So, at work, one of us is working on this project about obesity and poverty, which occasionally leads us to this weird thing where we’re sitting around talking–and by “we” I don’t mean “me” because I am not participating in these conversations because when I participate in the conversation it goes something like “well, poor people are fat because they don’t eat well and fruits and vegetables are too expensive blah blah blah and you can’t buy fruits and vegetables with food stamps.” and I say, “First of all, that’s not true and second of all, not every poor person is so poor that they qualify for food stamps and not every person is fat because they don’t eat right. Kids need time and space to run around, but if you don’t have a safe neighborhood, you’re not going to let your kids go outside unsupervised.” And they all nod and act like they’ve heard me and then go back to discussing whether people are poor because they’re fat or if they’re fat because they’re poor.
I am fat. I have been poor. My lived experience and my observations do not matter.
So, this week we were talking about, again, how fat people just don’t eat right but whether it’s up to the government to force them. And I tried again to bring up my suspicions that our Kroger does not get fresh food. And I know it makes me seem all crazy and conspiracy theorist, but I don’t. I’m deeply suspicious that fresh fruits and vegetables are sitting out at, say, the Belle Meade Kroger for a week and then, what’s left, which may still be fine, is brought up to my Kroger for another shot at the market. Let me reiterate, I have no proof of this. But I’ve shopped at both Krogers and sometimes the produce at my Kroger is fine, beautiful, and sometimes the produce looks old and nasty and my Kroger is always busy, so it’s not like the produce is getting old and nasty there.
And don’t even get me started on the difference in case space given to milk and gallons of purple or red or orange drink between the Belle Meade and the Bordeaux Kroger. I went off on that and they were all just like “Well, Kroger wouldn’t have a case of purple/red/orange drink right next to the milk if people didn’t want it.” And I was like, “Yes, that’s true, but why would people rather have a gallon of red drink instead of a gallon of milk unless you didn’t want to shell out a bunch of money for milk only to find out, when you’d gotten it home, that it was bad. Red drink doesn’t go bad.” I mean, seriously, yes, people make their own choices, but let’s not act like they’re making those choices in a vacuum or on some even playing field.
Anyway, so these discussions always end up with a bunch of average-weight people sitting around talking about why fat people are so fat in front of a fat person whose possible reasons are dismissed.
It feels bizarre to me and uncomfortable. I mean, first of all, I don’t want to talk to my co-workers about my body as if it is a social problem that all of society has some stake in fixing. Who else’s body at that table ever gets talked about in the abstract like that?
And when they start talking about fat as a class issue, which is, frankly, something I agree with, I still feel like “Oh my god, these people don’t feel like I’m a part of them.”
But you know, maybe they do. As Kate Harding has repeatedly pointed out, when people talk about fat, they often are talking about people they think are gross and out of control and, if my co-workers don’t see me as gross and out of control, then it doesn’t matter that I could carry of my spare change under the roll of my belly all day and not be a penny short in the evening, that I shop at the very grocery store they all see as contributing to the problem, but have never shopped at, that I am living the experience they want to talk about abstractly, it’s not me they’re talking about.
Over at Feministe, Kai is talking about how hard it is for white people and people of color to have meaningful conversations about the interactions of white people and people of color–
Once again we see detrimental impacts of whiteness on discourse within communities of color, even when it is well-intentioned, because the very discursive tools of whiteness are tools of colonization which are designed to destabilize people of color, exert power, assert a cultural assemblage point, and prevent communities of color from establishing footholds on social legitimacy and autonomy.
–and at first I was thinking about that in terms of the discussion from the other day (obviously, since that’s what it’s directly related to) and nodding in agreement. This is what I was trying to figure out how to say from the angle of being a white person–the ways that we’ve been taught to discuss things, to take them out of the realm of the personal and into the realm of the theoretical, the way we believe that there is such a thing as an (almost) objective understanding that we can achieve, the ways we expect to be able to have discussions about the actions of real people and for those people not to be hurt or affected by it, because it’s just a discussion for the sake of knowledge, that, because we know words like “colonization” and “token” we can throw them around like we know their full weight (while at the same time, practically forcing the people we’re throwing them against to not acknowledge their full weight).
And it would be nice and it would be justice for us to not do those things because they are so terrible for other people. But you’d think we would not do those things because of the fucked-up twisted ways it makes us.
Which is a giant sidetrack to my point. It’s those words–“discoursive tools” and “destabilize”–which hit home for me in the context of these bizarro fat discussions where the non-fat people sit around and talk about the problems of obesity while the fat people sit quietly and wait for the discussion to run its course. Because how can participating in it for me or for my other fat co-workers not suck? Not be destabilizing? Either you discover this strangeness that, even though you are objectively fat, the discussion isn’t about you because they mean those problem fat people. Or, because of the ways that class and weight are related, you discover that, even though you think you’re a peer with your co-workers, you have to discover that they don’t think you are.
And I guess what Kai’s point makes me wonder is is this about whiteness? Is this kind of discourse, where there’s this “us” and there’s a “them” and the them is often poor and often not white, but is also, say, me, who is not poor (anymore) and is white, this discourse, which is happening in a room full of white people a discourse about being White?
Do you see what I’m asking? I mean, I’m asking from inside of being white, so it’s hard for me to get the perspective I need to see clearly what’s going on, but I kind of feel like there’s this whole way the conversation goes–theoretical, not about “us”, about how we can best understand and fix a problem (i.e. take control of the situation)–and in being present for the conversation, I am, implicitly, being asked to privilege my shared whiteness (by understanding that it is not me they are talking about) over my shared fatness with the people under discussion. And yet, no one in that room thinks we’re talking about “whiteness.” I’m not even sure that’s what’s going on.
But I wonder, is that how white supremacy is trained into white people and perpetuated by white people who would never in a million years consider ourselves to be white supremacists? How many of those moments pass by, where the implicit message is “we’re not talking about you” and we just say “Oh, okay, then, great. That’s not me. I’m like you.” Where we are confronted with the pain of being recognized as not a part of the group and then, through our shared race, given a way back into the group, a way to negate the pain?