Guest Post: Julia Ozog on Thin Privilege and Fat Activism

As a woman, I face an exorbitant amount of stress concerning the way I look – particularly how much I weigh. I’ve been trained from an early age to feel like most of my value comes from being thin and pretty, and even though I’ve spent much time intentionally unlearning those kinds of thoughts, I still feel haunted by the feeling that I’m not good enough if I’m not skinny enough. Most women are made to feel like they should take up as little space as possible, and that the best way to gain attention from men and respect from women is to be thin. However, even though much of my concern with being thin comes from the oppression of sexism, many of those feelings also come from my privilege as a thin person. I’m terrified to gain weight because there are very real societal and interpersonal privileges I’ve always had because I am thin. While I have never been heavy, I recently lost significant weight and became “skinny.” It’s hard for me to admit, but I’ve been scared to gain any of that weight back because I don’t want to face how people would think of me and treat me if I became fat. I recently realized that that fear is one reason why I know thin privilege exists.

As a social justice activist, I understand some of the emotional, psychological, physical, and economic injustices that fat folks face on a daily basis, but I’ve only recently started to acknowledge my privilege as a thin person, and hold myself accountable for my own oppression of fat people. (Note: the term “fat” is preferred by many fat activists over “overweight” because it can help the fat acceptance movement by “normalizing the neutrality and/or positivity of ‘fat’” – see more on this website). My perpetuation of fat phobia comes from my own insecurity and body image issues. For example, I remember an instance when I was skimming through photos online of a guy I had just started dating, and when I found pictures of him and his ex-girlfriend, I started comparing myself to her. (Disclaimer: I’m not proud of this act.) In response to my anxiety, a friend said something about how ‘I didn’t have to worry about her because she looked fat and I was way skinnier and prettier than her.’ I knew she was out of line, only trying to make me feel better despite her use of fat phobia, but the thing is: it did make me feel better. I know that I have a silent power from being thin, and I chose to use that power in that situation to make myself feel more secure about my new relationship. This power brought itself to my attention again recently: I gained some temporary weight a couple of months ago when I was prescribed steroids for a sinus infection, and I was so afraid of feeling unattractive, that I started asking my boyfriend multiple times a day if I looked fat, desperately hoping that the answer was “No.” I did these things to hold onto my privilege because it has been so ingrained in me that I am worth more skinny than I am fat. I realize how problematic my thinking was now that fat phobia and thin privilege have been brought to my attention.

I wanted to write this article on fat phobia because, as a social justice educator, I think that it is important for me to explore the difference in oppression that fat and thin women face. I started to write from a very academic standpoint. Though, I honestly had not learned much about fat phobia throughout my activist career, so I read articles written by fat activists to try and understand the systemic, institutional, and personal oppression that fat people face in our society. However, I have come to realize that, at this point, I personally understand fat phobia best through my own perpetuation of it. Thin privilege is a very real thing that I benefit from, and until I and other people holding that power acknowledge our privilege – and hold ourselves accountable to think about it – fat phobia will continue to exist. My thinness means that I’m often perceived as being fit, healthy, beautiful, and “normal,” because those qualities are associated with success in our culture. A quick flip through the pages of almost any magazine confirms that ultra-thin women receive respect and admiration for their bodies, while fat women are shamed mercilessly for their weight. Since the list of ways in which thin folks are benefited by thin privilege is way too long to cover here, I found this article helpful in understanding more ways that my thin privilege benefits me

Although it’s not my (or any one person’s) fault that fat phobia is so prevalent and harmful in our society, it is my responsibility as an aspiring ally to acknowledge my privilege and the ways in which I continue to oppress those around me. It’s not only unsupportive, but actively oppressive that I have used my thinness to feel superior to other women. I feel that acknowledging this shortsightedness is the first step in becoming more accountable in the social justice revolution. This issue is complicated, of course; however, it is unacceptable in our society that I, as a woman, feel like I have power based on my looks rather than my talent, intelligence, or other parts of my character. I’m still learning about fat activism and politics – and how to intentionally include fat phobia when teaching and learning about privilege and oppression; but I hope to continue this conversation and accountability with other activists.

 

Julia Ozog is an intersectionality feminist radical educator. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Social Thought and Political Economy program a year and a half ago, and currently lives outside of Boston. In college, she facilitated a community organizing class for undergraduates, which included subjects of privilege and oppression, identity politics, and social and economic justice through organizing. Julia’s passion is furthering social justice through liberatory education, and she is looking forward to continuing that work in the Boston area. For more of her written work (including another copy of this blog post), visit her blog at www.quiotgrrrl.com.

Guest Post: WTF? 10 Counterproductive Behaviors of Social Justice Educators

I have been struggling with how to do the work so many of us call “social justice.” I understand the why, or I at least think I do. I am on a journey to understand my role in changing the world, which is no doubt a privilege. It has taken me quite a while to get over the fear of doing the work correctly and instead, to begin operating from the heart and continuously challenge my perspective.

As I began to engage this work in a healthier manner, I noticed patterns of bad habits that we educators exhibit while actively being change agents. These habits, in the name of justice and equity, get in the way of making authentic, strategic, and sustaining change. Below are 10 counterproductive behaviors of social justice educators, all explored from the unique intersections of my privileged and oppressed lens.

 

1) Shaming our allies – Instead lets educate

It is important to be careful about how we hold others accountable. At times, we as educators fall into a righteous place, where we live in the moment to be right, but more so to impose the wrath of our rightness. We lose track of educating and become “social justice avengers.” We thrash anyone that makes mistakes or do not acknowledge their privilege, mostly out of ignorance. When we act like such, we instill fear and frustration in our allies, effectively immobilizing them. Before you respond or react, ask yourself what you want the result to be: proving that you are closer to “right,” or developing a stronger, more capable ally?

2) Lead with our oppressed identities – Forget that we have immense privilege too

How is it that we are some of the first people to forget that we are amazingly privileged? Our maleness, middle class, able bodies, Christianity, age, education, etc. oozes from our pores. It is our very being. And colluding is as simple as breathing in the gift of air. Let’s own our stuff – recognize and acknowledge when we have the wind behind us. Be committed to your growth and allow yourself to be challenged on the identities we often leave unexplored.

3) Create competition around being the best at “Social Justice” – Using language as a way to exclude

We all know individuals that lead conversations with big words and no context. After they are done speaking, most people are completely lost, and so is the message. Correct use of rhetoric is important, but we must be careful that it doesn’t become jargon. Additionally, we cannot become upset when we are asked to explain or define a handful of the words used or ideas explored. How often do we use language to exclude? How often is it intentional or unintentional? Does using the right and “smart sounding” language validate our being someway?

4) Leading with emotions, instead of thinking and acting strategically

How often do we sound off? For some of us, we lose our darn minds. There are moments where we can’t quite hold ourselves together; however, that cannot be our response most of the time (see self-healing below). As Arthur Chickering said, we must learn to manage our emotions. If we do not, it serves as more proof that we are not as developed as we would love to think we are. If we are going to do this work, we have to engage strategically with the end in mind. Our response needs to produce the results that we would like to see. Sometimes our response will show up as joy, compromise, understanding, and empathy. Other times, it will show up as frustration, anger, and disappointment. However, every response should have a purpose, which is a fine line between maintaining authenticity. We impede the fight for justice when we act out of thoughtless emotion.

5) Not acknowledging our self-work

We must acknowledge that we are a work in progress; we both challenge the oppressive systems and collude in them simultaneously. At every step, we have to understand that we are not the authority, but facilitators of dynamic conversations. We will often fall short. We are at times engaging from places with tremendous hurt and an abundance of privilege. It makes sense that we have off moments or are flat out missing something because of our privilege. We are not the best at allowing ourselves to be challenged. When we block our self-work, it means that we are no longer growing and we are modeling destructive behavior to others. For example, it is highly problematic to be an expert in gender identity and expression and have no understanding of the intersections of those identities within race and class.

6) Caught in constant surprise that people don’t know what we know – cultivate allies

This issue is something I see all the time, and often participate in: being absolutely blindsided by the amount of knowledge that my peers, students, and even superiors lack in regards to justice and equity. The definition of privilege is unearned, unasked for, and often invisible. If someone is oblivious to injustice, chances are they are blinded by their privilege. We know this, so why are we so surprised and disgusted when it happens? This is the work that we have committed our lives to. We have to develop thicker skins – not to say that we won’t ever be frustrated, shaken up, or even experience immense hurt and pain.  These moments will happen, but this activism is our calling. It is not supposed to be easy. At times, we are supposed to put the cause before ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, self-care is important; however we need to be in rooms and spaces where we are constantly and strategically raising the temperature. Meet students and colleagues where they are and challenge them to be more.

7) Choosing not to challenge family members and elders

This is just a Cody observation, but I noticed that quite a few communities give their elders a pass. We choose not to challenge them or set our expectations of them higher. However, we have absolutely no problem setting colleagues and strangers “straight.” Hypocrite, much? Yes, I understand that our elders may choose not to change, but since when are our conversations about changing minds? We should be about expanding thought and creating new questions, and I think this argument transcends age and authority. This work is hard and emotionally draining; however, we must be vigilant in all areas.

8) Marginalizing the courage it takes to allow your reality to be dismantled

Have you experienced that moment where everything that you thought you knew was ripped out of your hands? Scratch that – not hands, but your heart and soul? Everything that you hold true being constantly challenged and put on display? The way you viewed your family unit? When you discover your mother’s truth was just that: her truth? When your question transitions from who am I, to why am I? We are charged with dismantling the life experiences of many, knocking down the walls of resistance and ignorance, but additionally, moving with care and intentionality. Let’s never forget what we are asking people to do.

9) Refusing to hold multiple truths

How are we creating dynamic change if we do not allow ourselves to fully think through the pros and cons of ideas? How often are we truly weighing the greater good? I love film; watching and analyzing movies is certainly one of my favorite hobbies. Actors amaze me. Their gift can be mystically transformative, but I can hold multiple truths. Whoopi Goldberg is great in Ghost, and deserved an Oscar for her acting; however, if you broke down her character, you would see that it is a glorified Mammy caricature. Julia Roberts is absolutely charming in Pretty Woman, but is also led and dominated by the gender role that is “man.” Teach for America provides an experience where the privileged have an opportunity to engage oppressed communities. Many of these students will be policy makers and fall into influential positions. However, it also promotes the idea of the white savior (oops). We have to be able to engage multiple truths in order to move forward strategically. 

10) Challenging others to heal by “erasing their pain”

Stop! Please phrase this action differently. At times, we say this phrase to others as if they should forget their pain and move on. I’m certain that this is not our intent; however, on many occasions, it is the impact. We are effectively marginalizing their experiences. What I think we really want to encourage is exploring that pain – understanding the origins and the emotions in the now, and then figure out how to manage the pain and use it strategically for fuel to both continue the work, and grow in perspective.

 

This list is not exhaustive of behaviors, or meant to be a list that everyone agrees with. My hope is that it starts a much-needed conversation between educators. I think we have a lot of room to grow, and can do a better job of holding each other accountable. As social justice educators, we have all agreed to continue, to critique, and explore the problematic ways in which we show up into spaces. This post is to help start that conversation, and perhaps explore self-work practices. 

“If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”

― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

Cody Charles currently serves as an Associate Director of Multicultural Affairs at the University of Kansas. During his time at KU, he has led diversity and social justice trainings for much of the campus community, including student athletes, student executive boards, staff, faculty, and high school students. Cody was recognized by the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) as the Outstanding New Professional in Residence Life in 2008. One of his life goals is to travel the country lecturing on topics of social justice and leadership. You can connect with Cody on Twitter: @_codykeith_ or at consultcody.com.

Note: a version of this piece first appeared on Thought Catalog here

Guest Post: Marianne Snow on Duncan Tonatiuh’s Separate Is Never Equal

I received my copy of Duncan Tonatiuh’s new picture book, Separate Is Never Equal, the other day.

 

This book presents the true story of Sylvia Mendez, a Latina elementary school student, whose family and neighbors successfully challenged Anglo/Mexican segregation in California schools in the 1940s.

Sylvia Mendez (center) and artifacts of Anglo/Mexican segregation and integration.

Back then, many districts forced dark-skinned Mexican-American students to attend dilapidated, underfunded schools, while white and lighter-skinned Mexican-American children enjoyed well-kept buildings, new books, and better educational opportunities. (One might argue that many students of color face the same inequities today, but that’s a different subject.) Fortunately, the families’ lawsuit against the district was successful, and the schools were integrated.

(For more information about the historical background of the book, see this PBS video.)

After I read the book, I knew I had to share it with Araceli (pseudonym), an 11-year-old Latina aspiring civil rights lawyer. Having lived for years in a neighborhood affected by poverty and racial tension, Araceli has vowed to commit her life to social justice. Instead of just ignoring the problems that surround her, she wants to make a difference now and as an adult. So, I wasn’t surprised when she devoured Separate Is Never Equal.

This incident illustrates the importance of sharing a wide variety of justice-themed children’s literature with kids. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about the self to prototype matching theory (Setterlund & Niedenthal, 1993), which basically, in the context of social justice activism, means that a person:

  1. Imagines what a “typical” (or prototype) social justice activist looks and acts like,
  2. Compares him/herself to that prototype, and
  3. Decides whether he/she can be like that prototype.

One of Separate Is Never Equal’s great strengths is its introduction of a young, Latina, activist prototype – something that we don’t see very often in children’s literature. Most justice-themed books that I know of have focused on male civil rights leaders – Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, John Lewis, César Chávez – and, of course, these books are vastly important; however, children need to see even more diversity in justice-themed literature so that they can have role models who share their cultural and experiential backgrounds. All children, regardless of their age, gender, or cultural/ethnic background, need to know that they can stand up for social justice.

This collage is beautiful.  Let’s add to it! (via naacp-oh.org)

This collage is beautiful. Let’s add to it!

Another feature of this book that I greatly appreciate is its focus on Anglo/Mexican segregation and civil rights, a facet of U.S. history that is often ignored. I grew up in Texas and never once remember hearing about these dark days in the Southwest. Instead, we only learned about Dr. King and African-American Civil Rights, and while kids obviously should continue learning about that movement, they also need to know about other struggles for social justice.

So, if you’re a teacher or parent, I urge you to carefully select children’s literature, like Separate Is Never Equal, that provides the kids in your life with social justice role models from various backgrounds.  You never know who you’ll inspire!

References

Setterlund, M. B., & Niedenthal, P. M. (1993). “Who am I? Why am I here?” Self-esteem, self-

clarity, and prototype matching. Personality and Social Psychology, 65(4), 769-780.

Tonatiuh, D. (2014). Separate is never equal. New York, NY: Abrams.

 

Marianne Snow, a former early childhood teacher, is currently working on her PhD in literacy education. Her research interests include Latin@, Latin American, and nonfiction children’s literature. In her spare time, she blogs at Getting Critical with Children’s Literature about books, critical literacy, multicultural education, and social justice issues.

Living in a patriarchal society: Not “another feminist rant”

Patriarchy” is a touchy subject. It comes up at dinner and its speaker becomes the enemy. It is posted on Facebook, and the poster becomes the attacker. If it’s linked on Reddit, it gets downvoted into oblivion. People scare away from discussing patriarchy because it leads to conversational war — social suicide — — negative Nancy’s, Debbie downers, and the like.

On one hand, we [Westerners] live in a patriarchal society (Note: the purpose of this post is not to argue that we live in a patriarchal society, as I think that is a fact and not “up for argument.” However, if you do, please post below and I’ll write a response). On the other hand, America has progressed since the 1950s. However, just as other -isms persist, evidence of sexism proves we are not living in equal times.

According to a University of Miami study, one’s high school GPA affects his or her income — and women, despite GPA, make significantly less money than men. Here is the chart:

Image

Before anyone gets too worked up, this study was conducted by Michael T. French for Eastern Economic Journal. It was not a study searching for patriarchal data or to back up a feminist ideal. As the chart demonstrates, “the data indicate that overall high school GPA is significantly higher among women, but men have significantly higher annual earnings.” Many other interesting findings arose from this study. For instance, “it demonstrates that African-American men and women attain higher educational levels than white students with the same high school GPA and background characteristics.”

Like any study, not all the details are posted. I do not know which jobs or incomes are compared to one another. Despite this fact, though, the study is yet another piece of the puzzle pointing to our patriarchal system. It explains why I am excited at the prospect of our first female president (we don’t get excited about the fact that a president is a man…unless he is of color). It helps explain why I get excited when a female CEO is named (again: no one ever talks about the gender of a CEO if he is a man). The markings, even, of our language demonstrate patriarchal ideologies.

Please, do everyone a favor (especially yourself), and watch the following video, if you haven’t already. It is a Tedx Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie titled “We Should All Be Feminists.” She is a brilliant speaker who puts into eloquent words everything else I’d want to say in this post. The video is funny, informative, and interesting — I promise.

A professor of mine once said her favorite definition of feminism was this: “men and women are of equal worth.” I loved that, as it is all, as a feminist, that I could ask for.

 

“Kids” doing big things…

“Kids” doing big things…

A while back, I received the following email from Zak Kolar, a high school senior, asking me to post his website on my blog. Although it took some time, I am living up to my promise — check it out; he is doing some great things for a person so young. Here is his message:

Dear Ms. Whitley,

My name is Zak Kolar and I am a senior in high school. Over the past few months, I have been working on a website called “How many is that?”: http://www.howmanyisthat.org. The purpose of the site is to take large numbers associated with social justice issues and compare them with local information to put them into perspective. For example, there are 66 million girls in the world who do not have access to education. Athens, GA has a population of 116,084. 66 million people would be about 569 Athenses. The goal of How many is that? is to make it easier to see how these human rights violations have affected people as individuals, and not just faceless statistics, ultimately inspiring action to prevent them from happening in the future. I think that How many is that? is a good educational resource because it can be used to get people’s attention about human rights issues when they realize the magnitude of these tragedies. I was hoping that you would consider posting a link to “How many is that?” on your “For students” or “For teachers” pages. Also, I have many social and historical issues presented on my site (e.g. bullying, domestic violence, genocide), so if there are any issues that you would like me to publish on my website, please let me know and I would be happy to add them.

Thank you!

Zak

Wow. I am definitely inspired.

Nelson Mandela: A Leader in Social Justice

One person can change the world.

I feel that I cannot write an entire post on the life of Nelson Mandela — to do so would not be enough. That, and I am not enlightened to his entire life’s work. I have no words for the impact this man had on the world. He is the embodiment of the fight for social justice, and therefore deserves a tribute in a blog for social justice. I am thankful for his continued impact on our history, and feel that the best way to honor him is to post some encouragement for us, as aspiring activists, in hopes that we follow suit.

With that said, his life was controversial. I understand that. However, no one can deny the positive impact he had on our world.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.

Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.

Let freedom reign. The sun never set on so glorious a human achievement.