Invisible prejudices

There is been discussion lately on the "last acceptable prejudice" moniker often used for fat bigotry. There is more truth to that motto then is being let on, but it is ultimately far too imprecise. It requires too many qualifications and clarifications to usefully communicate the intention of identifying what makes fat prejudice unique. This is often how we are called up to look at our experience because all too often, looking at ways fat prejudice is alike to other forms of bigotry brings cries that this is an inappropriate line of discussion. We can't talk about how fat prejudice and gay prejudice or racial prejudice intersect because we are told that this would devalue some other prejudice. Likewise, I don't doubt that there are those who profess to believe in FA who do the reverse. Fat prejudice is a problem, but homophobia isn't. This is something that has hampered a greater discussion of how fat prejudices interacts and intersects with other forms of social and cultural oppression.

To the end, while the consequences of fat bigotry can be very serious, they are also inconsistent. I recognized this when last week when David Paterson was sworn in as Governor of New York. Paterson is only the 4th African-American governor in the history of the United States. Even more uniquely, though, he is the thought to be the first legally blind governor in American history. Which illustrates a key difference in the structure of fat bigotry. We don't have to fight for our first fat mayor, first fat senator, first fat governor, or first fat President. Its already happened and no one thought to notice.

Nor should they have, really. While fat prejudice can be strong, for certain people it can be overcome. Indeed, for some, its not much of an obstacle at all. Which ultimately contributes to it being a prejudice no one needs to think about having. Indeed, for most who harbor fat bigotry the power structure has become completely inverted. Instead of recognizing the ways fat people are disenfranchised, they instead presume us to actually be the party in power. That the problem is that we are not attacked enough.

So, why do some people have no problem getting ahead while fat, while others don't? This is clearly a place where the intersections of other prejudices has a significant impact. Not all fat people are treated equally. For some, people genuinely don't see it as a problem, while for others it is all people see. Gender, race, class, all these things play a part and there are no easy ways to identify it, much less respond to it. Very often, all these prejudices blur together and all become invisible.

Which isn't a reason not to respond. But this ultimately needs to be a two way discussion. While it is healthy for fat acceptance to be challenged to think about these intersections, those who make that challenge need to understand that they need to be part of the process of identifying them. You cannot just say, "you don't represent me". There needs to be a willingness to share your perspective for other people to really learn from it.

That doesn't mean that sharing that perspective should be polite, mind you. I'm reminded of growing up in a lower middle-class, racially diverse community. My understanding of the privileges I experienced as a white male was informed vividly by black classmates and female classmates who talked about them without pulling punches. I saw how some responded to this with hostility, but it did help me to really focus on the advantages I had gotten without every asking for. I learned to respect that I was privileged by our culture, and that I needed to recognize this if I wanted to be part of a solution to this problem.

When I got to college, this all turned around and I got a lesson in class privilege from the side of the lower-middle class. I went from an environment where I thought my family was pretty well off, to one where I was the poor kid. Instead of a thriving and diverse community, my private university was overwhelmingly white. Looking back, I have to say that I'm not happy with how I responded. Because I didn't talk about it. Didn't even like thinking about it, really. Slowly I recognized the divide and how alienated I felt by it. My classmates spoke of summer internships and spring break vacations. I went home to work during the summer. My first two years at college, I spent spring break in my dorm room. I only ever went on trips my last two years as part of a scholarship from the school's choir. A scholarship I didn't really ask for and which no one talked about. I saw they way economic class advantages people, but I never tried to instigate a discussion about it. I should have. I think it would have been a healthy thing for my classmates to be exposed to, but I held back because I didn't want to be seen as attacking them. But we need to share our experiences, so others can learn to recognize and respect these differences. I did my classmates a disservice by withholding my own experiences from them. It was a learning opportunity for them that they didn't get.

They couldn't start that dialogue, though. Which is the challenge. I think sometimes, the concern that people will be defensive, ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can't hop into a room, say "fix it", and not expect a possible honest response to be "fix what?" from people genuinely interested in social justice. Especially when you're not even talking about the macro issues of privilege, but the micro issues of the intersections of different privileged groups.

We also need to recognize that we have all these different civil rights fights for a reason. Feminism cannot be racial equality which cannot be gay rights which cannot be fat rights. Each of these groups should have a unique and distinct voice, because collectively we will be more powerful. Which again, isn't a reason not to foster dialogue and understanding nor to hold back from challenging other progressives causes when they trample upon our own. But there are also a lot of reasons why there needs to be a focus on what differentiates us, too. It is part of the process of identifying what is fat prejudice, what fuels it, what will defeat it. We need to own that fight, so that we can, ourselves, be advocates of understanding to others. The final result of a pan-humanity movement of togetherness and distinctiveness might one day come, but until then our separate "fiefdoms" can actually serve a meaningful purpose. They are the means to that end. No one group can be everything to everybody. Right now, no one group can be everything to everybody who believes in that one group. Doesn't mean we shouldn't try to be better. Try to advance our positions and commitments. We need to own that process so we can lead it where we want it to go. We cannot change society but just sitting back and telling it to change. We need to act. Waiting for things to come around to a marginalized point of view isn't good enough.

This is, of course, why we also need to be willing to listen when others engage us about things we may not fully understand or appreciate. We need to welcome that input and foster a constructive atmosphere. No one gets to abdicate responsibility. Just as we cannot sit back and wait for the world to change, it is not okay for the world to sit back and wait for us to change it. Both sides need to be engaged for an understanding to come out of it. That's the hard part. Like so much, there isn't a simple answer. Both sides need to find a common ground of good faith. The world cannot sit back and dictate the terms of its willingness to change, either. That is unacceptable, and no one should feel pressured to find a false common ground. That just falls back onto reductivist approaches that make a civil rights struggle into the least it can be so the most can agree. If someone doesn't want to accept that, good. They should challenge attitudes and press for change. They shouldn't hold their punches. Change won't always feel good for those in a hegemony, but that's how its always going to be. While defensiveness can sometimes be a self-fulfilling prophecy, it sometimes is just defensiveness. I'm not saying its easy to distinguish, but its worth trying and pushing. Holding back because someone might be defensive isn't acceptable, either. Quite the opposite, I'd say. That's why we all need to be agents of the change we desire.

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