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Perceptions, Reality and Prejudice

July 29, 2009

As a statistician one of the things that I come up against a lot is the challenge of reconciling what we perceive with what actually is.

Here is a stupid example:  if my coworkers are perceiving that we have an increase in the number of customers calling to whine but my data about whining customers shows that there is no change, we have a conflict.  The problem often comes down to the fact that as humans our perceptions of things can be biased or affected by a number of issues, if for instance the customers calling are angrier than they used to be, we may perceive that as an increase in the frequency of calls, but in reality it is just an increase in the angriness of the calls, which makes them more memorable to our easily swayed brain matter.

So what does this have to do with prejudice?  Am I saying that we only perceive prejudice and that in reality it is not there?  That would be a totally assholey thing to say.  Not to mention it would be demonstrably wrong based on tons of studies and actual data sets that prove discrimination.

I am saying that there is a substantial challenge for activists and members of groups that experience prejudice in examinging actual prejudice and attempting to seperate it from general asshatery.

Today’s example of perceived prejudice  comes from MMORPGs (which I think would be a really interesting place to study the interactions of groups of different makeups in stressful scenarios, if anyone wants to give me a grant or a job doing this, e-mail me.)  Ren over at Feministe posted about her experiences playing City of Heroes/Villians (Which I have never played but which sounds totally awesome.) And she said the following:

On teams, no matter who the team leader is, who’s quest/mission/instance it is, sure enough, if it is known that the leader of that team is in RL a woman, nine times out of ten some dude will try to take over and call all the shots and dictate how the whole thing should go.  This, my friends, pisses me off big time.

Now this pisses me off big time too in WoW, exept for one small thing, this happens in groups I am in all the time, and I have never been in a group or raid being run by a female toon. It seems like no matter what group I am in or who is in charge some asshat is convinced he can do it better.  (Now I think the fact that chicks don’t even bother to run raids or groups on my server may be evidence on its own of the hostile climate for women on the server.)

I’m not saying it isn’t worse for female group leaders, what I am saying is that it is already pretty fucking bad, and so while we might percieve that female leaders get usurped a lot it may be that they get usurped at about the same rate as dudes but that we just notice it more because they are chicks.  Mr. I argues the inverse, that males will be nicer to female raid leaders because they would like to plow them.  Now personally, I think that is just as sexist (and just as likely to lead to totally ignoring the leader.)

In any case, I’m not trying to prove Ren right or wrong as I don’t know what she’s seen and I don’t have any data or anything to back ANY of this up.   Her example just happend to be the most recent example of this kind of thing I came accross.

What I am trying to get to is that when we percieve prejudice it is worth considering our perceptions versus what the reality might be.  We could ask ourselves if the asshatery we are currently putting up with is due to our gender, race, size, sexual orientation, or if it could just be because the person(s) we are dealing with desperately needs to see a proctologist to have their head(s) removed from their ass(es).  (Maybe the proctologist will tell them to “just lose some weight?”)

The reason I think this is important is because there are plenty of priveleged (i.e. White Males) out there in the world who have a shitty time of it.  Their ideas for their boss are ignored, they get passed over for promotions for no apparent reason, people are asshats to them in online video games.  So it goes.

If we stand around saying “My boss ignores me because I’m X and he’s an Xist” while other non X people are also being ignored those people are not going to believe our claims.  They are going to percieve us as being whiney minorities  who see prejudice everywhere and play the victim card.  This is especially true when we are dealling with the actions of an individual over the actions of a group.

Sadly it is hardly practical to conduct a double blind experiment and have it peer reviewed  every time we think we see some form of prejudice.  We know that prejudice exsists, but what we can’t know is the motivation of every individual who treats us like crap.  We interpret the behavior of others according to our own lives, biases, motivations and experiences.  Our interpretation may be completely at odds with the interpretation of the other party, and both interpretations could, in theory, be completely divorced from the reality of the situation.

I just think that it is interesting to think about.

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15 Comments
  1. Godless Heathen permalink

    I’ve never lead anything in an MMO (other than organizing Wintergrasp raids) but I have had men try to take over and “protect” me. I’m out there grinding, start to dps something, and some goon (or Goon) playing a DK yanks my target away and beats it up. I think it has a lot less to do with me actually being female and more to do with the stereotypical femininity of the in-game race I’m playing now. I know that I’m supposed to feign gratitude over the big strong he-man protecting the little Blood Elf, but seriously, I know my class. I am my own hero!

    In a 5, or 10 “man” group, I don’t usually have trouble because people are too busy to protect the dps, but also because I don’t PUG and my guild is 80% women. I’ll occasionally meet an over-protective healer in a Wintergrasp group, but I’m really too busy to notice other than I haven’t died in a while.

    My husband plays a female troll tank, nobody ever tries to protect him. That could be because it’s a level 80 and people who get that far learn not to mess with the main tank’s job. It doesn’t hurt, though, that the game provides few visible cues of frailty for his race/class combination. It’s hard to see anything under all that plate mail.

    I didn’t want to derail on that point, I’m just going through a little WoW withdrawal right now. I stopped playing CoH shortly after City of Villains came out, but the phenomenon didn’t seem as problematic there. Sometimes you just luck out and meet every asshole on the server. It does tend to be a bit worse in more masculine dominated game environments, like PvP servers and PvP oriented games. Usually if you can get past the noob levels, people eventually learn to play their class and not their egos.

    Now that I’ve gone completely off the rails: For the Horde!

  2. Lok’Tar Ogar!

  3. Just Some Trans Guy permalink

    This is … a really, really problematic post.

    I’m not stupid. I know when someone’s just being a jerk and when someone’s being a jerk because I’m trans or queer. I’ve got a lot of years experience dealing with both under my belt, and you better believe I’m well-equipped to tell the difference–a heck of a lot better equipped than someone who ISN’T trans or queer, I should add.

    And I’m not an exception. I’d say a lot of disprivileged people aren’t stupid. I’d say a lot of us are perfectly capable of telling the difference. It’s just that lots of times we’re not believed, because a privileged person didn’t see any problem. And if a privileged person doesn’t see a problem, well, golly, there isn’t one!

    “What I am trying to get to is that when we percieve prejudice it is worth considering our perceptions versus what the reality might be.”

    And when someone says they’re being discriminated against, it is worth LISTENING to that person instead of immediately throwing a bunch of statistics-mean-you’re-deluded b.s. at them.

  4. Trabb's Boy permalink

    One response to this post is that yes, we often are in situations where the motivations and sensitivities of the two sides are unknown, but in nearly every case in our society, the response is to assume the white male hetero cis rich whatever guy is not prejudiced unless there is evidence to the contrary. The default is to assume innocence. And maybe innocence is there most of the time, but having that as the default whenever the facts aren’t known is deeply disempowering to the black female queer trans poor person, who is thereby assumed to be guilty of hypersensitivity.

    I have nothing against assuming people are innocent — I’m married to a defense attorney — but in most of these more casual situations, you have to pick sides. One person says “you wronged me” and the other says “I didn’t wrong you,” and to say nothing because we don’t have all the facts is the same as agreeing with the second person.

    At the very least, it seems important to me to say that the perception of sexism, racism, etc, is itself a concern, even if we don’t know the cause, and it is a signal that people do not feel welcome and equal. That makes it imperative to continue the conversation even if it is not possible to determine motivations in the specific incident.

  5. Hey Trans Guy,

    You’re right, it is problematic, which is why I’ve not posted it about 15 times before. Perhaps I should have continued not posting it, alas it is too late.

    Just for the record reality may more than likely be that the individual or group we are dealing with are bigoted fucks. In fact that is probably the case most of the time. I’m just saying it is worth considering other explanations on occasion, or looking for more concrete evidence than one person’s perception, especially when one is dealing with the less overt forms of discrimination.

    You seem to think we should just always trust the word of the individual who says they are discriminated against and I think that would be nice in an ideal world. I just don’t think that people are capable of always being 100% right about other people’s motivations because we’re all wrong sometimes… but then, maybe I’m wrong?

  6. Catgal permalink

    One of the best quotes I have heard and use often is, and I paraphrase: The way someone reacts to you is 90% about them (what’s in their head and their life experiances), and only 10% about you.

    I try to remember that anytime someone is rude, mean, obnoxious, whatever towards me. Usually, I end up feeling sorry for them that they are so messed up to have X reaction to whatever Y thing I am or am doing.

  7. Just Some Trans Guy permalink

    “You seem to think we should just always trust the word of the individual who says they are discriminated against and I think that would be nice in an ideal world.”

    I’m not sure I would say always … but, I do think it’s safe to default to this if other unrelated factors don’t suggest the person is untrustworthy, because despite what people like to say about, say, African-Americans playing “the race card,” there is a LOT of pressure on disprivileged people to not speak up about prejudice. Because one of the things about that invisible knapsack of privilege is that it’s INVISIBLE, and so complaints of prejudice are fairly easily dismissed. Because the prejudice slides by unnoticed to those who don’t face it.

    I know that cis people won’t always be able (at least, immediately) to see transphobia. Because they’re not trans. Because they don’t have to. So, even when I know something transphobic has happened, I actually am very careful to pick and choose when I speak up about something. Other folks disprivileged in other ways than I am, and ways in which I am privileged, have related that they engage in similar balancing considerations. I cannot say that all disprivileged people do this, but I feel pretty certain a very good number do.

    “I’m just saying it is worth considering other explanations on occasion, or looking for more concrete evidence than one person’s perception, especially when one is dealing with the less overt forms of discrimination.”

    I really think your post goes much further than this. Also, I find this somewhat condescending. As though people don’t already consider that? I consider that EVERY SINGLE TIME someone says something that rubs me the wrong way. Sometimes I do indeed decide that, yup, the person was just being a jerk. Sometimes I decide that the person was being transphobic but didn’t mean to–and then I go into my balancing test to decide whether I want to say something. Sometimes I decide that the person was being transphobic and absolutely meant to–and then I decide whether it’s worth saying something and, if so, whether it’s safe to do so.

    Really, this is just a long-winded version of what I already said–I’m not stupid. And that includes recognizing the fact that, yes, I can be wrong.

    “I just don’t think that people are capable of always being 100% right about other people’s motivations because we’re all wrong sometimes… but then, maybe I’m wrong?”

    First, something of a sidenote–I don’t care about people’s motivations. I care about their actions and their words. If someone calls me “she,” I don’t care that they don’t mean to be transphobic. What they did WAS transphobic, and I will very politely ask them to call me “he.”

    As Jay Smooth explained so well, if a man steals my wallet, I don’t care if he believes he’s a thief deep down in his heart of hearts. I care about getting my wallet back. (http://www.illdoctrine.com/2008/07/how_to_tell_people_they_sound.html)

    And yes, of course people aren’t right 100% of the time. About anything. But when the world is already telling disprivileged people, all the time, in all kinds of different ways, that they are “biased” but privileged people are “neutral” (e.g., Judge Sotomayor’s status as a Latina), I really do read this post as yet another voice telling disprivileged people to sit down and shut up, because they don’t know their own lives and own suffering.

  8. Godless Heathen permalink

    “I know that cis people won’t always be able (at least, immediately) to see transphobia.”

    Sometimes we do, but we don’t know what it is. You know that feeling you get when you see something wrong, but can’t put it into words other than it crosses a line you can’t immediately define*. Privileged groups don’t always have the experience that gives us the language to articulate what it is we’re seeing, but we can have a gut feeling that it’s wrong. Usually that’s when we don’t or can’t speak up, we haven’t learned enough about the non-privileged view point to launch an assault on the offending idea/statement/action/thing. Especially because without the proper language we could not only stick our feet into our mouths but we could also make it harder for non-privileged people to come and make the arguments.

    Of course, the solution is for privileged people to learn more about the non-privileged perspectives, because amazingly, that’s where we’ll find the language we’re looking for!

    Geez, it’s my day to be easily distracted. I guess my point is also that it’s naive to assume privileged groups don’t know when they’ve crossed a line, and that the default position is an intended non-biased position. Most of us are capable of a moment’s reflection where we can remember that the other person is human too (even if we can’t immediately identify with their experiences).

    *Example: one of the Palm commercials really cheeses me off because I feel it’s racist, but I don’t have the language to define why I feel that way. Something about a white woman being the center of a hundred or so martial artists all moving to her every command just sets my teeth on edge.**

    **My asides in blog comments have been especially sloppy today. I’m sorry, I’m having html fail.

  9. I didn’t know what to say when I first saw this post, so I bookmarked it to come back later. After reading the comments, I don’t feel any wiser, but I have to say I understand both points of view.

    I don’t care about people’s motivations. I care about their actions and their words.

    I think by “motivation” she meant something like, “Did he do it because the leader was a woman or would he have done it as well if the leader had been a man?” In that case the motivation really matters, because the latter would not have been sexist at all.

    What we are talking about here are situations where people are jerks to others and it is unclear why, right? Not situations where it’s obvious that they were being x-ist and the only question is whether they did it on purpose.

    If a random guy tells me that I should wear make-up, that’s sexist. If we disagree on something and he resorts to calling me clueless, it doesn’t necessarily have to be – maybe he would have said the same thing to a man. If I then complain to someone else what a sexist idiot he is, I am wrong.

  10. Just Some Trans Guy permalink

    Godless Heathen,

    “I guess my point is also that it’s naive to assume privileged groups don’t know when they’ve crossed a line, and that the default position is an intended non-biased position.”

    Oh, sure. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. My apologies.

    Tiana,

    “What we are talking about here are situations where people are jerks to others and it is unclear why, right? Not situations where it’s obvious that they were being x-ist and the only question is whether they did it on purpose.”

    The problem, though, is to WHOM is it unclear? Because there are lots of situations that will be unclear to some privileged people but will be as clear as day to disprivileged people. Too, too often, if something is unclear to a privileged group, then things default to that group’s opinion as the “objective” answer–it is unclear, so there is no prejudice here, move right along.

    “If a random guy tells me that I should wear make-up, that’s sexist. If we disagree on something and he resorts to calling me clueless, it doesn’t necessarily have to be – maybe he would have said the same thing to a man. If I then complain to someone else what a sexist idiot he is, I am wrong.”

    Context matters, though. Facially neutral actions can still be racist/sexist/etc. Here’s a very extreme example–say a health insurance policy provided coverage for prostate cancer but not ovarian cancer. This is facially neutral. Prostate cancer is covered for EVERYONE. But. Prostate cancer is something experienced mostly by men. Ovarian cancer is experienced mostly by women. The policy, I would say, is still sexist.

    And another example, that’s a little closer to real life. Say someone asks 10 women if ze can touch their hair. Five of these women are white, and five of these women are African-American. This is a facially neutral action, as this person didn’t single out African-Americans for the question. But it is still racist, because there’s a history and a context to African-American women receiving that question that is not the same for white women. (E.g., http://www.womanist-musings.com/2008/09/can-i-touch-your-hair-black-women-and.html)

    Ditto “That’s so gay,” even when not said to a gay person–still homophobic. Ditto the use of the “c” word, referring particular genitalia, even when not said to a woman–still sexist.

  11. Emmy permalink

    I think a lot of people are trained to recognise ‘RACISM!’ and ‘SEXISM!’ and so on in only the biggest, most obvious ways – so when they’re accused of it, they compare their behavior to those guidelines and are baffled. They feel deeply insulted that you would possibly consider them to be members of a robe-wearing lynch mob when they’re clearly not. (Note – I’m trying not to make a tone argument here, I’m not saying the problem is how you tell people they might be racist, the problem is in how they hear it and react to it.)

    Yes, people are terrible at having accurate judgments of statistics. Someone may think that society in general is more prejudiced and miserable than it is because they’ve encounter one very bad apple who’s soured them on everything. People can be wrong.

    And even when people are right, the ‘ism’ is usually just one of many factors. If, say, WOW players will shout down any leader they think is weak, then of course, they will do this to ‘weak’ leaders who are not female. But seeing someone as female may affect their perceptions of whether or not the leader is weak, so they may be more likely to shout down women. Without proper statistics, we can’t know… but without proper statistics, the “it happens to men too” isn’t really relevant. Of course it happens to men too, if they are perceived as weak! The sexism lies not in shouting down weak leaders, but in whether women are more likely to be assumed to be weak.

    If someone accuses you of an ism and you think they’re COMPLETELY wrong, try politely saying that you’re sorry they feel that way? By *you* not losing your temper, you help keep the conversation open so that if there is a misunderstanding on either part, it can be resolved. Keeping your temper doesn’t make you right, and it doesn’t make them right either, it just keeps the situation from escalating.

  12. I understand the hair example, but it doesn’t translate to the situation that started this post. Besides, I would be careful about calling the hair-obsessed person racist, too – I’d respectfully inform him that his behaviour may be perceived as racist and that he should stop doing it, but then again how ridiculous is the idea that he should only be able to touch white women’s hair? Maybe he shouldn’t be touching random people’s hair in the first place, though … except he was asking them politely … oh, whatever. I’m not getting anywhere with this.

    Prostate cancer is covered for EVERYONE.

    Heh. Reminds me of how EVERYONE is allowed to marry … someone of the opposite sex.

    I still think the WoW thing is a good example of a situation that IS unclear to the disprivileged people. I’m not saying it happens all the time.

  13. Just Some Trans Guy permalink

    Tatiana,

    “I still think the WoW thing is a good example of a situation that IS unclear to the disprivileged people. I’m not saying it happens all the time.”

    Actually, in the comments section of Ren’s post, there are lots of women who’ve commented some version or another of “OMG, tell me about it! Me too!” It doesn’t seem unclear to them. And just because the OP has had a different experience doesn’t mean that these individuals’ experiences aren’t valid and aren’t true. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t experiencing sexism.

    “Besides, I would be careful about calling the hair-obsessed person racist, too – I’d respectfully inform him that his behaviour may be perceived as racist and that he should stop doing it, but then again how ridiculous is the idea that he should only be able to touch white women’s hair?”

    I said nothing about the hair-obsessed person being racist (nor about this person being a “him,” for that matter). The QUESTION was racist. Nor did I mean to imply that it’s okay to ask white women (or any women) to touch their hair–there’s definitely sexism at play, too. If it makes things less complicated, feel free to switch out that example for white men and African-American men.

    And I’m pretty much just going ’round and ’round at this point, so I’ll close out by explaining why I’m harping on this. It’s because “well, maybe you’re mistaken, you should give (privileged) people the benefit of the doubt” is part of a larger cultural narrative in that disprivileged people are assumed to be lying/biased/stupid whereas privileged people are assumed to be truthful/neutral/capable of reflective thought. It’s because privileged people ALREADY get the benefit of the doubt far more often then they rightfully should.

    One of the nastier battlegrounds where this is played out is when women report being sexually assaulted–there is a hugely disproportionate emphasis on “well, maybe she’s LYING, and he’s being FALSELY ACCUSED.” (Not only women are raped, of course, and not only men rape, but these conversations are often very gendered.) I don’t have the stats on hand, but suffice it to say, false accusations are very rare. Much, much rarer than one would think given how much they’re talked about. The consequence? ALL WOMEN who report being raped are subject to being regarded suspiciously as promiscuous liars, as evil wenches trying to destroy good men, etc., etc.

  14. TransGuy,

    I want to point out, that the whole point of this post was to say that even though lots of women have had similar experiences, from a purely rational standpoint that is not proof of prejudice. Without also testing the rate at which men experience the same thing we can’t say unequivocally that there is prejudice here. That’s really all I’m saying, I’m not saying they are wrong, they are probably right, but we have to make some big assumptions right now about what the behaviors are towards male players. Talking to male players that I know, I think they also experience some of the same things described in the referenced post as discrimination. (I do however think that there are whole other levels of more subtle discrimination going on that aren’t even mentioned.)

    I also think we need to make a differentiation between offensive, and actually discriminatory behavior. That’s mostly what I’m talking about here. I’m not saying that there aren’t total dicks in wow, there are, and I’m not saying that women don’t experience discrimination. I AM saying that maybe some of the things we perceive as discrimination are just people being assholes, still offensive, still rude, but also happen to white heterosexual males.

    I DON”T think we should always give privileged people the benefit of the doubt for the record, and at no point did I say that. But I do think it is interesting to think more analytically about some situations where we might perceive prejudice where what is going on is just offensive. (Like the hair example you gave, that’s not discrimination, but it is offensive and racially insensitive. In fact by the textbook definition of discrimination if that (creepy) individual in your example only asked white women to touch their hair, he was discriminating and engaging in prejudice, while simultaneously being less offensive and less racially insensitive. So yeah, to sum up, It’s clearly a complicated issue.)

  15. Just Some Trans Guy permalink

    Shinobi,

    “I want to point out, that the whole point of this post was to say that even though lots of women have had similar experiences, from a purely rational standpoint that is not proof of prejudice. Without also testing the rate at which men experience the same thing we can’t say unequivocally that there is prejudice here.”

    Even if men experienced thigns at the same rate, that doesn’t rule out prejudice, actually. (Though of course I would not go so far to say that prejudice can NEVER be ruled out.) Because of context. I think Derailing for Dummies (www.derailingfordummies.com) has a pretty good and brief explanation, under its “But that happens to me too!” section: “When you are Privileged®, ‘similar’ experiences simply do not happen on an equal footing because they do not otherwise reflect marginalisation.”

    Like the old equation, “racism = prejudice + power.” The power differentials matter. They change the equation.

    “I also think we need to make a differentiation between offensive, and actually discriminatory behavior.”

    I don’t disagree. I do think that people are too quick to labels things as “‘just’ offensive” when really prejudice and/or discrimination is involved. (Plus, they’re being offensive, because prejudice is offensive.) And I think one of the big reasons is what Emmy above said–people hear “You know, that comment was kind of racist” (or, heck, even “That comment was kind of problematic”) and freak out, responding, “OMG, you called me a RACIST! How could you DO that? Don’t you know I voted for Obama??!!!”

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