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Sociological Thoughts on Creating a More Diverse Fat Movement

March 27, 2012

Last week, a discussion broke out about the lack of diversity within Fat Acceptance. I was disappointed with the way it was initiated because we had a lot of the “who”  discussion (talking about specific people, specific projects, specific motivations) but not much of the “what” or “how” discussion (defining terms, learning about how various identities intersect, devising strategies to improve). I do believe that strengthening the diversity of our communities is vital to confronting fat hatred and bias, as the intersectionality of fat and all other identities can produce unique, and individual, experiences that must be taken into account in our activism. I am not familiar with the methods with which we can successfully integrate greater diversity into our community, but I know that education is key.

So when my friend Dr. Pattie Thomas (Sociologist, Community College Instructor and Fat Acceptance Guru) approached me about writing a post to open a dialogue about this subject. I am proud to have this piece on our site and I hope that it can inspire the kinds of conversations that we need to have in order to prepare for future battles that include a great representation of those affected by fat bias and discrimination. I would like for the discussion that takes place to be 101-friendly and I ask that everyone respect the sensitivity that this issue deserves, as well as the naivete with which some come to this table. If we are going to improve our understanding of each other, then we need to start from a place of mutual respect and understanding, where people are given the benefit of the doubt that they aren’t being malicious, hateful or racist if they are simply ignorant. And the same goes for those who raise questions about our ignorance, that raising those questions is not out of spite or anger, but out of a genuine concern and personal interest in the subject at hand.

I hope that this can be the start of a new dialogue between the many intersections that Fat Acceptance stands in the center of, and I look forward to a robust and respectful dialogue.


I want to start by clarifying who I am, what I have to offer to this conversation, and who I am not. I am a Sociologist who teaches at a community college. The majority of my students are people of color and working class people. My training includes the intersection of race, gender and class and I have studied, researched, written about and given a lot of personal reflection to the question of social stigma. I also teach a course called Ethnic Groups in Contemporary Society (under both Anthropology and Sociology credit) and try to be self-examining about what it means for a white woman to teach a course about race and ethnicity to a class filled mostly with people of color. In short, the issues raised by the NOLOSE letter are not new to me.

Personally, I am a straight, white woman of Scotch-Irish ancestry who grew up in working class neighborhoods. I am the first of my generation on both sides of my family to earn a Ph.D. I am a fat woman. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse (from a neighbor). I am chronically ill and I am disabled. I am over 50 years old. Currently, I do not make a lot of money, so the degree has not translated into financial comfort. I have been married 20 years and I lost one son during pregnancy and was not able to have any other children, so I find answering the question, “are you a parent?” difficult. All of these facts about me shape who I am and the position from which I speak.

I am not an expert on racism. I am not a political activist, but I frequently get mistaken for one. I am deeply concerned about race in western societies, but I would not characterize myself as an anti-racist activist, or a white ally, because I have not demonstrated the commitment that such titles imply. I am a teacher. I am a writer. I am considered by some to be a public intellectual who speaks from a sociological point-of-view.

What I am especially NOT doing is offering any interpretation, or voice, for people of color. I would never presume to do so. This is meant to be a sociological analysis of activism, political organizing and fundamental social change. This is not “Racism 101” or a “Guide to Becoming a White Ally,” though it might be characterized as “Stigma 101.”

I asked Shannon (Atchka) to allow me to write here because he, and his work, has been made the center of much controversy over the past week, and I think this forum might be a good place to offer some teaching moments. I want to show support for what has been done on this site because it has been good work. Shannon knows that I don’t always agree with him or his style. But I also don’t believe much is accomplished by dismissing honest people who work hard because they don’t get it right every time, or because they approach things differently than I would. So while this is not a defense of Shannon, or his work, it is intended to be a show of support for him, the work that he continues to do for fat people (especially fat kids), and the good that this website has done.

 Some Basic Definitions

Popular discourse on race, racism, discrimination and so forth conflates a lot of ideas and terminology and I believe this can be a source of misunderstanding. So I want to start with Sociological definitions of some specific terms. I am using Sociological definitions because it is from a Sociological perspective that I intend to speak. I am not saying these are the only definitions, but I thought it best to start by offering my language.

  • Race This is a social construction based upon how a person looks. Race is in the eye of the beholder. It is how others think about you. People read how you look symbolically and conclude what race they believe you to be. The categories vary over time and from culture to culture.
  • Ethnicity This is what you inherited from your parents. Everyone is ethnic even if your family did not acknowledge or teach you specifically the name of your traditions or your heritage. They learned from their parents and their parents learned from their parents, and so on.
  • Minority Group In a society where majority rules, this refers to those groups whose interests are rarely represented by the voting majority (e.g., lawmakers, corporate board of directors). It is about power. All questions of power are relative. Thus, a minority group is always in relationship with a dominant group. When compared to the interests of people of color, whites cannot be a minority group, even when they are outnumbered because the history of this society has set up white interests above non-white interests.
  • Prejudice Attitudes and  beliefs that guide people to conclude that an individual has certain characteristics simply because they belong to a particular group. Prejudice is about intent. People hold these ideas, these attitudes.
  • Discrimination Actions taken by privileged or powerful people, or groups of people, that limits the life chances of others simply because they belong to a particular group. Intent is irrelevant. Discrimination is about the resulting effect. Unintended effects count. “I didn’t mean to” is not a defense.
  • Internalized Racism The attitudes, habits and actions that people exhibit because they have been raised as a privileged person in a racist society. Awareness that one’s acts have real consequences on the lives of POCs will vary with individuals, but the actions are nonetheless still racist, regardless of intention. This is a form of discrimination, meaning the issue is not about intent, but about actions and consequences. Members of minority groups also internalize racism resulting in their having lower self-worth and doing things that may be against their own interests. Because we all have internalized racism to a certain extent, we must examine our own lives and ask ourselves what is the source of our information. We also cannot rely upon the blessings of a single POC and believe it will be okay. If the POC isn’t aware of the ways in which his or her own life has been affected, he or she may agree to things that still have harmful consequences to POCs, including his or her self.
  • Institutional Racism This is the recognition that persons privileged within a system of racism benefit from those norms whether they intend to do so or not. Further, because the dominant group holds more power and benefits from the racist system, it is doubtful that much will fundamentally change until the dominant group recognizes and dismantles the system and their own privilege. The minority group cannot be responsible for this because they do not hold the power in the relationship.
  • Stigma The social relationship between a member of a dominant group and a minority group whereby the former defines the identity of the latter and then treats the latter as less than human. Racial stigma is one form of social stigma. There are many others and, in fact, since naming stigmas previously not known has occurred in the past, there are unnamed stigmas currently being practiced.
  • Personal Identity This is the collection of facts about ourselves. Where we were born, who were our parents, our level of education, etc. Our ethnicity is part of our personal identity.
  • Social Identity How other people see us. How our appearance, our gestures, our actions are interpreted by others within a specific cultural context at a specific time and place. Our race is part of our social identity.
  • Ego Identity How we see ourselves (sometimes called the authentic self). Our personal and social identities may or may not be a part of our ego identity.
  • Categoric Knowing An understanding that social scientists, when looking at a group level, may assign specific categories to people, but the extent to which an individual actually identifies with that category, or consciously acts with that category in mind, will vary. For example, class has low categoric knowing in the US as most people either don’t think about themselves in terms or class or throw themselves into the “middle class” without any thought as to why they are there (resulting in people making as little as $14K a year and as much as $5M a year identifying as “middle class.”) On the other hand, gender has high categoric knowing in the United States because almost everyone thinks about their lives in light of what gender they are. It has a daily impact on their lives and the choices they make in a conscious way. “I want to be a good man.” “I believe being a good woman involves …” and so forth.
  • Intersectionality People have multiple social identities, some of which can be privileged and some oppressed. This complexity is what makes activism difficult in a racist context. People who are genuinely oppressed along one axis (for example fat-thin) are privileged along another axis (white-black). But we cannot shed our personal or social identities or compartmentalize them. So we are stuck with complexities. It is also important to note that even when our ego identities favor one of these social identities over another, the intersectionality still exists. Remember, this is not about how we see ourselves, but how others, especially those in power, see us.

Common Misunderstandings About Anti-Racism Among White Folks

When white folks are confronted with questions of race (and, I am assuming, want to do something to end racism), there are several common misunderstandings I’ve observed and would like to address:

1.Confusing Intent With Action

When a POC confronts a white person and says “this hurts,” the information needs to be taken seriously no matter what the intent of the white person. “I didn’t mean it” doesn’t negate the pain something has caused. Let me be clear: taking something seriously does not mean just doing what one is told. These are complex relationships with multiple layers of power. Easy answers are not available, which is why people avoid these topics. But listening is key at this point. It may help to remember that in a society built on racism, where norms reinforce racism, unintended consequences are going to happen. A better response than “I didn’t mean it” would be “What can I do about it?” AND, I don’t mean one should ask the POC “what can I do about it?” I mean, ask oneself. When someone learns something new, incorporating that new information into his or her daily life is the only way the new information will be useful. Investigation based upon that new information can be done a number of ways depending upon an individual’s resources, but nothing is going to change if we simply justify existing practices. When someone says “this hurts,” view it as a gift that shines light on changes that need to be made, not an indictment of one’s intentions. It is about the consequences of actions.

2. Confusing Individual Actions With Systemic Contexts

Each of us was born into a racially unequal society. This was beyond our control. This context exists when people of different races interact with each other, whether or not the people interacting acknowledge it or consider it in their interaction. We can be good people, tolerant, generous, grateful, but our actions will not erase this history or this system. Western civilization has a long tradition of believing that an individual can conquer anything, so when we are told, “Too bad, you cannot wipe it out by being a good person,” we scoff and feel powerless. But saying that individual actions alone cannot negate the historical or systemic context is not saying that it cannot be changed. It is changing and it can be changed. We’ve done some preliminary work in the past 60 years. We’ve changed laws and social practices and the life chances of POCs. But it will take a lot more to fully eradicate this system. So making pronouncements about one’s own efforts is misinformed and, maybe a bit arrogant. Once we recognize this system, we come to understand that we must be vigilant. This will not be solved with one gesture, or one action, once and for all. As white folks, we must live with the consequences of nearly 2,000 years of European imperialism no matter what our personal or ego identities. This is the social reality. The goal is to mark it when it is there, and to be sensitive to how it changes our intentions and the interpretation of our actions. We cannot will this away. We have to do the hard stuff. At some point, we are going to have to do the really hard stuff, like reparations and compensation.

3.Believing That We Have to Think of Everything

Each of us has social circles around us with varying groups of people interacting with us from specific social distances. We have close friends and family members who have the least amount of social distance. We don’t expect them to wait for invitations to drop by. They may even live with us or keep a key to our homes. We show up unannounced. The next circle out are friends that we hang out with, but who probably only visit when invited. We know a lot about each other’s lives, but wouldn’t think of ourselves as close or intimate. Then we have colleagues and people who share some interests. Maybe we work in the same office or the same professions, go to the same church or belong to the same causes. We mostly socialize around whatever we have in common and, while we have some knowledge of each other, we generally don’t share intimate details about our lives or our histories. Then we have acquaintances (e.g., your barista, your mail carrier), followed bystrangers (people we see but don’t know).

Social media has been an interesting development in light of the concept of social distance because people at the colleague and/or acquaintance levels can now enter our “homes” in a sense, sometimes unannounced through our mobile devices. We have an illusion of knowing more people at a closer social distance than previously experienced (or, at least, a case can be made that we do).

I bring this up because a common mistake made in response to discussions about exclusion is for white folks to start trying to think of everything they should do to be inclusive. This is a good thing, but not a sufficient thing. What is really needed is to truly include a diverse group of people within those social circles. This may mean that within a specific organization considering some real changes to priorities and power structures. But white people just trying to cover it all is still white people in control. Given that context we just discussed in Item 2, this is very difficult to do.

4. Mistaking Comparison of Process With Comparison of Experience

“Don’t compare oppressions” is a repeated warning when looking at intersectionality, but this is often incorrectly applied. If I say that the stigma of being fat is similar to the stigma of being a POC, I am not saying that the experience of being a white, fat person is the same as being a POC. I am saying that the bigotry follows the same process. Stigma is simple. Pick a group you don’t like. Decide what “they” are like in character and worth. Treat each person you meet who you perceive to be a member of that group as subhuman.

In the movie Jeffrey, Nathan Lane’s character suggests that evil is boring. “It is just one note.” But this is not a comment on the object of the stigma. It is a comment on the process of stigmatizing, which I believe to be the basis for all forms of discrimination, and is the behavior and process that eventually has to change if Western civilization is to move away from its imperialistic roots.

But the flip side of this is just as important: because I suffer from stigma due to being fat, older, disabled, and poorer, does not mean that I understand what it is like to be a POC. I do not have that experience. We may have common enemies, but we do not have common reference points. Our cultures, our histories, our daily lives have significant differences that can only be bridged by listening to the other person. We may find common ground in feelings and political battles, but we must respect our diverse histories and experiences if we are to truly work together. And because I am white along racial dimensions, it is I who should do the listening to the POC. The white experience is well known. It is the mainstream. It is the default. It is not that it isn’t real or human, but if things are to change, one way to put things on an even keel is to diversify what is understood to be human, normal or common.

In their seminal work, White Racism, Joe Feagin and Hernan Vera write what they believe to be the key component to the perpetuation of white racism:

Racism in thought and practice destroy the feelings of solidarity that people normally feel toward each other. A target of discrimination is no longer seen as “one of us.” The other becomes less than human, a nonperson. White racism transforms the black self, the other-outsider, into something less than the white self and reduces the black individuals humanity. Black individuals become “they” or “you people.” Black men, women, and children become hated objects instead of subjects. White racism involves a massive breakdown of empathy, the human capacity to experience the feelings of members of an outgroup viewed as different. Racial hostility impedes the capacity to realize that “it could have been me.” (p. 29)

Empathy is seeing the world through the eyes of someone else. It is not sympathy, but a respectful and honest effort to see that there are other perspectives than one’s own. Empathy does not require agreement. Empathy does not require a change of mind. Empathy just requires understanding. Most of all, empathy begins with listening. Empathy may also involve seeing oneself through the eyes of another and that can get uncomfortable quickly. But being uncomfortable is usually the prelude to growth.

The social media age makes empathy more possible than ever, but it also makes dismissing someone else easier than ever. Disagree with someone, write a comment, a tweet, a Facebook status and send it without hardly giving any thought. Knee-jerk responses are now high-speed.

Simple Steps to a More Inclusive Fat Movement

What I am suggesting here are not meant to be comprehensive, conclusive or prescriptive. They are just my thoughts on things we can do to create a more diverse space.

1. Actually Build a Community

One of the challenges I think we are facing in solving this problem is that we really do not have a true fat community. We have a bunch of factions and a lot of people trying to address fat hatred. We have groups and lists and projects and blogs and websites, but we have little true social capital that comes from a community. This has been/will be hard to create because fat people are diverse. We do not share common cultures, common group histories (personal histories, but not religion or home countries or languages, for example), common sexual experiences, common living arrangements, or even common political beliefs. It is way easier to build a community if we all speak the same language or live in the same neighborhood or hang out at the same pub. I don’t have a real answer to this, although I’ve tried a few things. But I do know that this hurts us in our efforts and our lives would be better if we could build community. I also know some fabulous people are trying things. But I’d like to see this be a higher priority than it is. We do have commonality, and while I think what we will eventually build will be closer to a gaming community (based on special interests) than a neighborhood (based on common lifestyles), we still could take care of each other a lot better than we do.

2. Be Conscious About the Social Infrastructure

A social infrastructure essentially refers to the people you know and stay in contact with. This can be a formal structure (like a Yahoo! Group or a weekly meeting) or an informal structure (like just following or “friending” each other on social media, or hanging out with friends on a Friday night). If we spend some effort reaching out across racial lines when building our social infrastructure, a quick call to action is not as problematic. If you want to take leadership roles in various efforts, then find some mentors you respect who know about race, racism and diversity. Be in touch often and include them when you are contemplating an action. Listen to their ideas. Learn to what they have to offer. Also, create a list of groups that are open to contact when an action is moving into place and be sure to send those groups notifications of what is happening. What can’t be covered within a single group, might be expanded by reaching intergroup. Social infrastructure is a logical flow from item 1 above. Any community building we do needs to be diverse and inclusive. In other words, the time to solve this problem is before you move into action. After will be difficult because of time constraints and role conflicts.

3. Listen to Each Other

We will not be able to build very much if we continue to defend our points of view without seeing where the other person is coming from. Listening and understanding is essential for social empathy. For white folks, it is also important to set aside our centrality for a moment and remember that it is not always about us. If you are in the presence of POC, making an effort to understand and listen is even more important because you are in the presence of people who have been told all their lives that because your skin is white, they have had to listen to you, and because the color of their skin is not white you do not have to listen to them.

I read a great example once (and I wish I could remember where so I could give credit) of the difference between sympathetic listening and empathetic listening. A sympathetic listener will hear what the other is saying and then tell their own narrative to show they understand (“That reminds me of when I…”). An empathetic listener will hear what the other is saying and then show they are listening by either asking clarifying questions (“What was that like?”) or affirm that they heard the other person and are interested in hearing more (nodding head or “Tell me more if you like”). Many of us white folks shut down conversations because we do sympathetic listening instead of empathetic listening.

4.Have Diverse Leadership

True diversity occurs when leaders are diverse and are allowed to set their own priorities. I belonged to a women’s sociology group a few years ago and the question of racial and ethnic diversity was raised within this group. The complaint made was that even though efforts to develop diverse leadership had been successful, when a woman of color rose to a position of power, she was often pressured to do things as they’ve always been done. In other words, a woman of color was only successful as a leader if she kept white-centered priorities in place. When she voiced concerns that women of color had raised, the issues she raised were regarded as too tough to tackle, or else not as important as previously agreed-upon priorities. Diverse leadership will mean a shift in what is important and how things are done. For example, I can imagine that a predominantly white women’s group might not consider the high murder victim and imprisonment rates among young black males a priority for women’s issues. But for wives, mothers, aunts, sisters and daughters of these young black males, this is an important issue that directly affects their families, their neighborhoods, and their daily lives. So a women’s group with diverse leadership might be more likely to make the connection between women’s lives and these horrendous trends than an all-white leadership. We must be open to these changes and be willing to support leaders who make them.

5. Empathize Even in the Context of Disagreement

Supporting leaders, respecting alternate priorities and practicing empathetic listening does not mean complete agreement is necessary for cooperation and collaboration. Many strategies exist that resolve disagreements with mutual respect and satisfaction. We may take turns. We may divide resources. We may agree to disagree and work together any way. We may put items of disagreement on the back burner so we can mutually move forward. The answer isn’t to lose our minds, our hearts or our passions for change in cross-group interactions, but to be conscious of the social structure (among which is institutionalized racism) within which we live and interact. Name-calling, verbal attacks and defensive posturing just leads to more misunderstanding. We do not have to be best friends to fight side-by-side in a cause. We need some commonality but mutual respect does not mean absolute agreement.

6.    Educate Oneself Now, Not When the Issue is Raised Again

I know there has been a lot of “Hey there’s information out there” rhetoric being tossed around. I know that this is harder than some people have admitted. But there is information out there and one of the things that can be done (and is being done in a few places) is for white folks who know where the information is to share with white folks who don’t know where it is. And I mean share in a non-judgmental way. Internalized racism suggests that there are many white folks who have never given this much thought before. We don’t know until we know and even if we “should have known better” we still don’t know until we know. So we can posture or we can help.

Parting Thoughts

If you’ve stuck with me to the end, I thank you so much for reading all this. I hope it helps clarify and generate more empathy, growth and action on the part of the fat movement. I’ve personally been upset with much of how this got started, but I will feel much better about all this if some good can come out of it and I hope that I may have done my small part to encourage that.

I do not do any of this perfectly. I continue to struggle with what this all means, and a lot of it still makes me uncomfortable, especially in classrooms where I’m deemed an “expert.” Being uncomfortable is part of the process. This may come with age or experience, but I’ve learned that being uncomfortable isn’t usually the end. It is usually just the beginning.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. vesta44 permalink
    March 27, 2012 1:26 pm

    Great post, Pattie, and you’ve given me a lot to think about. I hope others come away with lots to think about as well. I’m bookmarking this for reference. 🙂

  2. Calantheliadon permalink
    March 27, 2012 2:07 pm

    Thank you so much for such a thoughtful, balanced and educational post.

  3. March 27, 2012 2:37 pm

    I cannot express how grateful I am for this post. I still have many questions and hope people can help me find the answers because they are not available on the Google.

    I will be back.


  4. LittleBigGirl permalink
    March 27, 2012 2:41 pm

    I am really really scared to even post this but I hope people can help me figure this out instead of yelling at me. Please engage empathy before reading thank you.

    I didn’t think this article would affect me as strongly as it has, I actually started crying about halfway through and I am still trying to figure out what triggered that response. There were so many good points and great information, but I came away more depressed than anything else.

    Obviously my feelings about the information and opinions provided are filtered through my own experience and identity. The feeling I got reading this was a sadness–>shame–>anger cycle, mostly due to the fact that, as it is defined by Dr. Thomas, racially (not ethnically) I am a white person (or 3/4 anyway which makes it my majority race I suppose I look white is the point). I felt like this was written apologetically to POC on behalf of white people. I feel like even though there was talk of empathy, there was a focus on blame or assigning responsibility. I could see places where it was advising white people what to do, but I was unclear where it was advising POC and where it was giving advice to everyone.
    I feel like there is an attitude that only white people can be racist, but anyone can be racist even minority groups. I feel stigmatized by the fact that to many people it seems racism is synonymous with being white. I am not saying I am not a racist; by Dr. Thomas’ definition I’m sure I am to some degree.

    I am just very frustrated because people seem determined to be defensive and offended no matter how good your intentions. To me saying “ignorance is no excuse” is like saying “you’re going to get blamed for this no matter what.” I have to admit I sort of stopped trying to be “inclusive” when the message I got seemed like some evil Catch-22. You see, first we are told not to harp on differences or discriminate based on differences. So we go the other direction and try and downplay and say “Oh, your difference doesn’t matter to me.” Then people jump down our throat for trying to lump them in the same group. Now they tell us they are proud of their differences and we are insulting them by not acknowledging their differences. So we try and celebrate their difference and we’re told we don’t understand and we never will. We try and include people at our table and we’re told they have their own table, that it’s our fault they had to build their own table, we can visit their table but we don’t really belong there, that we should have known to push our table closer to theirs etc. etc…it’s exhausting and then if we say so we’re told we don’t have any place complaining because we have to make up for the mistakes we didn’t even know we made not to mention the mistakes of our racial ancestors. I am starting to feel really resentful because it seems like all the responsibility is on “us” to get it “right.”

    Maybe this is my white privilege talking but the thing that bothers me about this issue is that instead of finding common ground and empathetic-ally learning from those with different experiences, we get caught up in some kind of game of “whos-the-most-oppressed?” I don’t want to downplay the fact that an entire race has been stomped on by this country’s institution of imperialism, but POC aren’t the only ones. Does the term ‘POC’ refer to the Latin race/ethnicity? The Native American? Isn’t it racist and exclusionary to even have this discussion as if there are only two races (‘white’ and ‘black’) involved? How do black people take responsibility for being the “minority majority”?

    I guess the biggest proof of my white privilege is the fact that I don’t usually have to think about it. I’ve never felt like being white has affected how I see myself or how I live my life or how others treat me. When someone makes a point of not sitting next to me on the bus, I assume it is first because I am fat, then maybe because I am female, then…sheesh I don’t know, I’m not pretty enough? I never find myself thinking “Oh, they are avoiding me because I am white.”

    I don’t know what my point was or if I really had one when I started this. I guess what I would like to know is this: Is it possible to not be racist (and if so how), or is being racist inevitable and the only thing you can do is try and be a self-aware/apologetic one? 😦

    • Theresa permalink
      March 27, 2012 3:32 pm

      LittleBigGirl, thank you so much for your openness. I understand what you’re talking about because I’ve experienced a lot of the feelings you’ve shared here. I think there’s a process involved in learning about racism, and there’s no wrong way to feel about it, so definitely cut yourself some slack there.
      One realization that helped me a lot is that there is a difference between saying someone is “a racist” (which implies they’re bigoted) and saying that someone is doing or saying something racist (which may or may not be done on purpose). I think it’s natural to feel defensive when asked to contemplate that we might be doing or saying something racist, but my interpretation of Pattie’s words is that it’s important to set my own defensiveness aside in favor of listening to the underlying feelings of the person who is speaking. (I’m not good at this sometimes, but I am working on it.)
      The academic term “racism” is different from the common usage too, in that it refers to something that arises when one group uses its power and privilege to oppress another group. Under this definition, there is no reverse racism because the power differential still favors the oppressor. This is not to say that there can’t be prejudice and/or stereotyping in both directions, but calling it “racism” is generally not considered a correct use of the term.
      I hope my viewpoint has been helpful. If it’s any consolation, you might be going through some tough emotions right now, but you will definitely come out the other side. 🙂

      • March 29, 2012 6:29 am

        If minorities can’t be racist, then what would you call it if, say an Asian American is racist against African Americans or an African American is anti-Semitic?

        • March 29, 2012 9:56 am

          Thanks for this. People, again, are assuming that all nations are like white nations. What happens in a predominantly Asian country that, say, is racist against people from the Middle East or Hispanics?

        • March 29, 2012 10:04 am

          I just read an interesting article on CNN about this regarding whether Trayvon Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman (Hispanic), was racist, and how the media has begun referring to Zimmerman as “White Hispanic” to preserve the narrative of racism.

          My understanding is that to be a racist, you have to be in a position of power. Otherwise, it’s racial discrimination, but not racism per se (someone please correct me if my terminology is off). This all makes me wonder what is the more toxic aspect of racism: the hostility toward a particular race or the power differential in play.

          It would seem to me that racially motivated behavior is the main problem, and that having the power to enforce that behavior simply makes the effects of racially motivated behavior more potent, socially.

          It’s a difficult subject to wade through, that’s for sure.


          • vesta44 permalink
            March 29, 2012 10:32 am

            In order to know if Zimmerman benefited from having white privilege, we would have to know if he openly identified himself as Hispanic throughout his life – from the pictures I’ve seen of him, he looks white (not something by which you can really tell someone’s race), and his name isn’t one typically identified as Hispanic (German, maybe?) – also not not something by which you can really tell someone’s race, but again, something which is used to identify. So we don’t know if he identified as white or Hispanic.
            What we do know is that he made the comment “They always get away.” and he made another comment that was a racial slur – whether that’s racism or not isn’t my call to make, but I do think he had some prejudices that he was applying to Trayvon in this situation: what was a young black man, wearing a hoodie, doing, walking after dark in a gated community? It seems to me that Zimmerman assumed that Trayvon was a thug up to no good and he (Zimmerman) was going to put a stop to that. What people are forgetting in this incident is that Zimmerman wasn’t a member of a registered Neighborhood Watch program, he was a regular citizen who went out, armed with a gun, and patrolled on his own, looking for trouble to call into the police (he’d done it many times before), and this time, he didn’t follow the dispatcher’s recommendations to not continue to follow Trayvon, he got out of his car and accosted Trayvon (which is against the rules of Neighborhood Watch, so is carrying a gun), and killed an unarmed young man – which maybe wouldn’t have happened if he had been a member of Neighborhood Watch (who knows if he would have followed their rules, he sure as hell didn’t follow the recommendations of the police dispatcher).
            The thing that pisses me off about this whole mess is the underlying assumption that certain people don’t belong in certain places and anyone has a right to stop and question them about why they are there for no reason at all other than the assumption being that only white people are deserving of that privilege. The more I see of this kind of shit, the less I like people and the more I want to become a hermit.

    • drpattiethomas permalink
      March 27, 2012 5:57 pm

      I think another important distinction to make is what level of human interaction we are discussing. We are trained in this society to think that our individual thoughts and feelings are the only level we should pay attention to. This, of course, is valid except for the ONLY part.

      To use the terms I outlined in the post, our identity and the identity of others is only one level. Most people respond on this level: “Wait, that isn’t me!” “Well, I know what you are now!”

      Racism is inescapable because of our history. It gives context to our lives whether we want to acknowledge it or not. That doesn’t mean white people have to make up for their ancestors. It means consequences of decisions in the past stay with future generations and outlive those who made the decisions. In short, children inherit their parent’s worlds.

      This is delightful information when we realize we don’t have to re-invent the wheel, fire or modern communications. This is frustrating information when we realize that we are going to repeat patterns that create a difficult world.

      The question is what kind of a world do we want to leave the next generations and what kind of world do we want to live in now. If we continue to repeat the patterns of our ancestors we will continue to re-create the world they gave us.

      LittleBigGirl, the questions you are asking and the frustrations you feel are the exact uncomfortability I wrote about. It is important to recognize some of the things that your recognized (like you could walk away from this and not think about it if you wanted to do so and not all people can do so). Don’t expect to figure it all out. It is confusing and complex and frustrating and awkward. This is a journey.

      But remember that the more people recognize this and change what they do, the more possible it is for critical mass to occur and real changes happen. So small steps count.

    • March 28, 2012 12:17 pm

      This is almost exactly how I feel and I applaud you for how utterly honest you are being here. It takes guts nowadays to be so frank, because everyone and their mother WILL jump on you for the slightest thing.

      I genuinely want to be a better person, and I genuinely want to work toward a more inclusive world. But the mixed messages I get and the continual nasty attitude when I admit I don’t understand turns me off. This isn’t gym class; there isn’t an A for effort, but I’m thinking there should be at least a C or a B-.

    • Fab@54 permalink
      April 7, 2012 7:40 am

      I found myself experiencing many of the same reactions as you did, LittleBigGirl.
      Overall, I feel that I, (as a white person), have been given the inescapable label of Born White = Born Privileged = Born Racist. Not a pretty box to be put in, that’s for sure.

      Oh, I completely understand the concept of Dr. Pattie’s beautifully written and well thought out essay, but I can’t honestly say it illuminates any particular path to a better understanding, or empathy among racial groups. I too kind of got the message that being white means your wrong, and no matter what you do, how you act, how hard you try, you will always BE wrong…. but don’t worry, you can’t help it. You were born into it. But just don’t try to convince anyone you don’t fit that mold, because, of course, you’re wrong.

      In my opinion- one very important word was left out of the definitions list; BIAS.
      Bias, as it stands alone, is neither good nor bad. But it is real. Exchange the word “bias” with “preference” and everyone seems to find it much easier to swallow.

      A woman can be biased against red heads, if her experiences with red haired people has been negative, or not. She may prefer blondes, with no rational reason at all – this is also a bias. Doesn’t mean she “hates” red haired people, doesn’t mean she only associates with blondes. Bias is just a preference, something deep inside [her] that logically – or illogically- leads to a preference of one thing over another.
      Bias covers everything we do at most times… every choice we make when faced with multiple options.
      Now here’s the important part: ** We All Have Biases ** Everything from coffee flavors, to favorite colors, to the cars we drive, to the style furniture we like, and yes, even to the people we feel most comfortable around and seek out as friends and/or lovers. What I resent is the pervasive idea that Bias = Prejudice and Racism.

      I try to avoid extended interaction with certain types of people for many reasons. I try to avoid interaction with people of extreme religious or political views (of any persuasion) because I find them narrow-minded and judgmental. I try to avoid people who are negative and bitter about life because I find them to be joyless and real downers and they tend to drag everyone around them down. (misery loves company)
      In general I try to avoid befriending people who are in any way ‘toxic’ to those around them.
      But never in my entire life, have I ever – EVER – tried to avoid anyone or felt an aversion to anyone based on skin color, or economic standing, or appearance alone. I wasn’t raised that way, and I didn’t raise my children that way. I’m sorry, but I resent being labeled a “natural born racist” just because I happen to be born white.

      I could have been born a Queen. I could be a “good queen” or an “evil queen”.
      My actions and deeds make me good or bad, not the fact that I’m simply born a queen.
      Ahhh, unless one has some prejudice against ALL queens…. See what I mean?

  5. March 27, 2012 5:28 pm

    So, one thing I’ve noticed is that people have suggested that white people who are well-versed in racial politics are being asked to answer the questions of white people who aren’t. There was a recent group formed with this purpose in mind, but doesn’t this seem like just more segregation? It would be like if Fat Acceptance people started asking thin people to answer the questions of other thin people.

    I understand that some POCs don’t want to do 101 and that we can’t rely on a single POC to educate us, but it seems strange that the solution to the education issue is to put up a buffer of white people between POCs and white folks. Perhaps the educate white people are better versed on the issue, but we’re still getting this information second hand, right? And doesn’t that go back to the whole “control” issue you mentioned? If white people are educating white people on POC, then the foundation for education on racial issues is being formed by white people who may not have the same priorities or understanding as POC.


    • drpattiethomas permalink
      March 27, 2012 6:34 pm

      The group is private and for white-privileged folks so that people will not feel constrained from talking about feelings that might be considered hurtful to a person of color. It makes it a safe space to express doubts and frustrations and ignorance.

      Also, it is really a mischaracterization of the group to say that it is attempting to educate white folks about POCs. It is about raising consciousness and creating resources about racism, not POCs.

      Racism is something that hurts white people as well. It is not a matter of learning what “they” want or don’t want. It is a matter of learning how a system works and the ways in which the system is hurting all people. I saw a great video yesterday with Toni Morrison discussing how racism hurts white folks morally. My favorite quote was “If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees, then you have a serious problems.” (

      We have serious problems because we cannot know if our successes. achievements and self-worth come from a place of merit or a place of unearned privileges. We may feel that we have earned things, but when you consider the contest is fixed with people systematically and arbitrarily being excluded, we will never know if we would have been as successful if an excluded person had been allowed to express themselves fully.

      The other point I think that is being missed here is that this is not about how POC’s think or feel (though their thoughts and feelings may point to problems and we should listen). Racism is objective in nature and has real, measurable consequences. So education is not about knowing how POCs feel about this or that. They’re human they have multiple feelings about this or that and they are not going to be a monolithic group who all feels exactly the same way.

      But it doesn’t take long to find the proof of racism in our society. African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and some Asian Americans are over-represented in poverty, prisons and as victims of crimes. They have shorter life expectancies, higher infant mortality rates, more pollution in their neighborhoods, less access to health care and more health issues. They are under-represented in centers of power like government and business. Asian Americans fare better on many parameters but their individual life chances are limited by systematically keeping them in a set of professions and societal roles.

      These consequences are prepetuated because privilege goes unmarked and benefits people over others on the basis of who they are rather than what they do.

      So groups like the one you mention are important not so much to help whites understand POCs, but to help white folks understand what racism really is and why not doing something about not only hurts POC but white folks as well. Because this can be quite disconcerting, especially at first, these so called affinity groups (a name I loathe because I think it is too academic) have been a part of anti-racist and civil rights movements for some time. (This is a nice description of the process: and I will send anyone who asks the full text if they can’t get it).

      The other question to address is the question within the fat movement. Will we be successful if we continue to make the movement a white-centered movement? The answer is no. For many reasons, not least of which, we are cutting out important participants who experience fat hatred and who are will to work against it. Also, we systematically cutting out folks who have connections to histories of successful social change and their knowledge will be useful.

      For all the reasons I listed in this post, this is not easy work and no one will satisfy everyone in accomplishing it.

      • March 27, 2012 10:21 pm

        That makes sense. Thank you for explaining it in such detail. I will check out the links when I have a chance. I’m going to post new questions in a new thread to avoid noodling.


      • Fab@54 permalink
        April 7, 2012 8:37 am

        I think it’s important to distinguish between social racism (the interaction for good or bad amongst people on a personal or group level) and political racism (the systematic elevation or degradation of any group/race by way of unbalanced laws, punishments and/or social programs targeting any group).

        These are two different areas where racism needs to be addressed differently and with somewhat different levels of urgency. You can’t begin to address social racism unless political / systematic racism is pretty much eliminated first.

  6. March 27, 2012 7:21 pm

    Whew, Pattie! What a huge job you’ve undertaken and accomplished in such a small space and in such clear easy-to-understand language. Thank you. I learned some really important and useful stuff here and want to thank you for it. I will benefit as long as I live from the distinction you make between empathetic and sympathetic understanding. I knew there were two diff. things happening when people listened and reponded to the stories others told them but I had no language for it, no way to characterize the separate things. Thanks.

    I have some questions. You wrote: “I am not a political activist, but I frequently get mistaken for one. I am deeply concerned about race in western societies, but I would not characterize myself as an anti-racist activist, or a white ally, because I have not demonstrated the commitment that such titles imply.” Why, if you are a teacher who teaches about racism and activism so that others can become anti-racist an/or political activists are you not a political activist or an anti-racist activist? It has always seemed to me that teaching what you teach is a form of activism. It also seems to me that living with chronic illness/disability and using yourself to teach about all that stuff IS activism. We do what we can with what we’ve got. It seems to me that writing and teaching about how the world can be understood and made better is activism.

    I suggest that “personal identity” also includes sexuality, embodiment (disability, fatness, statue, etc), the sensorium we have available to deploy, and other characteristics, the entire list probably different for each person.

    I also believe that “social identity” includes how we sound, i.e, our accent, our vocabulary, other elements of our aural self-presentation. You talk a lot in here about listening and hearing without ever settling for a moment on the sounds we make that are being heard and listened to. Some of us are more or less sensitive to voices but for those who are, what we hear is a powerful indicator of the speaker’s identity, both social and personal.

    I totally honor and respect you writing: “since naming stigmas previously not known has occurred in the past, there are unnamed stigmas currently being practiced.” I love that you alert us to the always unfinished job of becoming more aware, more open, more knowing.

    I love what you have written here: “Mistaking Comparison of Process With Comparison of Experience” because it helps me understand some pretty emotionally charged interchanges I’ve observed and participated in that have left me feeling anguish and anger and outrage but without tools to explain to myself what has been happeing. A HUGE thank you for this.

    I wish you would say something about the religious/faith community backgrounds of different people/groups in the context of all these issues. I know that’s another level of complication of intersectionality, diversity, power dynamics, and I’d love to know something about your perspective on it.

    I want to repeat again that what was most useful to me in what you have written is this: “A sympathetic listener will hear what the other is saying and then tell their own narrative to show they understand (“That reminds me of when I…”). An empathetic listener will hear what the other is saying and then show they are listening by either asking clarifying questions (“What was that like?”) or affirm that they heard the other person and are interested in hearing more (nodding head or “Tell me more if you like”). Many of us white folks shut down conversations because we do sympathetic listening instead of empathetic listening.”

    Thank you again and again for your effort, your wisdom, your openness, and your generosity. In my eyes you are a splendid social justice activist!

    • drpattiethomas permalink
      March 28, 2012 12:25 pm

      By saying I’m not an activist, I am making two distinctions. First, especially in the area of civil rights and antiracism, I do not claim the title because I have not walked the walk (or rolled the roll, in my case, eh?). People have given their lives to this cause. I have done some thinking and some teaching and I think there is a definite difference in commitment.

      The second distinction is that I don’t see myself as working for political change, in the sense of changing law or governments. I’m a bit of an anarchist and would be happier if government would mostly go away. (I’m not consistent with this view. I find myself wanting things like universal healthcare, so I am aware of the inconsistencies.) But I do see myself as a cultural creative — someone who hopes to make a difference within the culture by what I write, what I say, what I produce creatively, artistically. So I prefer cultural creative over activist, but I do see the overlap and I do appreciate people who see me as doing something influential, so I consider being called “a splendid social justice activist” a compliment even if I would not “wear” the title myself.

  7. March 27, 2012 10:27 pm

    So are the principles outlined here transferable to other groups as well, or does each group have it’s own set of expectations for how they interact with or educate the public? Because you mentioned quite a few intersections, and I can think of even more. How do you keep track of the various privileges that you have in relation to all the identities that put people at a disadvantage?

    Also, what are your thoughts on the use of call-outs? I know they can be effective tools, but under what circumstances should they be used, and are there any general rules you would recommend?

    And I’m so glad you distinguished between doing something racist (intentional or otherwise) and being a racist. I have no doubt I’ve done the former, but I’m certain I am not the latter.

    Thank you again for taking the time to answer questions, Pattie. I appreciate your frankness and your sensitivity. You are a wonderful educator, which makes you a great activist, in my book.


  8. drpattiethomas permalink
    March 28, 2012 12:54 pm

    Since both Shannon and Susan have brought up questions about multiple identities and ways in which an individual can be both oppressed and privileged, depending upon which axis one is discussing (as well as questions of whether understanding privilege on one axis will help in addressing privilege along other axes), I want to offer some thoughts here in general rather than responding to each in particular.

    I will tell you what I teach in my classes and offer it FWIW:

    Various minority groups (and remember this includes any group whose interests are not represented by the dominant culture on a regular basis so religion, size, sexual orientation, disability and other identities would be included) have differences and commonalities.

    Minority groups differ in their histories, their sense of being a group, their level of organizing for change, their cultures, their categoric knowing, the extent to which they’ve been medicalized and/or criminalized and the ease with which they can hide their stigmas (and thus “pass” and claim privileges that would be removed if others “found out” their true identity). These differences mean people in these different groups will have different experiences and the groups will have different strategies for change.

    Minority groups do have some things in common: first, they have been named and that does provide possibilities that unnamed stigmatized people do not have. All of them experience having their life chances (a sociological term that basically means their potential) limited in some capacity because of their membership in the minority group. All of them are stigmatized and as I explained in the post, the process of stigma is pretty much the same no matter what the object of the stigma is. Finally, the minority group/dominate group relationship in each case is social in nature. By that I mean, it is not natural and it is differently created in different cultures. This is important because one of the justifications for continuing in stigmatizing behaviors is that it is “just human nature” to make these divisions. It is not. These are learned behaviors that can be unlearned and not taught again.

    So what we are left with is complexity and no easy answers. Again, I go back to two important aspects to remember: consequences should be the focus over intentions AND social empathy is probably the key to all these axes, where the privileged person in the axis should empathetically listen to the needs and concerns of the less privileged simply because in the particular relationship, they hold the power to make the changes.

    Having said all that, I do believe that racism holds a special case in our society because our wealth and prosperity has been built on this tenuous foundation of oppressing people on the basis of their skin color and physical characteristics. Like no other axes (expect perhaps gender), race is part of the fabric of our culture and until we find a way to heal this aspect of our culture, we are going to remain weakened by it. I will admit readily at this point that I am not sure what that healing will be or when it will be accomplished, but as I’ve said in other places, I’m pretty sure it isn’t going to happen on its own. We need to be working towards the solution or there will be no solution.

    I do believe that society is what we make of it and that each micro-interaction between human beings can be seen as the building blocks of society. So being vigilant in our exchanges and learning to be just and empathetic in how we deal with other people will pay off.

  9. April 1, 2012 8:16 am

    I think that prejudices or stereotypes are something everyone has to be on guard about.

    I was just listening to a radio show comparing the views of youth violence in the the US and Japan. Both countries seem to focus on minorities, immigrants and poor/working class youths. A Korean youth Japan would not be safe wearing a Hoodie or their equivalent clothing article.

  10. April 1, 2012 2:46 pm

    Thank you Dr. Thomas,

    I did not have a name for white priviledge until I entered graduated school. I was well aware of the existance of it. I am also well aware of Thin Priviledge and why I try to tell people about it they look at me as if I am speaking a forgien language.

    You have helped me reconsider the fact that I need to be aware of others life circumstances and how the differences have affected them. Frankly, I am sick of being treated differently because of my size, my in your face personality and often because I am a woman. I though about doing my graduate thesis on Fat prejudice. I don’t know if I am brave enough to tackle it.

    Thank you for your post. It reminded me not to assume.

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