15 March 2012

Thinking about 'a response to white fat activism from People of Color in the fat justice movement'

A group of people of colour (POC) in the US affiliated with NOLOSE released a statement this week demanding that white people in fat activism take responsibility to make the movement more inclusive and diverse. Their comments are made in the light of problems with the activist response in the US to the Georgia billboard anti-obesity campaign. It includes the following section, but please go and read the whole thing.

a response to white fat activism from People of Color in the fat justice movement

Flying by the seat of your pants, when it comes to addressing the real concerns and questions around diversity and inclusion of POC in fat activist spaces or campaigns, will no longer be good enough.
  • POC in the fat justice movement deserve thoughtful and clear discussions around not just the intention of diversity and inclusion in the work you wish to do, but also the actual impact of the work within communities of color.
  • POC in the fat justice movement demand and deserve that white fat activists build authentic collaborations with communities of color and work as allies.
  • POC in the fat justice movement demand and deserve allies showing up to the table of our campaigns and work, rather than constantly being told they have made a place for us at theirs.
  • POC in the fat justice movement clarify that our allies will practice doing the work of learning about the histories and impacts of colonization and oppression on POC, seek other allies to learn from and with, be open to dialogue, taking feedback, and allowing people's firsthand experiences of racism to be the final and authoritative voice on the subject of impact to communities of color.
  • POC in the fat justice movement offer that through the work of authentic inclusivity, singular vision will become shared vision. Coalition will happen. Bridges will be mended and built.
We are looking forward to a stronger, more representational expression of fat community in which POC and poor people's voices are heard, their experiences are respected, and their work to strengthen their individual communities is supported just as they work to support others.


I support wholeheartedly the baseline value of not being a racist arse, and of working fat activism through inclusively, critically, reflexively, consciously and ethically. I appreciate that this statement has been produced constructively and with hope that this can happen.

In addition, I have two small reservations about the statement. There appears to be a universalising of identity by people who are diverse in some ways but not others, for example in terms of nationality, it is common for people in the US to speak for the whole world, and this is problematic. Perhaps a stronger statement would include alliances with people in other places. I also think that it would be helpful to bear in mind that the 'fat justice movement' is multiple and often ambiguous, rather than a fixed entity; there are many movements, and broad demands will need to be contextualised each time. For example, bringing a critical and anti-racist consciousness to the activism that involves a conversation with a friend in one time and place is going to be different to that which entails mobilising communities for a specific goal in another.

The NOLOSE statement isn't the first time that fat and queer people of colour have offered critiques of the movement, Tara Shuai's A Different Kind of Fat Rant: People of Color and the Fat Acceptance Movement from 2008 named areas of fat activism where there is endemic racism. I hope that in speaking up, NOLOSE and Shuai will encourage people to adopt more critical and conscious approaches to fat activism. I fear that it might be a long time until many fat activists, especially white people, are able to do that. I am afraid that people of colour will be forced to continue to do the hard work of consciousness raising, which is clearly unacceptable.

Meanwhile, I am grateful for Shuai's rant, and the NOLOSE statement, I think they are brave things to do in a context where critical viewpoints within the movement are not always welcome or forthcoming. I don't know why so many fat activists seem resistant or unable to engage critically and reflexively with what they do, but I see this happening a lot. Why is anti-racist practice and critical reflexivity treated like an afterthought, if at all? Do people leave their brains and consciences behind when they do fat activism? It seems that way. How could it be different? Perhaps through disseminating work that demonstrates there are many different ways of doing fat activism, including methods that foreground self-reflexivity and anti-racism? Through engaging with critical awareness more generally? Let's talk about this.

5 comments:

Devra said...

I so appreciate your opening this up to further dialogue here.

I wanted to say that two things about the section you quoted really resonated to me also in terms of American imperialism--so much of which is (obviously not exclusively, but so often) white American imperialism colonizing or culturally appropriating other nations and cultures of color. This came to mind specifically in remembering other American activist-led campaigns to change legislation in other countries:

POC in the fat justice movement deserve thoughtful and clear discussions around not just the intention of diversity and inclusion in the work you wish to do, but also the actual impact of the work within communities of color....

POC in the fat justice movement demand and deserve that white fat activists build authentic collaborations with communities of color and work as allies.


- I feel this missive is a critically important benchmark in fat activism. A call for no more armchair "grassroots" change made FOR "other" communities, but to create dialogue and working directly with people w/in regional communities to make changes on their/our own terms and per that communities' own needs--this was, written explicitly with communities of color in mind, but (see below) is also explicitly anti-imperialism, anti-colonization, and extends to an international model.

POC in the fat justice movement clarify that our allies will practice doing the work of learning about the histories and impacts of colonization and oppression on POC, seek other allies to learn from and with, be open to dialogue, taking feedback, and allowing people's firsthand experiences of racism to be the final and authoritative voice on the subject of impact to communities of color.

I don't want or mean to dilute the power of this statement (it gives me the chills every time I read it). I don't want to take this, strip it of its context and intent, the subject and audiences it's intended for. But I do feel it's a model that we cannot *only* think of in terms of activism and people of color--but a call to think BIGGER. It's a critique and call for a greater model that applies to how we are activists among our own cultures, the American tendency toward universalization of our (own) experiences and the American experience at large. The anti-imperialist intent and sentiment here is strong and so key to changing the models of activism to try and create more authentic grassroots movements and authentically bridge cultures.

Love and appreciation for this as a venue for this conversation.

s. h. said...

Do you have a working link on Tara Shuai's 2008 post? I know I read it when it came out, but I'd like to reread it and it looks like it's not there anymore ... I've looked around for it elsewhere but I'm not seeing anything.

Thanks!

s. h. said...

Nevermind! I just had to go to archive.org myself and then play around there and I eventually got to a crawl that had it.

Charlotte Cooper said...

s.h. There is a link to Tara's piece in the post. I might need to change my link appearance because they're getting lost in the current colour scheme.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Devra. Yes, you are right, the inclusion of anti-imperialism in the statement is very powerful. I hadn't thought about this in terms of the Georgia billboard campaign, before reading the NOLOSE statement, and it's spot on. I had missed the significance of anti-imperialism in the statement. Grassroots activism indeed! This reminds me of disability activism too, which has great critiques of medicalisation as a colonising force, and of course it's always there with fat, which is subject to so many horrendous interventions. It's not enough that people presume to act for the Other, there needs to be full engagement and it's bewildering to me why this isn't already happening. Surely engagement and critical awareness makes for stronger activism, why shirk on it?