Winter: Let’s Talk White and Thin Privilege
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The author as a young person -- circa 1969
(This chapter isn’t quite where I want it, and I’m not sure if it will make the final cut into my book, but I thought I’d toss it out there.)
My husband Jerry and I entered the gleaming, dripping in money medical center, located in a tony neighborhood near Timonium, Maryland.
Jerry was dressed in a striped shirt and Khakis; I wore a sports tee-shirt and denim clamdigger leggings – way underdressed for our expensive surroundings (I didn’t care – I wore a pretty necklace, what more should they want?).
We had been there just once before – not quite familiar with the building layout – so we must have looked slightly confused.
I had to use the facilities, but I knew that the restrooms had to be accessed via a security code.
“You remember what the code is?” I asked Jerry.
Before he could answer, a lady ahead of us looked back and said, “Oh, it’s **** for the ladies’ room and **** for the men’s.”
Casually and without hesitation.
We had never met her.
Think about that: we were strangers.
We thanked her and went about our business.
Encounters like this happen every day; we don’t think about them – they are just small moments paving the way for an easier path through life.
But what we experienced was an example of subtle White Privilege. On the fly, assumptions had been made about us: an average white couple who looked like they belonged in that medical center.
Never mind that we could have been unsavory characters, albeit white, up to no good.
The sad part: in most of these encounters, white people don’t even recognize their White Privilege status – which is part of the problem.
At first, I didn’t, even though I was in the middle of writing this chapter and thinking a lot about it!
It was only after Jerry’s appointment that – DING, DONG! – it hit me.
I asked Jerry if he had observed a recent instance of White Privilege.
He had not.
He looked surprised when I pointed it out – and then his aha! moment.
You see, we need to be reminded about privilege, and, more important, we should listen to our minority friends and peers when they tell us that, yes, they are treated differently than we are.
That an African-American stranger, especially one not dressed for the occasion – you know, tees and clamdiggers – probably would have been treated differently in that medical center.
At the very least, that lady would have told an African-American couple that they could get the bathroom code from their doctor’s office.
Most likely, she would have ignored them.
If the man had been wearing a hoodie, she might have had a visceral reaction.
Might she even report the man as being out of place? Perhaps to a custodian or to a receptionist – if his actions seemed out of place, even the police.
So what does White Privilege have to do with Thin Privilege?
Hang with me – I’m getting there, albeit via twists and turns.
For now, keep this in mind: if you are fat or have ever been fat, you understand Thin Privilege all too well. It’s not quite the same, of course – navigating life while Fat is not going to be fraught with fears of dying by violence while living day-to-day as Black.
But fat people understand clear instances of Thin Privilege, always easier to note when one doesn’t enjoy it.
Let’s begin with White Privilege.
In 2017, the “Us” and “Them” camps seem more divided than ever.
As I write this, a great debate rages whether “taking the knee” at sporting events is a valid form of protest or a sign of disrespect against the flag and the military.
It started in August 2016, when Colin Kaepernick, then of the 49’ers, decided to sit out the National Anthem to protest the treatment of African Americans, particularly the police killings of black men and some women, many who were not even suspects.
Since then, Kaepernick’s means of protest has evolved into kneeling on one knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and has spread throughout the NFL (National Football League), adopted mostly by African-American players.
The “Us” side: mostly white people dripping with White Privilege who believe that not standing with hand over heart is the ultimate insult to flag, country, and veterans.
The “Them” side: mostly African Americans who do not enjoy White Privilege and have a genuine societal beef, insisting that taking the knee is not disrespectful to the troops or anyone else but a valid protest of racism and mistreatment.
This very topic came up recently in a setting of all white people, most agreeing that if one does not stand for the national anthem, he or she should be arrested and charged with a crime.
“That would go against the First Amendment,” I said.
“Not standing for our national anthem is un-American,” one person said.
“Peaceful protest is American and patriotic.” I reminded them that the First Amendment protects the voice of the minority, because the majority voice does not need protecting, that it’s easy to speak out when just about everyone agrees with you.
In other words, it doesn’t take courage to parrot the majority view.
The room grew silent.
I was hoping that some insight had seeped into their brains.
One woman piped up: “Well, it’s just disrespectful.”
The others agreed, and the subject was changed.
After reading Roxane Gay’s stunning memoir Hunger, I was struck just how much covert racism still exists –
Hell, these days, forget about covert; particularly in the age of Trump, it seems that overt and ugly racism is on the rise – a day doesn’t go by that some outrageous act of violence against an African American hasn’t been reported on the news: Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner – iconic names for all the wrong reasons.
In August 2017, the remarks of Lt. Greg Abbott, of the Cobb County Police Department (Georgia), seemed to confirm that African Americans are being targeted by the police: Abbott was caught on his dashcam telling a white woman during a traffic stop not to worry. “…You’re not black,” he said. “Remember, we only kill black people. Yeah. We only kill black people, right?” (1)
While I could offer a grocery list of atrocities perpetuated against minorities in the past five years, I won’t – this is beyond the scope of my book.
See for yourself by Googling “hate crimes.”
I’m not sure what first drew me to Ms. Gay’s memoir; certainly, the title was a draw – aren’t fat people constantly hungry and not always for food?
I must have known that her life story would somehow resonate with me, although I had never heard of her or seen her photo – I didn’t even know her race, which, as I began reading, assumed was white. I was pretty much into the book before it dawned on me that the author was brown, when she began weaving into her narrative stories about her background and family.
Had I known this fact, would I still have selected this book?
I’d like to think so, but I can’t say for sure.
But I’m glad I did.
My eyes were opened wide to what Ms. Gay has experienced as both a minority and an obese person. Add Lesbian to the mix, she has won the trifecta of what can make a life a living hell.
Not only has the author experienced fat discrimination, but she has also had to navigate a world that still discriminates against brown people and other minorities.
Hunger is dark, somber, and mostly not hopeful.
While Gay does not offer diet advice – she warns readers that they should not read her memoir for “inspiration” – it was the impetus for this book.
So at least one reader has been “inspired.”
After writing Memoir Madness, I swore up and down that since the rest of my life has been relatively normal (translation: too boring for readers), I would not inflict my minute woes on a general audience.
I mean, how could my experience as an entitled white woman ever top Ms. Gay’s experience as a fat Lesbian Brown American?
But after reading Gay’s painful account of her life, I realized that I needed to write this book, irrespective of audience interest –
I would write it, and maybe they would come – or not.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about White Privilege, perhaps because of Hunger and the current political climate, which has encouraged white nationalists and blatant racists to crawl out of their hidey holes and into the light.
Although this unearned perk favors me, a whiter than white person, it irks me that White Privilege exists.
It shouldn’t exist, but it does.
And while it’s obvious to people of color, most white people are clueless, preferring to believe that after 50-plus years of civil rights we should now dismantle the mechanisms currently in place to protect the rights of minorities.
Voting rights? Done.
Head Start programs? Don’t need them anymore.
Affirmative Action? Not fair to white people.
Improving racial attitudes? African Americans need to get over themselves and start pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and stop whining about systemic racism.
I hear this list of Civil Rights progress all the time, usually accompanied by a long sigh and the ubiquitous eye roll.
Of course, much progress has been made, but I fear that this era of regression, which, if allowed to continue its current trajectory, may spark another Civil War and spell the doom of this country.
Let’s just consider some ways in which being white affords people an easier passage through American life.
As someone who experiences White Privilege, I will never be pulled over by the police while driving White. In fact, I have never been pulled over at all (knock on wood), and I have been driving for over 40 years.
If I am pulled over – because of a real infraction – I’m probably not going to get beat up, shot, or even killed. I might just get a warning, especially if I am young, female, and beautiful (Youth Privilege?).
When I shop, I will never be tailed by store security while being White. If I am caught stealing, it’s because security saw me stuff merchandise under my blouse. Chances are, I would get off easier than an African-American male, perhaps even just a warning.
If I am ever questioned by the police regarding a crime, the officers will not automatically assume I’m guilty of something nefarious just because of the color of my skin – they will study the evidence to decide if I’m a suspect. If I am convicted of a crime, I am more likely to receive a lighter sentence than an African-American woman.
No one will ever cross the street because he or she fears me, even if I’m wearing a hoodie and eating Skittles in the “wrong” neighborhood.
No one would ever claim that I was awarded my Fulbright just because of my whiteness. I can be reasonably assured that others believe that I earned that award because of my carefully-prepared application, good references, teaching experience, and writing talent, not because of my skin color.
No one would question my intelligence based on my white skin – unlike the brilliant President Obama who suffered an onslaught of insults and abuse from white-trash bumpkins because of his skin color.
Even though I can acknowledge the existence of White Privilege, I have no idea what it would be like to drive a car or walking while being Black – I mean, really know. Feel it –
Although, early last spring, I got a small taste of what it must be like going through life without White Privilege.
It so unnerved me that I posted about the experience, both on Facebook and my main blog Like This Page:
Today, I got an inkling of what it must be like being an African American in the United States of America.
It was cold and raw today, so I wore my hoodie and mittens.
As I was checking my phone before finishing up my walk, I heard this angry voice behind me:
“Hello? Hello? Can I help you with something?”
At first, I ignored it – he couldn’t possibly be speaking to me. I didn’t know him, and he had no reason to speak to me like that.
Again, he yelled, “I said, ‘Hello, can I help you with something?’”
Confused, I turned around, and said, “No, I’m fine.”
A young man – maybe mid-20’s – in shorts and a tee-shirt, stopped short, obviously embarrassed. He slunk away.
Why this happened didn’t hit me until I was about two blocks away; yes, this is what it’s like being white in America – on a visceral level, we just don’t get what African Americans experience every day.
It took me two blocks to figure it all out, and that is sad.
So what does White Privilege have to do with Thin Privilege?
While there are major differences between the two Privileges, there are some significant similarities.
I’m an expert when it comes to Thin Privilege: I have both enjoyed it and been denied it – mostly denied, given that a disproportionate part of my life has been spent existing while fat.
Thin people glide through life effortlessly, at least on a superficial level – this is not to say that life is all roses and smiles for the Thin – thin people still have bills to pay, children to raise, careers to manage, problems to solve, and marriages to work at – but the Fat have a whole other level to navigate, which I have discussed in Spring: Fat Woman Body.
As I write this chapter, I am technically a thin person, so I now experience Thin Privilege.
I would define Thin Privilege as a societal perk experienced by people who are deemed to be average size – you’ll know it when you see it – just as White Privilege has been granted de facto upon by white people by virtue of their skin color, not by their characters and actual accomplishments.
As a thin person, I have shucked a cloak of unwanted visibility – I can “pass” as an average person, I can weave in and out of a crowd without drawing negative attention – or any other kind of attention. At first contact, my body size no longer defines me, unless I choose to emphasize my exterior – if I want to be “visible,” I can dress the part by wearing flamboyant or even slinky and revealing outfits. Given my natural inclination toward shyness and modesty, this isn’t a likely scenario. But that’s not the point – the point is: I am now able to choose when, how, where – or if – I want to be visible.
I can blend or stand out – I can choose to not be preoccupied with my size and shape and concentrate on my real interests and hobbies, for example, writing this book.
In short, I no longer need to worry about being judged because of my size.
For anyone who has never been fat, this may not seem to be a big deal, but I assure you that it is – the fact that my size is not the first thing people notice is such a relief; how I present myself is totally up to me, not by my dimensions.
Thin Privilege means being able to pay reasonable prices for my size of clothing, and I can expect to find stylish clothes in any department or discount store – no more shops or departments specializing in plus-sizes.
Thin people are viewed as being more intelligent, energetic, and ambitious than their fat peers. Also, thin people are not perceived as looking sloppy or unprofessional based solely on their size. As a result, thin people are more likely to be promoted at work and given larger raises.
I no longer receive unwanted suggestions from friends, family, and even strangers about joining a weight-loss program. If anything, people are now likely to push more food my way, along with a concerned warning not to overdo my weight-loss. “Surely you can eat whatever you want now,” they’ll say as they shove a piece of chocolate cake under my nose.
Uh, no. It doesn’t work that way for a Fat Woman Walking.
As a thin person going to the doctor, I no longer dread the scale, even though I swear that my doctor’s office has set its scale at least five pounds too heavy. My doctor no longer automatically monitors me for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or other “weight-related” maladies. If anything, she warns me not to lose any more weight. “You’re perfect just the way you are.” – music to my ears, although I would still like to shed that last five pounds.
Shhh! Don’t narc me out.
The media don’t describe my thinness as part of an “epidemic” – a bit too breathless of a pronouncement, in my opinion, regarding larger body shapes.
Not all heavy people are unhealthy, just as not all thin people enjoy robust health.
I no longer need to scope out public spaces to make certain that I will fit into them – I fit into all chairs, with or without arms, and the narrowest of restaurant booths. If anything, wooden and metal chairs just about kill my tailbone and back – okay, now I’m just complaining about minor inconveniences suffered by thin people.
A thin person can navigate a buffet line and pile her plate as high as possible, and no scrutinizing food police will come a-calling. In fact, she will receive looks of admiration, tinged with envy that say, “That lucky duck can eat whatever she wants!”
Note that I use the third person here because if I eat whatever I want, I can expect to gain at least five pounds. Overnight. And kick in an indefinite binge, perhaps lasting years.
Thin Privilege can have its downsides as well – for one, unwanted sexual attention by strangers and peers. Even women “of a certain age” have experienced inappropriate comments by men who, somehow, believe that all women are fair game and that “Take a Hike” doesn’t apply to them. Even as a thin female senior citizen, I’m no great beauty, but that doesn’t seem to matter – my thin body seems to attract the skeezy underside of the opposite sex.
I don’t think I’m unique in that matter.
As a fat person, I didn’t get that kind of uncalled-for attention, although some very obese women have discovered – and cashed in on – a subculture of men who have a fetish for watching obese women eat and strip naked online. – certainly, a worthy topic for someone other than me.
White and Thin Privilege share this commonality: both are based solely on superficial attributes: skin color and body size, nothing more.
Those who do not enjoy Privilege of either kind are treated differently, and not in positive ways, and those who enjoy both are often unaware of how easily they glide through life, at the expense of non-privileged folks.
While I have somewhat of an insight into the existence of White Privilege, I cannot really know and feel, on a visceral level, its lack – all I can do: remain aware and vigilant about my own beliefs, biases, prejudices, racism (yes, even self-aware people are still prejudiced and racist, at least on some level), and to constantly question my own motives and knee-jerk reactions to uncomfortable situations.
One cannot earn “White Privilege”: you either have it or not – it has been automatically granted or denied, based solely on skin color.
Of course not, but that’s what happens in the United States of America.
Depending on circumstances, “Thin Privilege” can be “earned,” by the process of losing weight, but, often, it is unearned – if someone has been thin for her entire life, then she has no idea what it is like not experiencing Thin Privilege, except to think,
“There by the grace of God, go I.”
Let’s now consider some ways in which being white, albeit still fat, offers an easier passage through American life.
As a fat white person, I will never be pulled over by the police while driving Fat.
If I am pulled over – because of a real infraction – I’m probably not going to get beat up, shot, or even killed. I will likely get a ticket and, perhaps, an accompanying eyeroll, but I will leave the encounter pretty much intact, albeit a lighter wallet and a few points on my driving record. As I said earlier, a thin, white person could very well get a warning instead of a ticket, especially if the offender is also pretty and young – once again, Youth Privilege?
When I shop, I might be tailed by store security while being Fat – but only if my size raises suspicions of merchandise hidden under my clothing. Even so, unless I am caught stuffing stolen goods under my blouse, I will not be apprehended. If I am caught, I would likely get off easier than an African-American male, perhaps even just a warning – that is, if it’s a first offense.
If I am ever questioned by the police regarding a crime, the officers will not automatically assume I’m guilty of something nefarious just because I’m fat – they will study the evidence to decide if I’m a suspect. If I am convicted of a crime, I am more likely to receive a lighter sentence than an African-American woman.
No one will ever cross the street because he or she fears me, even if I’m wearing a hoodie, although I might be mocked for eating Skittles while walking Fat.
No one would ever claim that I was awarded my Fulbright just because of my fatness. I can be reasonably assured that others believe that I earned that award because of my carefully-prepared application, good references, teaching experience, and writing talent, not because of my size, although some unenlightened folks might wonder how a fat person could win any prestigious award.
While being Fat, job applicants or employees may be passed over for jobs or promotions – such prejudice is subtle and largely unprovable, but fat people recognize it when they experience it.
Unlike minorities, fat people are not protected by Federal, State, or Local law.
Unfortunately, some privileged folks might question, on a subconscious level, the intelligence of fat people – this is borne out in popular media (TV, movies, books, and comics), where fat people are often depicted as lazy, stupid, bumbling, unaware, and/or comedic – something shared with African Americans.
As a chubby elementary school pupil, I was treated as if I had limited intelligence, especially after moving to Iowa from California, where the 1950’s public school system was in deep financial trouble – in second grade, I was going to school for only half days – lagging far behind the excellent Catholic school system in Sioux City I found myself trying to navigate. It was only after my sixth-grade teacher discovered my advanced reading level that I was no longer labelled as “slow.” To my chagrin, I was assigned more challenging work.
I have always “enjoyed” White Privilege; I don’t know any differently – it would be too easy to assume that my human experience is universally enjoyed, to stick my head in the sand, and not acknowledge the truth of the black experience in daily American life.
But I have also been denied “Thin Privilege” – certainly not as powerful as “White Privilege” and, with its lack, not as potentially fatal.
Long after I have finished reading Hunger, the book has stuck with me – I cannot fathom how Roxane Gay has navigated her life with her triple whammy, quadruple if you add “woman.”
Yet she has managed to carve out a significant writing career, two best sellers, and a rigorous public speaking tour, all while being African American, Lesbian, Fat – and Female – no way does she intend to fold up her tent and hide.
Unlike the fat me, who pretty much hid from public life.
Part of that may have to do with my natural shyness and reticence – though I am more outgoing as a thin person.
Still, I’ll never win any awards for being Ms. Social Butterfly of the Year.
While writing about my journey has helped tremendously, I must recognize that my experience pales that of Roxane Gay’s.
Quite simply, in life, I was dealt a more conventional hand.
I must continue writing about my experience – my pain is still my pain – but I now do so knowing that my journey toward physical and mental health will be less fraught with traumas, and, therefore, the burden I carry will be lighter.
I can only imagine the heavy burden borne by Ms. Gay – I admire her fortitude and unwillingness to allow White and Thin Privilege to stop her from what she wants out of her life.
I admire her.
I highly recommend Hunger.
(1) Hauser, Christine and Jacey Fortin. The New York Times, “‘We Only Kill Black People,’ Police Officer Says During Traffic Stop,” 30 August 2017.