Monday, July 4, 2016

Sorry, My Privilege Got In the Way!

I have a confession to make, I've been saying something offensive for some time.  I'm guilty, no way to hide it and no excuses. I used to say it all the time and I can remember being proud of exposing this type of "issue" to clients or groups. So what did I say that was so wrong?  It was this: "Fat is the last form of acceptable discrimination."

Now before you pass judgement on me, just read a little more, please.

How did I learn that this phrase was offensive?  Let's go back to May of 2016.  I was at an eating disorder conference and this phrase came up in the middle of a weight stigma/bias presentation.  One of the presenters said this phrase and a fellow RD, whom I have a lot of respect for, stormed out of the room.  Her frustration and anger was so intense that she needed to remove herself from the room. The words clearly offended her in a very deep way.  I thought of what I might do if I were in front of the room and had seen my words affect someone so deeply.  What if I said something that offended someone so much that they had to leave the room? I had said these words so many times without thinking how it might offend someone.  What if there were other words I was saying or beliefs I was espousing that were equally as offensive? I sat in the presentation and started to get very uncomfortable.  It was a feeling that permeated through my body and I realized that my privilege as a straight white male, had done it again.  "Privilege" is a word that has been bouncing around in my head for a short-while now.  And what I mean by short-while is that as a 43 (nearly 44) year-old man, I have probably spent 41 of those years (mostly) oblivious to my privileged status in society.  I've only recently become aware of how, as a straight white male, I'm living the game of life on the easiest setting possible.  I might have been aware of my privilege but only until the past few years have I really started to understand and accept it as it relates to society and to my work as a dietitian.

So there I am, sitting in this conference, struggling with privilege.  Realizing that in my life, on the "easy setting," I don't see some things that are going on around me. I don't feel or live with or experience the discrimination that happens every day to people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ community or any of the other marginalized voices in our society.  I won't see it unless I start to open my eyes.

After the conference session, I went out for a cupcake with a colleague I respect very much. I've only met her in person a couple of times but she is the type of person who makes you feel instantly comfortable and understands all the different issues that come up within the Health at Every Size® community.  So who better to talk to about my uneasiness and privilege than her? (I'm looking at you Carmen Cool). There we are, sitting down to cupcakes and blurt out something to the effect of: "I've been saying this phrase for so long and I never thought it would be so upsetting to someone else.  I can understand now how upsetting it might be as I see there are still so many 'acceptable' ways people are discriminated against, but as a person of privilege, how do I do better, ask questions and not be offending people whom I respect?" I can't remember her exact words with how she answered me but I can remember that it was concise and honest.  She said that by having conversations like the one we were having in that moment is how you do better!  Being open and understanding my privilege, not denying it, is how I start to be an ally.  I have found in my work as an advocate for Health at Every Size® and exposing weight stigma in our society, there are times when I'm too scared to say something for fear of offending someone that is marginalized or oppressed.  But what my wise friend taught me is that being open, admitting your willingness to learn, discuss, see and hear the other side is how we do better.

Speaking with respect to weight stigma, too often we just deny there is a problem.  We say, "Well, I don't see it," or "How can that be?" or even, "If you just lost weight, you wouldn't have this problem."  Those comments reflect a thought pattern that is very dangerous.  It's the argument that because you have not experienced it, you think it doesn't exist.  That is the same argument the oppressors have used when discussing issues of race or sexual orientation.  "It isn't discrimination or racist or oppressive because I don't see it that way."  Of course you don't, you have different privilege.

I'm learning.  I am a work in progress. "Easy setting" living does't mean I can't work every day to better understand how my privilege might cloud my perception of someone else's reality.  It doesn't mean I can't understand or be willing to change or be open to the discussion.  We need more safe spaces (like the one I had with my friend/colleague) to be vulnerable to each other and share our stories and not just hear, but really listen to someone else's story.

I'm going to leave you with quote I saw on Facebook by Tigress Osborn, a fat activist from Oakland, California.  It has helped me gain perspective on how I can be a better ally and if I'm going to frame weight as a social justice issue (which it totally is), then I need to be a better ally to all movements, not just the one I identify with.  That is intersectionality and learning to see the big picture.

Do not let your friends use the phrase "fat is the last acceptable prejudice." The way to heighten awareness of fat discrimination is NOT by belittling other forms of prejudice. Fat people experience discrimination far beyond "people were mean to me" and that shit is REAL and needs to be understood and stood up against. But claiming that we live in a culture where fat hatred is allowed and other hatred is not is some super privileged bullshit to say, and if you actually think that is true, you are not paying attention. If you've been saying that, no. Just no. "But if they said that about Blacks/gays/women/...." Nope. Still no. First of all, they still do. See, for example, the entire internet. Second of all, if your standard for liberation and equality is based exclusively on media visibility and social tolerance for saying mean things without repercussion, you need to come up with a better standard of freedom. Cuz when "they" can't tell jokes about you on tv anymore but they can still run you out of your neighborhood, rape you in scores while no one gives a damn, and shoot you in the street and shrug, it is not a diversity utopia where everyone but fat people are free. Stop. Saying. That. Shit.  -- Tigress - iofthetigress.com

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