it would have been better if he hadn’t. (There is the codex, after all.) And I was pissed also that the Krogan issue was just left hanging, and they had better take this thread back up again in the sequel.

      But I do think that BioWare meant to have Shepard and Kaiden behave in privileged ways. To me it pointed out that just because you are a good person doesn’t mean it’s impossible for you to hurt people with your privilege, even when you’re just trying to be nice. And the fact that Wrex is such a sympathetic, awesome character (and a total fan-favorite) means that we can see Wrex’s side even though the human characters we are supposed to be relating to are the ones behaving badly. Of course, that is just how I read the scene as a person who is aware of the “But That Happens to Me Too!” problem; this conversation made me cringe even though I’d picked the Paragon options.

      • There were other ways they could’ve shown Shepard and Kaidan to be acting with privilege without having it be that unsubtle. Depending on the options picked at the beginning Shepard could have come from a not very privileged background military-wise and maybe been a bit more sensitive to “Aw c’mon tell me about how all your people were murdered it’s interesting!” Kaidan grew up as an experimental subject and a biotics-user. And both of ‘em went through officer training — there’s lots of people-stuff in that.

        Nah, they were just attached to their get info about alien species from the alien in the crew thing and didn’t change it up when they should have.

  4. BigDumbHippy says:

    Wrex always gets in the way when I’m shooting. Its very frustrating

  5. TheUrdnotWrex says:

    I wish you puny humans wouldn’t talk about me behind my back

  6. Pingback: While !Finished » Wrex and the Art of the Privilege Check

  7. Denis Farr says:

    On my second playthrough of Dragon Age, I expect to write more about Sten.

    I was rather floored when my character went up to him in his cage and asked him to explicate the Qunari race for me right there and then. His response was that it was not his job to educate me on his people, who could not be summed up in such a succinct, nice package that my character was expecting.

    Floored, I tell you.

  8. Cuppycake : Of course in a perfect world, everyone would educate themselves but I feel that personally that is rather idealistic and unlikely.

    I’m an idealist. And I refuse to continue to reinforce oppressive structures — which is what expecting the marginalized to educate the privileged does — because it’s practical. If a marginalized person does take the time and energy to do it it’s a gift. But placing the burden of societal change on the people who already carry the burdens of oppression and marginalization goes against my ideals.

    • Cuppycake says:

      I can understand what you mean. I am not saying to expect the marginalized to educate the privileged, for sure! :)

      There is so much to learn about in the world. I have no idea how I will learn it all before I die!

  9. Brinstar says:

    DM :
    From the politeness and privilege post: “Why do I (or anyone) have to be polite when we are offended?”
    Because I would like to think it’s more effective. Maybe it’s not, and if you have some research/experience that finds that people are more likely to change when others react in anger as opposed to politeness (or whatever non-anger you want to call it) I’d be glad to read it.
    Yeah, I agree it’s hard. I agree it’s not fair. And I agree it shouldn’t be the job of the marginalized individual to educate. But your approach seems to focus on an idea of what’s “right” or easier for the marginalized person instead of “what will work the best.” I’m not going to begrudge a person who doesn’t want to have a long, patient discussion about the same topic with yet another ignorant individual. I realize it takes a toll and you don’t have all the time in the world.
    But, in my experience, if the question is “how do we BEST prevent this happening in the future,” it’s most likely to happen through that discussion. Again, it’s not fair. It just strikes me as more likely to be effective. Not always. Just more likely.

    Research? That’s a very privileged statement to make, and a derailing tactic.

    That bolded text is a major point. Of course I’m focusing on what is easier for the marginalised person. The entire reason that privilege exists is because of disproportionate power structures that give certain groups privilege. Your idea of “what’s best” focuses on “what’s best” for the privileged person, not the member of a marginalised group. This attitude simply perpetuates inequality. The very nature of oppressive societal power structures already makes daily life for an oppressed or marginalised person difficult. As kaninchenzero stated above, to burden the marginalised party with educating and teaching the privileged just reinforces those unequal power structures by continuing to unfairly and unequally burden members of marginalised groups with the further task to try and enlighten another person who, being a person who has privilege, is wont to give that up. Privilege is a very comfortable thing. We won’t automatically want to change ourselves, even when approached nicely.

    I have had many, many discussions about race in which both parties approached it in good faith, and politeness, only to have the other party continue to engage in racist language and to continue to hold racist attitudes. These were friends; friends who could potentially make my interactions with them easier and less hurtful by curbing their problematic language. I was nice. I was polite. I was even-tempered. And they still continued saying racist things. Can you really expect me to do the same with total strangers? Can you really expect a person from a marginalised group putting themselves out there for a stranger, who, if the stranger somehow understands where this marginalised group is coming from, will benefit from a deeper, and lasting understanding of how privilege works… Whereas the marginalised person will probably never see them again, and all this person got out of the whole exchange was a huge amount of stress, heartache, and pain?

    Please read oliemoon’s comment to you again. Just because a privileged person comes to an understanding about why they were hurtful doesn’t meant that the marginalised person automatically wins. You have no idea how draining, angering, and exhausting, and emotionally damaging some of these discussions can get. The every act of calling out someone on their privilege is difficult. There’s no guarantee that the privileged person will see the light, whereas there is very good change that the marginalised person will emerge from the discussion feeling hurt, excluded, and angry. DM, I have been in dozens of discussions like this. People in marginalised groups choose their battles, and 99% percent of the time, those battles are not worth it because 99% of the time, the marginalised person will not benefit at all. This is why, as kaninchenzero says, it is a gift when a marginalised person takes the time an energy to patiently explain and educate.

    (Have you noticed that many, many marginalised people have leaped into this thread and patiently tried to explain these concepts to you? You may not have noticed it, but I do. And I can tell you that it’s not easy. It’s not. As I sit here now, my partner has decided to take a break from looking at this thread, and is finding playing videogames too difficult because some of the privileged comments here are so frustrating, angering, and *headdesk* worthy.)

    Anti-oppression holds the privileged person to higher standards–the responsibility to seek out information and educate themselves. If the privileged person is never expected to do any heavy lifting themselves, as comfortable as they are, wearing their blinders, then why would they actually go out and do it?

    As I said before, having privilege is comfortable. It would be entirely comfortable for me to continue using ableist language. I’ve worked exceedingly hard to eliminate “lame” from my vocabulary, but the only reason I was able to understand why it was hurtful and wrong is because I educated myself. I could go on and on, defending its usage, giving the “evolving nature of language” defence, and continue to hurt disabled people in the process. That shows an incredible lack of empathy, which is another thing people who have privilege can enjoy–a lack of empathy via ignorance. Why would I ever say, for example, that it’s a disabled person’s place or position to educate me about my able-bodied privilege, when life as an able-bodied person is already so comparatively easy for me?

    • Alex says:

      DM: First of all, why the fuck should any marginalized person care more about educating a total stranger than doing what is best for themselves?

      Secondly, *this very conversation* is exactly an example of what we are talking about. We are giving you a huge benefit of the doubt and politely and carefully explaining to you, REPEATEDLY, why your comments come from a place from privilege. And see how long and drawn out this conversation is? And the fact that there are FOUR of us writing to you? You must not realize it but this is an extremely stressful conversation that we are getting *nothing* out of, we are going out of our way to try and educate you just as you ask, AND YOU STILL DON’T GET IT. It is simply impossible to do this on a regular basis, much less with people who get defensive and angry, and to ask that of people who already have to deal with oppression in our daily lives is an asshole thing to do, along with being ridiculously privileged.

      You need to do some serious 101 reading before commenting again, please. Luckily we compiled a bunch of links already on the Helpful Resources page.

      • DM says:

        I certainly hope I haven’t implied that I haven’t appreciated it. It may not seem like it, but I am learning more, and it is helping (me at least).

        And I’m absolutely positive that you’ve had plenty of discussions exactly like this many, many times. I imagine I’d get pretty frustrated, too.

        I don’t want to make you angry any further, although I doubt I can avoid doing that if I attempt to answer you, so you might want to disregard what I’m going to type (and, like I have said, I don’t begrudge you or think it’s your responsibility). I have really appreciated it and, if you just want to answer one thing more, if you’re mostly convinced that it’s fruitless and draining, why have you bothered this time?

        It relates to my post because you seemed to ignore the idea that I asked about effectiveness in terms of educating about privilege and trying to negate more damage, not about whether or not the marginalized person has some obligation to do it. They don’t. I get that.

        But, at the end of the day, people in privilege aren’t just going to “give it up.” There is no rational reason for them to do it. I’m personally continuing to engage in this discussion because I honestly want to understand the rationales behind your ideas (and I’m getting there), I think there’s a good chance I could be wrong and want to explore it more, and because I’m genuinely interested in trying to negate harm to others.

        And yet, as I’ve done this, you’ve continually dismissed me as derailing, as privileged, as ignorant, etc. My initial post that started this never said “marginalized groups have an obligation to educate the privileged.” I just said that anger and dismissal seemed ineffective, not that you have a moral obligation to do something different. The comment about research wasn’t meant in a derailing sense (I don’t have research to back up my notion either, just anecdotal experience); I just haven’t seen any other suggestions that are more effective at educating privileged individuals and if they exist I’d like to know about them. You really haven’t provided any. And it’s not your responsibility to do that. It just seems, to me, like you’re trying to claim I’m doing something or thinking something that I’m not.

        You have repeatedly suggested self-education as a solution for those with privilege, which would be fine if they’d actually do it. I just don’t think that for the vast, vast majority of people that they would. So I’m left thinking the best thing for the movement of educating the privileged, whoever’s responsibility that is, is polite discussion. And, again, I’d be more than happy to listen to other examples of effective ways to educate the privileged (which is my notion of how to help the marginalized, long-term; other suggestions in that regard I imagine I can find in those links).

        As a final note, I’ll say that I’ve never called any of you names. I’ve never said your arguments were in bad faith or derailing (I feel you’ve misinterpreted some of my comments, but that’s the nature of the internet beast). I hope I haven’t seemed angry, etc. I honestly am trying to learn and change and I appreciate your help very much.

        But it bothers me that you don’t seem to reciprocate. I realize it’s draining for you. I really, really do. But it’s not easy for me to be yelled at and charged with deceptive tactics and essentially told that I’m not appreciating or getting anything even though I feel like I have been (I probably haven’t been vocal about it, which I do apologize for). I’ve been trying to do this precisely because I don’t want to cause more pain and actively want to help alleviate it. And you’re probably thinking “that’s a privileged thing to say.” And my answer is it’s a human thing to say. Privileged people are still people and just as it’s time consuming and frustrating for you, it’s the same for me. Because I have privilege doesn’t mean I deserve to feel that way any more than you do; I’m seeking to undermine my own advantage just as you’ve always suffered for never having it (yours being the much greater burden, I realize).

        Your tone hurts. I am sincerely sorry if mine did the same to you; I really tried to take steps to avoid that.

        • I imagine I’d get pretty frustrated too.

          You’d just prefer we didn’t sound frustrated? You are not the first person to suggest that if marginalized people just state their needs politely and calmly — according to the rules of politeness established by the privileged — we’d get what we want much more efficiently!

          You’re faced with the real frustrations of people who are working on these issues and you, as a privileged person and as someone who is by their own admission just starting to learn about them, feel that you have the authority to come in and tell us how it’s done. We tell you no. You say “But my way is better!”

          No. It’s not. Your way is better for the privileged. It’s not better for us.

          If you’re really interested in working towards social justice and unpacking your own privilege you are going to be uncomfortable a lot. I was. I am. I still have privilege and other people are still oppressed by the structures that give me that privilege. It’s not comfortable to face that. Sometimes it hurts. But it’s my responsibility to carry that discomfort and not to make the people who are already carrying the oppression carry my hurt feelings too.

          You may keep your criticism of my tone. I will keep my anger.

        • Alex says:

          DM, think about what your point is. Your point is essentially, “Hey, why don’t you just explain nicely to people about privilege! That would probably be effective!”

          You honestly don’t think anyone in the entire long history of social justice and anti-oppression already thought of that?

          Because people did. And what they came to realize, which we have tried explaining to you over and over and over, is that it does not work in most cases. What they came to realize was that, no matter how polite you are, most people are going to get defensive and angry and blow up at you. And when they don’t, it is still going to long and extremely draining experience, just like this very conversation, as they search and search for just the right thing to say that will make the person understand.

          People have tried being polite. And they found it was not as effective as you’d think.

        • oliemoon says:

          I just said that anger and dismissal seemed ineffective

          So this is the thing. That several of us have said over and over again and you just keep not getting it. Ineffective at what? As far as I can tell, your definition of “effective” is “changing the offender’s mind so they aren’t so bigoted anymore.” And we keep saying, in so many words, “No, you need to rework your definition of ‘effective’ because it is currently centered entirely on benefiting the offender and serving their needs.” Perhaps in the long run it benefits the marginalized person indirectly sometimes, but what about their immediate needs? We have to balance both, which is why education is not always the best thing for us.

          Not everything that marginalized people do needs to be directed at dismantling oppression via making allies out of our antagonists. We have personal needs to that need to be met when we’re confronted with bigotry and sometimes anger can be incredibly effective in helping us cope, in helping us take control and feel empowered, in helping us bond with other like-minded people and others from our communities.

          One more thing: angry responses to bigotry, even when they don’t necessarily reach the offender, can also be highly effective at reaching bystanders. There are people reading this thread and learning. Some of the most educational moments from me when it’s come to learning about transphobia and ableism have been when I have encountered blow ups between transfolk/cisfolk and disabled feminists/abled feminists.

        • Brinstar says:

          I have really appreciated it and, if you just want to answer one thing more, if you’re mostly convinced that it’s fruitless and draining, why have you bothered this time?

          Because even if 99% of the time it is fruitless, there is still that 1% of good (for the marginalised person and for the person with privilege) that could potentially come from engaging. From my perspective, it’s because I have hope.

          • DM says:

            I’ve thought a lot about all of this and I can honestly say I’ve learned a lot. I really am sorry if I’ve caused you guys discomfort; it’s new and I’m struggling with all of this. I learn better this way, like you say, and if it’s any comfort to you, I think I’ve made some great personal strides towards the points you’re making.

            I didn’t mean to imply that I was the first person to have these thoughts. I, personally, just respond really poorly to anger, especially when a person’s intentions don’t seem malicious. That’s just me, and, since I don’t handle it well (showing it or having it directed at me), it’s what I criticize. And that bias just came out here, I think.

            But, again, I have learned a great deal, and I do appreciate all your time. And I was completely serious when I say I hope I didn’t cause you too much consternation. I hope I’m part of that 1% getting there.

  10. Mantheos says:

    Wow, this got heated. I wasn’t sure whether to post this on this site or the other one, Alex. To answer your question at the end of your article, Alex, there are a few more example conversations in the game.

    There is another elevator conversation where Garrus says to Wrex something like “You surprise me. I thought all Krogan were brutes and criminals.” Wrex responds with something like, “It’s easier to infect the Krogan with the Genophage when they’re brutes. You should stay in the ship, otherwise you just might learn something.” Believe it or not, Wrex doesn’t sound angry. He actually sounds satisfied that Garrus is rethinking his view of the Krogan and realizing his error in stereotyping an entire race of beings.

    Wrex also turns the tables in another conversation, asking Garrus why he wants to hunt down Saren, another Turian. Garrus says that Saren is a traitor to both the Citadel Council and the Turian species, further showing the error of racial stereotyping. I think their interactions are some of the best party member interactions in the game.

  11. I know the moderators are frustrated about having to repeat things over and over, but I wanted to say that I really appreciate everyone taking the time out of their lives to respond to offensive comments.

    I’ve learned a lot about how to react when someone points out my privilege, and even more importantly, to avoid offending someone in the first place. Seeing these conversations play out on a number of different comment threads is really helpful, since there’s context around the different ways people can get defensive, and then follow-up responses that point out exactly what’s going on.

    So thanks for being so patient when it’s not your responsibility to explain anything in the first place!

  12. Alex says:

    I’ve been thinking about this some more and, given the Krogans’ history of being exploited as well as the fact that they, unlike humans, Salarians, Turians, and Asari, are not one of the “Citadel races,” I think it’s safe to say that humans and other species have institutionalized privilege over the Krogan.

  13. yeloson says:

    I’m finally getting a chance to check out the blog, and it’s awesome! I loved Wrex and the fact he was straight up about the bullshit that went down. It’ll be really interesting to see if the whole “Krogan war justification” history that’s given in the first game is as simple as it seems, or if it’s part of denial by those in power.

    Also- I’m surprised at the amount of educating and engagement with clueless folks on the comments here- I’d just ban them and if they’re actually interested, they can lurk and read more.

    But, you know, the best way to hide something from a racist is to put it in a book (or, apparently, behind the mask of Mr. Google).

  14. Lisa Harney says:

    I’m super-late here, but I’ve been replaying Mass Effect 1 recently because of 2, and this scene…yeah.

    I did sort of wish that there was an option to respond with “Oh, you’re right, it’s totally not the same.” But I did appreciate that the writers seemed to have some clue.

    There’s a similar moment in Dragon Age when you’re in the Brecilian Forest talking to an elven storyteller, and you get two or three variations of “It’s not my fault! I wasn’t there!” when talking about the conquest and enslavement of elves.

    Also, playing an elf, I’ve run into some note-perfect examples of privileged defensiveness from humans.

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