The last acceptable prejudice

Lately it seems I’ve heard a lot about the “last acceptable prejudice.” That description has been used to describe any of a number of biases, but most recently I’ve noticed it with regard to fat prejudice. The explanation is usually something along the lines of “While racism is no longer publicly acceptable, it is perfectly acceptable for people to voice disparaging remarks about fat people.”

My knee-jerk response to this is I do not think that fat prejudice is the only one that is openly voiced and condoned. I do in fact think that racism is often considered publicly acceptable, and I say this as someone who worked at more than one job in which the word “nigger” was freely used. I also think that prejudice against gay people is often overt, with expressions like “that’s so gay” being a common way to express derision. It could also be argued that sexism is pretty rampant in our society as well. “Iron my shirts” anyone?

The reality is that many forms of prejudice are deeply entrenched in our society.

My other knee-jerk response to the idea that fat prejudice is the “last acceptable prejudice” has to do with institutional systems. There is no systemic discrimination of fat people. There is no history of laws preventing fat people from becoming citizens, from voting, from being members of society.

And yet I’m not comfortable with either of my knee-jerk responses. And I think the reason is because they play too much into the Oppression Olympics. In addition, I have never suffered from fat prejudice and I don’t really have any idea what it might be like.

Racialicious linked this article about the rise in discrimination against fat people. It starts, “Discrimination against overweight people is rising and now occurs more often than racial bias, according to a Yale University analysis of surveys taken 10 years apart.”

In addition, the research is summarized as follows:

In the first survey, 7 percent of the respondents said they had been discriminated against in employment, medical care, or education as well as in personal relationships because of their weight. Ten years later that proportion climbed to 12 percent, above the 11 percent level reported for discrimination based on race, which stayed the same in both time periods. Gender and age bias were higher than both.

Note the last sentence, “Gender and age bias were higher than both.” So you could re-write that lede as follows: “Discrimination against overweight people is rising but still occurs less often than gender and age bias.” But that doesn’t seem quite as newsworthy, does it?

In addition, the breakdown of surveyed individuals by race is not clear. The study also notes that it surveyed only “English-speaking” persons. Would that truly give you an accurate look at types of discrimination, especially if “ethnicity or nationality” were one category of discrimination you were seeking to examine?

A quick look at the info regarding the National Survey of Midlife Development seems to suggest that there was some concern that racial minorities would be underrepresented. But in any event, if you are just looking at sheer numbers, wouldn’t it make sense that fat people would be one of the largest groups and therefore might have the largest reported number of incidents of discrimination? Does it make sense to say that discrimination based on weight “occurs more often” than discrimination based on race, when there are undoubtedly more fat white people than people of color of any weight? How might one tease out interconnected -isms? (I also note that white women and white men have high rates of suing for discrimination, perhaps accounting for the figures on sexism and ageism.)

Does fat prejudice need to be framed as “worse than” racism in order for us to pay attention to it? And how does that type of framework discount the negative effects of racism?

The reality is that as allies we shouldn’t get tricked into buying into the Oppression Olympics. There is no “last acceptable prejudice” because they are all unacceptable.

Edited to add: I just got an e-mail from Diversity Inc. with an article about fat prejudice. It starts, “Make the wrong remark about a Black or Latino or tell an off-color joke about a woman in the workplace and you’re likely to be looking at a pink slip. But tell a fat joke and it’s no harm, no foul. Why is fat discrimination still acceptable in the workplace?”

11 thoughts on “The last acceptable prejudice

  1. I’m not so much concerned when I hear overweight people make the claim as when I hear white people such as white Catholics make the claim. Is prejudice against Catholics, or poor rural whites, or certain types of Christians seen as okay (and the Christians can’t be oppressed b/c they’re in the majority argument makes no sense — in America overweight people are in the majority but there’s still prejudice against them, and, in certain fields like academia, Christians aren’t in the majority) definitely, but when those groups make the claim that the prejudice against them is of the last acceptable type, they are doing it specifically to deny the realities of minority oppression.

  2. Pingback: Longform Links - 2008/04/15 at Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

  3. Maybe the reason is is that you can CHANGE fat come on people!! I don’t believe it’s okay to treat anyone with bigotry for being ‘different’ to society’s norms however fat is not a race,creed,color,sex,age,height,disability,etc. it’s a CONDITION and one that the person chose at that. When I heard about the woman who sued for disability because she was 300 some pounds I burst out laughing then I wanted to sue HER and the entire court system for being so galatically stupid and wasting the courts time with that nonsense. Granted liek I said no prejudice is acceptable but what’s even LESS so is people who try to piggyback[no pun intended]on REAL discrimination issues because THEY are too gutless to change their own lives.

  4. Well, why can’t people of color act more like white people? And why can’t women act more like men?

    Actually, a creed is more like a CONDITION. Why can’t people just change their religion if they are being persecuted?

  5. What about classism? The jokes made everywhere at the expense of poor white people are despicable. Sickening. “Joe Dirt,” for example, is one of the meanest, nastiest movies I’ve ever seen.

    Macon D

  6. Macon D, classism drives me crazy! Especially Joe Bageant! Especially Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickle and Dimed — she spends half the movie mocking the poor. As a person of color when I hear a white liberal who’s progressive about race mock poor whites, I think, this guy hasn’t learned anything at all, he’s just transferred his hate b/c he has to feel superior to somebody. As a white woman I know who grew up on welfare and now has her Ph D said, blaming poor whites for racism is a way for liberals and educated whites to displace racism onto another class of white people — after all, is it so-called poor white trash practicing redlining, or denying loans to business, or keeping private schools like the one I attended exclusive? Macon, read the essay “Who are these White People?” in White Out by Ashley W. Doane.

  7. Why is it that when people engage in a discussion about fat discrimination someone ALWAYS throws out a story about a 300lb person? Reality is there are people who are much smaller than 300 pounds who face weight discrimination.

    The problem is that no one knows why anyone is overweight. Are they on medication? Did they sustain an injury while they were being active? Are they Ben & Jerry’s loving lazy people who don’t want to get up and exercise? In any instance, it is no one’s business to judge.

    As someone who is not obese, I rarely paid attention to these discussions…until a post appeared on Racialicious. The comments that appeared proved to me that weight bias is alive and real.

    Even though racial inequality tops my attention list, I do recognize that size discrimination is something people deal with regularly.

  8. You’re right. Anti-thin prejudice is accepted too. I’ve often heard thin women refer to as freaks and overweight women referred to as “real women.”

  9. Fat prejudice is one of the most actively internalized forms of bigotry. Fear of being so fat as to be unloveable/unworthy of living is one driving force behind eating disorders. There are fat people of all ages, races, sexual orientations, and genders who are obsessed with losing weight, hating their fat, becoming thinner. And, for a lot of POC who are fat by white standards but not necessarily their own ethnic standard of beauty/norm, they’ve internalized the fat bigotry with racism so that they equate losing weight,with becoming more ‘white,’ more acceptable.

  10. Fear of being fat isn’t bigotry or even necessarity a fear — it’s a health concern or preference. The main eating disorger in America is obesity.

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