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?”