Choose your own privilege

Power matrixes, and why "privilege" is not a dirty word

This is a weird topic to have been thinking about during my birthday week. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been binging the HBO drama The White Lotus since last week, or if it’s just my annual “I have gained a year and therefore must muse about the state of things” phase. Either way, I found myself pondering the concept of privilege, considering all the different ways it shows up in our lives. Since I’m on deadline and therefore keeping social media at arms’ length, I decided to share my thoughts with After Five subscribers in lieu of a long thread on Twitter. This is gonna be a 15-minute read. You might want to put the kettle on.

Part I: Choose your own privilege

At the beginning of every semester in my first-year composition classes, I ask my students to write a personal essay about a time their implicit biases caused them to misrepresent someone. The resulting essays are usually quite honest, to their credit (as freshmen, the Snarky Undergrad Act hasn’t yet been perfected). Afterwards, we debrief as a group, and I always close the project by telling them this:

You can’t control the existence of implicit biases. On their own, some may be harmless. But when you throw power into the mix, they could become harmful. And if you’re higher up on the power matrix, you may be too privileged to recognize how harmful yours are.

In today’s rightly charged discourse, the mere mention of the words bolded above makes folks break into a sweat. They’re often (wrongly) interpreted to be melee weapons used to attack one’s person. But in truth, as I often tell my students, there is nothing wrong with having power or privilege. There is, however, something absolutely wrong with pretending power or privilege don’t exist, or minimizing their influence on real-world situations.

The biggest problem, I’ve realized, is that many believe if someone points out they possess privilege in one paradigm, that suddenly defines them. But one can be privileged in one paradigm and underprivileged in another. However, your net privilege (the sum total of all your privileges) does define you, because more often than not, that underpins how you express your implicit biases. It dictates how you navigate whatever society you’re in, and how hard/easy it may be for you to do so.

Power matrixes, I’ve learned, are an easy way to understand this.

How stories help me understand “net privilege”

The idea of power matrixes, I borrowed from author Mary Robinette Kowal’s power axes concept. Both are similar, though my use of “matrix” is my former engineer brain perceiving axes as lines (and since I consider power to operate more across a spectrum of intersections, a matrix better represents that for me). Regardless of the choice of term, the whole idea (for me) is this:

Consider one’s privilege like a position on a spatial graph. On one axis, power levels: from subordinate/marginalized/disenfranchised to dominant. On the opposite axis, power paradigms, e.g age, race, education/occupation, socioeconomic class, gender, sexual orientation, physical/mental health & (dis)ability, origin/heritage/ethnicity, location/nationality, etc. This paradigm axis may have a zero-sum effect (a drop in one may “cancel out” a rise in another) and may also be “weighted” (some paradigms may be perceived as more important than others, depending on the society interpreting it).

In the stories I write, I often use this to situate my characters and their relationships to the worlds I build, as it helps make for more complex and nuanced storytelling.

An example: Power Matrix in David Mogo, Godhunter

In David Mogo, Godhunter, David is a demigod, which could be +1 or -1 to power depending on how that society perceives gods. Knowing Nigerians, I deduced the reaction in this fantasy world would be a fear/disdain mix, making David a necessary evil, and therefore closer to a net-zero on the god/human power paradigm.

But David is not just a demigod. He’s also young (in Nigeria, this is -1 because age is a major power tool), well educated (+1), cis male (+1, or even +2), from a non-dominant ethnic group in a Yoruba-dominated Lagos (-1), “straight” (as much as a demigod can be, +1), traditionally abled (+1), etc. His net privilege isn’t over the roof, but it’s enough for him to navigate godpocalyptic Lagos without significant barriers. It also sometimes causes him to overlook things (e.g. once, he prevents a teenage girl from joining a combat troupe that lets in teenage boys, and she calls him out on it).

Each story world may also have its own set of rules different from today’s. For instance, being Christian or Muslim in today’s Nigeria is a +1/+2 and being irreligious is a -1, but in godpocalyptic Lagos, this has zero impact because people care less about religion. Even secondary worlds may develop their own society’s rules of power (e.g. see the caste system in my other novel, Son of the Storm).

I don’t mention race as a power paradigm in David Mogo, mostly because Nigeria does not consider itself a multiracial country. In the real world, race will play a role in a self-described multiracial country, depending on how much socioeconomic power race is given. In a country like America, which has racial disparity written into its DNA, race may even be “weighted,” meaning it could boost an otherwise low net privilege or severely reduce an already decent one.

Race does play a role in the real-world Nigeria though, in the form of colourism. As a post-colonial nation, one of the vestiges of colonialism is that proximity to whiteness is still valued, which makes lighter skin tones +1 and darker skin tones closer to -1. It doesn’t necessarily apply everywhere (for instance, you won’t be denied university admission over this), but it applies in certain spheres (e.g. entertainment industry, front-desk jobs, etc) and with certain genders (mostly women). This is the reason skin-lightening cosmetic products are rife, as exposed in the recent Netflix Documentary, Skin. (You would think this means albinism should be valued, but nope. Because it is perceived as a “defect,” albinism is -1 or even -2. I know. Society’s rules are trash and don’t make sense.)

“Cognitive distance” & what “Check your privilege” really means

The overall effect of one’s net privilege is that one’s position on this spatial map increases or reduces the cognitive distance between them and others. The closer the cognitive distance, the easier it is to understand (and most importantly, empathize) with others above/below or ahead of/behind you on this matrix. The further one’s cognitive distance, the more difficult it becomes. Net privilege also arrives with a net power differential that, coupled with an increased cognitive distance, begins to expose one’s implicit biases. Even when unintended. Especially when unintended.

That’s a heavy truth to digest, I know, but there’s little that can be done about it. As long as one’s net privilege gives them more net power over someone else, their implicit biases could become harmful. Explicit biases become outright dangerous.

Here’s a quick example: both misogyny and misandry are problematic, but misogyny is more so because a significant number of our societies are already patriarchal in nature, therefore tipping the power differential in favor of men. Misandry, however, needs to be paired with a bunch of other power paradigms to have any significant effect. If power isn’t tipped back in the opposite direction in a patriarchal society (e.g. misandry becoming systemic or institutionalized), it is unlikely there will be large-scale or long-term effects of misandry.

So, when people say, “Check your privilege,” what they’re really saying is: “Have you plotted your position on the power matrix of this society? Do you have an understanding of your net privilege as a person existing in this space? Have you considered improving your awareness and fine-tuning your interactions accordingly to ensure you don’t unwittingly harm others?”

I often use myself as an example. Being a Black, married, straight, university-educated, healthy, abled cis man from a Christian middle-class background are all pluses to my privilege in Nigeria. Being young and from a minority ethnic group pegs me down a tad, but not too much. Which means I do need to constantly re-examine my relationship to ideas, people, beliefs and concepts as I navigate Nigerian society, especially those ingrained in me by virtue of my net privilege position.

Upon moving to America for grad school, all of these markers of my identity remain the same, but my privilege drops significantly simply for being Black in this society. So I carry out this examination exercise again, to plot out my new position and respond accordingly. Upon leaving the US and moving to Canada, I have carried out the same exercise. If I do move to a different society, I will plot my net privilege on this spectrum, again and again and again.

If you think, “Does this ever end?” the answer is, No, and neither should it. Checking one’s privilege is not some kind of burden we’re doomed to carry for eternity. It is an exercise that helps us understand the complexities of our societies better, and has the snowball effect of increasing our overall empathy. One major reason for the defensiveness about privilege is a fear of loss of power, especially when one believes they earned that power (news flash: most of our power is just inherited by circumstance). Belief in this overarching meritocracy is harmful, especially when peddled by the society itself. It is best for one to always discover their position relative to others, and maintain constant awareness of the weight of that position in society.

If anything, checking your privilege makes you a better human (and a better writer, if you are one). If that’s not a good enough reason in itself, I don’t know what will be.

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Part II: ICYMI

  • Black Boy Joy became an instant #1 NYT Bestseller!

  • The Fable.co Fantasy Book Club is a go! We’ve grown close to 100 readers so far, and are currently at our fourth reading milestone (Chapter 55: Oboda arrives Whudasha <insert menacing music here>)There’s still time to join in!

Part III: Where to find me in the coming weeks

  • Weekend of 16-19 @ FIYACON 2021: I won’t be paneling this year, so I’ll simply attend and cheer on all the panelists. However, I’m available for office hours (two slots for general writing Q&A on Sunday 9/19 @ 3PM & 3:30PM EST). If you want to get some one-on-one face-time with me, better snap up those spots! I’m also up for an Ignyte Award (Best in Creative Nonfiction for “The African Superhero and the Legacy of Captain Africa) so come see us look dashing at the ceremony on Sat 9/18 @ 4PM EST.

  • Sat Oct 2 @ The 2021 African American Research Library and Cultural Center's Comic & Sci-Fi Convention, Fort Lauderdale, Florida: Guest author interview to be streamed live on the day via Broward County Library’s YouTube.

Part IV: Recs roundup


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