There has been a few discussions and disagreements about intersectionality over the last few years on my blog feeds. Every time a person of color states that they do not feel welcome in FA, feminism, or other activist spaces, they seem to find themselves arguing with people who are coming from a place of privilege.
Please, please start this post by reading Derailing for Dummies as it will save us both a lot of explaining and defining.
Since I also have privilege (although I hope frequently and honestly examined), I will try to write this carefully so as to be respectful. Its been knocking around in my head for some time now, and I feel like I need to get it out there for discussion. If I do end up accidentally spewing some ignorance, I will hopefully catch it in time to correct and/or offer a big apology. I cannot speak for people of color. I cannot set aside my privilege or the effect it has had on my life. I can strive for objectivity, but it an impossible ideal in a human being raised amongst other human beings. All I can do is try to express my understanding at this time.
The communication disconnect in the community seems to occur when a person of color states that they do not feel like they are included and/or visible in some spaces, especially FA and feminism. Well meaning white women often respond by asserting that they are not doing anything to keep out people of color, especially women of color. They're generally not....consciously and deliberately, excluding anyone. The part they miss is perfectly expressed by a man named Benjamin Nugent in his book “American Nerd.” As he says (quoting Ron Eglash):
“The fact that engineers historically tend to be white and Asian males benefits white and Asian males, and not because the engineers are racists trying to uphold a Caucasian patriarchy. 'Voice recognition software works better on men's voices because a bunch of engineers are sitting around in the lab and they say, 'Charlie, come over here, I want to try your voice,' Eglash explains. 'Over time they build that social environment into the software. Camera film was created by these chemists and when they wanted to try it out, they said 'Hey Charlie, come over here,' and Charlie's a white guy, and so in the end the cameras work better on white people because you have all these white people trying it out and fine-tuning it. Not because these guys are racist but because of the social environment in which it's getting created.'”
In other words, (for the most part) the white women in FA aren't consciously, actively trying to keep out people of color. Unfortunately, they tend to interpret any statement that people of color feel unwelcome in those spaces as an accusation to that effect. They then get defensive, because they honestly do believe that they are not racists.
Unfortunately, many of us fail to see the real situation. We assume that because white women feel comfortable in a space, that it should be comfortable for everyone. The problem is that because the space was created by white women, it is based on the experiences, values, language, clothing, symbolism, challenges and aesthetics of white women. They have made the space, so naturally they feel it is a welcoming space. They are welcome there. But because the space does not necessarily reflect the experiences, values, language, clothing, symbolism, challenges and aesthetics of people of color, they express (and justifiably so) that they feel excluded. They do not fit the definition of the space.
If I were walking past Hollister in the mall (or some other super-skinny teen store) and the clerk invited me in to buy their accessories, would I feel welcome? When the clothes, the aisles, the dressing rooms, the shoes, and everything else about the store were made for someone physically and culturally dramatically different that me? If the patrons stare at me and whispered like I'm an alien species? I think the space itself would make me feel unwelcome. There would be nothing for me there, and I would feel like an intruder no matter how friendly the staff tried to be.
I know the situation above is familiar in some sense to everyone in the Fatosphere (or at least imaginable). I've read a lot of rants about how companies don't stock our sizes in the stores, or relegate us to the back of the store, or don't make the same kind of fashions available in plus sizes. When that happens, I very rarely see the blame placed on the shopper for not adapting to what's made available to them. Instead, it is widely accepted that the store needs to take responsibility for making us welcome. They need to change their culture.
But in a similar discussion relating to intersectionality, I see people demanding that people of color (and men) essentially take responsibility for their own inclusion. They are told to come up with ways they can be included or made to feel welcome. They are asked to play educator and privilege police. They are told to go ahead and make it their space, but are derailed and shouted down if they attempt to change it. Worst of all, they are told to “get over it.”
If we want to be inclusive, we are responsible for making the people we want to include visible and part of the conversation. We need to invite and act upon their input when it comes to organizing events and messages. If the scientists in the Benjamin Nugent's quote wanted the voice recorder to work for women, they needed to go and seek out women to test it (even if it was less convenient). Likewise, if we want FA to work for everyone then we need to go and seek out a cross section of people to use and contribute to it. Even if they say things we don't like. Even if their approach, language, aesthetics, beliefs, etc. change the nature of the space. The space needs to change.
Derailing and Denial
When someone is accused of using their privilege to make someone feel unwelcome in the space, it is usually because they are engaging in behavior that is Oppressive Silencing. When it comes to conversations with people of color in FA, the behavior I see most often from the list on the previous link involves delegitimizing the response and/or the person, and shutting down the conversation.
When someone is angry, questioning their anger or their right to be angry is a direct attempt to control them and the space. That's part of what privilege is...the assumption that you have the right and ability to control the world around you. People have a right to be angry, to be hurt, and to be outraged. If your first response to that outrage is to question the legitimacy of their emotion, you are acting from privilege. As Derailing for Dummies says, “by accusing them of hostility, you pass the blame back to them, rather than consider what you might have said that was so offensive and hurtful it caused the 'hostility'” You don't get to decide when someone else's emotion is justified. That's not in your power.
The other problem I see is when conversations about privilege and intersectionality are dismissed. Sometimes people do get angry. Sometimes other people get defensive, angry or hurt by how the anger is expressed. Sometimes that causes conflict in the community. The response then is often to try and shut down the conversation. The problem with that is that then the issue that caused the anger in the first place is never addressed. Sometimes this turns into a cycle where the frustration builds and erupts into a periodic community-wide fight. Sometimes the angry person decides that their voice is never going to be heard, and simply walks away. When the latter happens, the community is not held accountable, and becomes even more insular and exclusive.
If we as a community seek to be inclusive, we must decide to accept anger we do not understand. After all, we are asking others to do the same. When we jump into a fat-hating forum or comment thread, or respond with anger towards a bully, they are often completely bewildered as to where our anger is coming from. After all, they're only treating us as they have been taught to treat us, and expecting us to react according to their ingrained expectations. Of course it doesn't really matter that we're coming from left field for them. Intentions are not justifications. What matters is what their words and actions do to us. Likewise, when we don't understand where the anger of a person of color comes from, our ignorance and intentions don't matter. We are responsible for what our words and actions do to them.
What can you do to change the space? What can I do? Many of us have personal blogs that reflect our own experiences and life struggles. Some are much more visible than others. While I cannot presume to speak for people of color, I can do the following:
1. Police my language and privilege. I can avoid contributing to the hostility of the space by avoiding language that is exclusive of other genders or people of color. I can actively make an effort to examine my privilege and minimize it's effect on others.
2. Actively read and participate in the conversation on blogs of people of color in FA, even (and especially) when they're not included in the popular feeds. I need to be listening to their voices and engaging, because I'm the one who benefits from exposure to other points of view.
3. Make an effort to be aware and inclusive of specific intersections of race and gender when I address something on my blog. I may not be able to do much with a cake recipe, but if I'm posting photos or news stories, I can take the extra effort to be as inclusive as I can in what I show and say.
4. Research. If I don't understand something, I am responsible for finding the resources to explain it. A person of color is not responsible for educating or correcting me, or serving as a representative. There are thousands of blogs offering a huge diversity of opinions and perspectives on issues affecting people of color and intersectionality. It is my job to seek them out, read them and adjust my own perspective. (You can start HERE, if you haven't already.)
Mine is a pretty small-time blog, and I don't do a lot of community organizing. Those that do have a wonderful opportunity to be more inclusive by bringing in diversity from the very beginning of the planning stage by deciding who to seek out for input, who to invite to speak, whose story to tell or what images are used.
This is an extremely challenging and delicate conversation to have, especially in a space that takes pride in their shared mission of diversity (at least body shape/size diversity). It is difficult to frame a respectful challenge and reminder that even experienced activists still have a lot to learn. We are programmed by our brains to resist change, and it is often painful and exhausting to really examine uncomfortable areas of our own minds. There has been a lot of groundwork laid in the FA community with discussions of privilege, kyriarchy and intersectionality. I think we're ready to really listen to those who have been trying for a long time to discuss some problems with the inclusivity of our space here in the Fatosphere.