Wrex and the Art of the Privilege Check

Cross-posted at The Border House.

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.

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?

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7 thoughts on “Wrex and the Art of the Privilege Check

  1. 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.” Wrex doesn’t get mad. He actually sounds satisfied that Garrus is rethinking his view of the Krogan.

    Garrus is interesting because he basically has lived on the Citadel as a C-Sec officer for many years and does not not have much experience outside of the Citadel Station. He even says to Shepard that one reason he came along wast to learn more about the outside world. In a preview video for Mass Effect 2, Garrus seems much wiser and more experienced and I think his time with Wrex played a role in that.

  2. I think the only thing that could make me happier is if Wrex’s last line was, “I’m not upset, I’m *contemptuous*”. I’ve been ignoring Mass Effect’s existence for awhile. When it first came out, I assumed it was another one of those games — well-made but very female-unfriendly, esp. with what I heard of the “dating system”. Maybe worth a second look?

    • Haha, yes!

      I had a lot of criticisms of the game by the time I was done with it, but overall I think it is head and shoulders above most other games when it comes to inclusivity. Granted most other games don’t set a very high bar, but still. I think it’s definitely worth a look, especially since it is so cheap now!

  3. I’m only about halfway through the game, but there are several similar conversations in Dragon Age (playing as an elf) where the player is in Wrex’s position, with (in most cases) the option to either act as Wrex did or sort of brush it off. It’s a small but noticeable reason why the characterization in DA is so well done.

    • Nice. My friends have been talking up the character development and interaction in DA so much, I’m really excited to start playing it soon. That sort of thing is right up my alley.

  4. Note that Shepard is picking the Renegade / Total Jerk options here, which generally involve belittling everyone, privilege or no.

    And to be fair, humans and krogans both have legitimate grudges against the turians. So there is a point of comparison, although it’s not all the same. I’ll have to replay Mass Effect 1, but I think Wrex and Tali have an elevator dialogue where they talk about the equally dreadful fate of the krogans and quarians. “Remember the time we almost got wiped out?” “Yeah.”

    • Actually, the second two responses–the ones where he actually compares the human experience to the krogan one–ARE the paragon responses.

      And I’m not saying the humans and krogans don’t both have a beef with the Turians–that’s what leads Shepard to compare their experiences in the first place–what I’m saying is that the genocide of the krogans is on a whole other level than what was done to humans, which is why the comparison is offensive. In addition, humans have systemic privilege over the krogans because they have a Spectre and are actually being considered for addition to the Council (at the time of the conversation), whereas the krogan are not. The status of humans is much higher than that of krogans in galactic society, on top of not having experienced genocide. This is what makes saying “Hey that happened to us, too” offensive and wrong.

      The comparison between the krogans and the quarians, on the other hand, is much more appropriate. Both species survived genocide, and both are in similar positions in society: krogans are considered violent savages, quarians worthless thieves.

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