I am a peer health educator at a college in Arizona. I have felt really prepared for most of the topics we will cover this year, but one of the things I am introducing for the first time is a unit on -isms. This is really important to me because I feel like there isn’t much space to talk about the issues that impact me, like racism and fatphobia. There isn’t much of a conversation about institutional oppression on our campus and I am already getting pushback.
Some of the other peer health educators who are fat and/or people of color are telling me that they have never seen or experienced fatphobia or racism on our campus. I don’t know what to say in response, even though I feel strongly that body size and race do affect their lives. I am worried that because they feel this way, it will be really challenging to teach this unit. I feel like people already see me as the “angry woman of color” and think I’m too sensitive. What should I do?
I can totally relate to pretty much everything you are saying, and in discussing how I relate I will be offering some language that might be useful for you moving forward.
I have been cast as the “angry woman of color” in academic spaces myself because I have insisted that we talk about race in a critical and engaged way (rather than adhering to expectations that I remain “collegial” and detached at all times).
This archetype seeks to silence us, ultimately. This archetype makes it easier to deny what women of color are saying about the world around us.
I have also experienced pushback from people who argue they have never experienced systemic oppression of any kind. I think there are several reasons for the pushback. I will discuss two of them:
1. They have internalized the idea of cultural education in meritocratic fairness.
One of the cornerstones of U.S. ideology is bootstrapping — the idea that anyone of any background can succeed if they try hard enough. This ideology positions failure as an individual problem, not a systemic/social one. If you fail, it is not because of injustice, it is because you didn’t work hard enough. Bootstrapping is the same ideological basis for dieting.
2. They do not understand the difference between interpersonal and institutional oppression.
In the U.S. currently, only explicit interpersonal aggression is seen as a legitimate form of injustice. Furthermore, these acts are considered examples of an individual problem, not society-wide bigotry. So, for example, most Americans would argue that racist behavior is only the instances when someone uses a racial epithet or perpetrates a crime where they have explicitly said (or it was symbolically obvious) it was racially motivated. The same essentially goes for fatphobia. There has been a tremendous amount of effort put into obfuscating institutional oppression. Although interpersonal violence inspired by bigotry is awful, in fact, institutional oppression is an extraordinarily powerful force when it comes to the trajectory of stigmatized people’s lives.
Though I don’t know your colleagues, I imagine that there are tons of examples of how racism, sexism and fatphobia have touched their lives.
For example, whether or not they will inherit a home is, in part, race-based — because most non-white Americans pretty much didn’t have access to home ownership until the 1970s. As a result, the neighborhood each of us grew up in has correlations with race. The neighborhood we grew up in has really compelling correlations with the quality of education we received – since the money schools get is based on the area they are in. Our neighborhood affects who we grew up around — and our race, size and gender affect what kinds of conversations we were having about success and career. That affects where and whether we apply to college. Where we go to college as well as what our body looks like affect our network, the people who will influence where we end up career-wise.
Let’s say they are going to inherit a home. The value of the home will be determined by the neighborhood it is located within, and the access to income people need to buy homes is mitigated by body size and gender; if their family couldn’t afford a home/didn’t want to live in a wealthy, white neighborhood then chances are that their home has lower property value; this has implications for the intergenerational accumulation of wealth and security. And the list goes on and on. These are not things we can “see” exactly. They are not as obvious as someone calling you a name, but they are very real and have far-reaching implications.
Whoa. That was a lot. I hope this helps, but just know that talking about -isms is important! It is OK if you don’t have the perfect language, and honestly you don’t have to stress your colleagues’ pushback. They are pushing back for important reasons that are really personal to them. And you are talking about your truth for important reasons that are really personal to you. You are there to expand the knowledge buffet for people so they have more options, not take away their plate.
Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp, the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race, and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, Tech Insider, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com.