Sociological Thoughts on Creating a More Diverse Fat Movement
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.
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.