101: On Being Fat and White

By | August 11, 2008

Note: This post was written partly as a result of my thoughts while catching up on discussions elsewhere about Julia’s excellent post here last week. Just so there’s context.

Here’s the newsflash: Race affects me.

I’m white. I’m white as white gets. My background is an even mixture of Anglo-Saxon and German. You’d probably be hard pressed to find whiter. So white, in fact, that I could tell tales of overt, organized participation in racism amongst certain of my great-grandparents. As a child I heard elderly family members toss the N-word around at the dinner table. That’s my ancestry, that’s where I come from, in part. I’m fortunate enough to also come from other relatives who lived their lives in decidedly, demonstrably anti-racist ways, though not everyone has that balance. I think for all the indignance that a lot of white people engage when allegations of plain-spoken racism against people of color comes up, it’s probably a little closer to home than we like to admit. Generationally, we can’t be as far removed as we’d like to imagine, because culture didn’t change that long ago, and hasn’t really changed as dramatically as we like to think besides.

This affects me; race affects me. If you’re white, race affects you too. And I don’t mean other folks’ races, which is often the mistaken assumption a lot of white folks seem to make whenever the subject comes up. Being white affects you. It is a function of our privilege as white folks that allows us the option of living our lives without knowing the how or the why – an option, I might add, that is not afforded to the majority of people of color. Race ain’t something that happens to other people. Race is not external to you. Your race influences, to one degree or another, how very nearly everyone anywhere interacts with you, what they assume about you, how you’re treated in public and private spaces, the kind of attention you get, the expectations placed upon you.

Because most of these interactions and assumptions associated with whiteness are positive, we get to walk around feeling like nothing’s wrong, everything’s cool, race ain’t our problem.

That’s white privilege.

White privilege is being able to live our lives being positively affected by race in a million ways and never being compelled to notice or question or think about all that. Even though these privileges are usually gained at the expense of others. Even though these privileges are, underneath their shiny veneer, grotesque and unfair and plain old wrong.

Being both fat and white is, thus, an intersectional identity. My whiteness affects my fatness, and vice versa, and both in concert affect my social engagement with the outside world, in every culture, in every place.

White folks may be harder on me for being fat. They may be harder on me for being fat, and louder about it, than people of color are. They may be ruder; they may be more unabashedly disgusted and unforgiving. This isn’t because people of color aren’t also subject to fatphobia (participating in it or suffering from it); this is because institutionalized systems of oppression are such that white folks as a group have more cultural and authoritative oomph than people of color do. A person of color who openly disparages a white person for any reason in space that is dominated and controlled by white folks (that is, almost everywhere, and certainly everywhere that white people tend to go) is playing a very dangerous game. I shouldn’t have to extrapolate further on the potential outcomes of such behavior. Use your imagination.

White folks may also be harder on me, a fat white woman, for being fat than they would be on a fat person of color. This is not because it’s somehow more acceptable for people of color to be fatter, but because people of color are often invisible to white folks – othered, distant, ugly, inferior – and as a result when white folks see a fat person of color, I would argue that it’s somehow less a cultural affront. It’s less personally-identifiable. White folks see a fat person of color and know, conclusively – “That’ll never be me; no matter what happens, how I let myself go, that’ll never be me.” White folks see a fat white person and think, “Shit, if I’m not careful, if I don’t watch myself, that could be me. That could totally happen to me.” White folks see me and my body and it works for them like a cautionary tale; culturally, I represent the result of a lack of self control; I represent a horror of their own body.

The fact that white folks might be more candidly and vocally hard on me for being fat only speaks to white fatphobia – it says NOTHING about how POC deal with and understand fatness, no matter how common this extrapolation may be. No matter how many times we argue that this says something about the acceptability of fatness within different racial and ethnic groups, it will never be true. Making that argument presumes that white folk exist outside of race, that only POC have race, and that white is the default or the norm, and that race intersects with fatness only when the two happen, at the same time, to people of color.

People of color aren’t responsible for telling white folks how being white intersects with being fat, and it’s plain ridiculous to expect them to perform this service for us. People of color are often in the unenviable position of seeing white privilege – seeing us using it and accepting it and (un)knowingly reveling in it – more clearly than white folks do, and when we’re lucky these people of color will take a moment out of their day to inform us of what they see. But at that point it becomes the exclusive purview of white folks to understand their whiteness and how their race affects and amplifies and downplays their other identities and positions in culture and society (including but not limited to sexuality, body size, gender identity, dis/ability, and economic class). People of color have their own shit to work out. It’s offensive to expect them to help us with our issues as well.

You have race. No matter what your background is, or what your skin looks like, you have race, and it affects you, and it affects how your fatness (if you are fat) is received and understood as well, and just because different races perceive and process fat differently doesn’t mean one is better or worse than the other. Nobody lives outside fatphobia, and nobody lives outside racism. It’s everyone’s problem, and everyone’s responsibility to understand.

If you glean nothing else from this post, I hope you remember that.

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