In Which I Ramble About Privilege

Yeah. I’m still here, folks. Sorry about the inadvertent hiatus. I had a job interview last week (it went great; yay!) and I was helping my mom ring in her 45th year (Happy Birthday, Mom!), so I got a bit sidetracked.

But y’all know I’ve been keeping up with the Fatosphere.

So, I (as I’m sure many other people have) read Aunt Fattie’s column yesterday. Outside of the various insightful comments, one term kept popping up frequently: privilege.

It’s something I think a lot about, this privilege, because it’s something that, in my self-acceptance journey, I have become more conscious of. And it extends way beyond fat privilege for me, because I’m also Black.

See, what folks don’t realize is that there’s a hierarchy in the Black community when it comes to fat AND when it comes to skin color.

Now, it seems to be the general idea that the Black community is more accepting of fat folks (if you want my view on that as it pertains to dating Black men, click here.) It really isn’t true, we just tend to describe it a bit differently. You have skinny, then thick, then fat (and many different words to describe what comes between). In my experience, it’s been the “thick” that’s most coveted, but that’s strictly what I see (YMMV). Now, a thick girl may not understand the issues I face as a fat woman, but she’s not as privileged as say, the skinny woman. However, the skinny woman might say that the thick woman has it better because she has more curves (yes folks, I’ve witnessed this discussion.) and so on. All this to say, there’s issues at every size.

But now, I never really thought about the color hierarchy until I focused on the fat hierarchy. For example: my freshman year of high school, my best friend was a fat, dark-skinned girl. She was awesome, and we got along so well. I looked smaller than she, but that’s because I was taller. We both wore the same size.

One day, I overheard a group of boys talking about she and I, and one guy pipes up “Wait, who’s T.?”

Other dude: “Oh, that’s the big, fat crispy (in reference to skin tone) girl that hangs around FashionableNerd.”

First dude: “Oh, hell, that chick is ugly! So I know FN has to be fucked up in the face to hang around her.”

Other dude: “Nah, man, she’s a light-skinned chick. Long hair and stuff. She ain’t all that skinny, but she’s alright.”

Notice how my skin color trumped my fat? I didn’t think about it then, as I was too busy laying a sound barrage of foul language on the boys for speaking of my friend in such a manner (if y’all think I have a filthy mouth NOW…let me tell you, this is a kinder, gentler me compared to then, yo). But when I started reading more discussions about White privilege and fat privilege and so on, I realized that racial and size privilege runs so much deeper than folks realized. T and I were the SAME SIZE, but they saw her dark skin AND fat. Me? Just my skin color. Which amazes me, because, what–you can be fat and lighter skinned, and that’s cool, but a pox on your house if you have nerve enough to be both fat AND darker skinned? Boggles the mind, y’all.

The older and more militant I became, the more I noticed the color privilege I had. I would always get compliments on my “beautiful, light brown skin”, when I’d have an equally gorgeous cocoa-colored friend sitting right next to me being ignored. Coupled with the long hair I had then, I’d get random IGNORANT questions about “what I was mixed with” because clearly, my Blackness ain’t enough to garner beauty. I have to fit some European ideal, and so my mom or dad has to be White, right? {This isn’t a shot at White people, just the beauty ideal. End disclaimer.}

But besides the shunning I noticed, I found that some of my darker-skinned friends were ashamed of their skin color, much as some fat people are conditioned to be ashamed of their fat. For example, my friend A. and I wanted to go out one weekend and have some fun.  When I suggested the beach (I was living in Florida at the time), she said, “Girl, no! I can’t afford to get any darker than I already am!”

Me: “What the—wait, WHAT?”

A.: “Come on now. YOU can get darker, you’re already light. I can’t get any darker, men won’t want me.”

A. is this gorgeous modelesque woman with long dark hair and coffee colored skin. Her body wasn’t keeping her from the beach, her skin tone was, and I was just amazed at that. In fact, I figured I’d be having a hard time cause, whoa, fat chick in bathing suit! But like most folks with privilege, I never even thought skin color would be an issue. It shouldn’t be an issue at all, but the more we as a society lean more towards the European beauty ideal, the more prevalent the issue will become.

But don’t think that the lighter skinned Black woman has it easier, now. IntellectualFeminist and I had a convo awhile back about skin tone and how it affected us when we were younger. She is much fairer than myself with jewel-green eyes. Where I’d get questions about what I was “mixed with”, she’d get questions asking “what ARE you”, as if she was some newly discovered creature. But then, it’s often I would see some of the fairer Blacks be discounted in some conversations surrounding racism and the Black experience, because they weren’t “Black enough” to count. I’d find myself telling her, oh, but I know EXACTLY how you feel, but seriously? I don’t, and she called me out on that, as she should have. See how messy and tangled the world of privilege is?

I think, that in the quest of understanding one another, both inter-racially and intra-racially (did I invent words here? if so, sorry, but I think y’all get my drift) we have to look at the various levels of privilege that we may have. It isn’t a perfect solution, if one would even call it a solution at all. But it is a tactic, and one folks would do well to try out sometime.

30 Responses to “In Which I Ramble About Privilege”

  1. 1 nuckingfutz
    July 1, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    I love made up words! Made up words FTW!!! 😉

    I know I’m White Whitey McWhiterson (totally stole that from somebody, but can’t remember who or I’d give them credit), but what you’re saying about the hierarchy of skin color? I noticed that at age 14 when I went to high school in Chicago – the first time I remember being in a school that had anything other than white people. I’m looking at all these people (and while it seemed to affect the boys, it was WAY worse with the girls) and I’m thinking “WTF?!?!” I just didn’t get it – yeah, they were different, but I thought they each had their own kind of beauty. (But I will totally admit that I’m the kind of person that actively LOOKS for the beauty in people, so maybe I just saw it easier than most.) I can’t say that I have ANY idea what it feels like, but I saw it. And it made NO fucking sense to me whatsoever.

    (I think that the fact that I was living in a group home that had 90% black residents might have had something to do with that, too, though. Those girls taught me a lot.)

    I wouldn’t go so far as to call examining different levels of privilege a “solution”… but maybe a step to FINDING a solution? It’s definitely a hell of a lot better than just ignoring it all.

  2. 2 fillyjonk
    July 1, 2008 at 4:36 pm

    Great post. I was about to say that male privilege was the only one I could think of that was a binary, but that’s bull — obviously you get greater privilege the more masculine you are (though it’s a little more complex because there are certain benefits, though not privileges, to being very feminine, and consequences to being masculine as a woman).

  3. July 1, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    I could smooch you today. Right now.

    Also you were totally not making up words. I will probably talk about this too just not today.

  4. 4 sweetmachine
    July 1, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    This is a great post and shows how complex these kinds of hierarchies can get.

    Happy birthday, your mom!

  5. 5 Becky
    July 1, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    That was a really interesting post.

  6. July 1, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    I think the first time I became really aware of color hierarchy (something I, as one of the Transparent Peoples was unlikely to run across organically) was while watching an episode of the sadly short-lived Tim Ried series Frank’s Place.

    Frank (Ried) had been invited to join an African American men’s club and was all for it until the very dark skinned waitress from the restaurant he owned pulled him into the back and started telling him the history of the club and how membership had long been determined by the ‘paper bag test.’ When Frank asked what that was, the waitress held up a paper grocery bag against her skin and said: “which one is darker? The bag or me?”

    It turned out the invitation had been issued by some radical members of the club who wanted to open the door to their darker-skinned brothers. When Frank turned down the membership he told them:”All my life, I’ve been the First Black. First Black on my high school football team, First Black valedectorian, First Black in xx major at my college. I draw the line at being the First Black in an all black club.”

    People speak of prejudice and privelege as though it’s always binary: black/white, male/female, fat/thin, but the subject is always more complex and more tangled than the binary model can express. I think it’s good to try to discuss it in full recognition that nothing in life is as simple, as neat, or as fair as we would like it to be.

  7. July 1, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    Thankies, thankies all for the pleasant comments. And if my mom fully understood what a blog was, SM, she’d say thankies too! 🙂

    It’s a odd feeling, nuckingfutz, to be reminded of the color hierarchy. When I studied African-American history, I learned a lot about how lighter skinned Blacks and darker skinned blacks were marginalized. It was a tactic to keep Blacks from unifying. When you have someone remind you (in general, not in a derogatory manner) that you would pass the paper-bag test (ahem, if one is lighter or darker than a paper bag), it kinda opens your eyes to how twisted our culture has been. I’m just glad we’re trying to untie the knots.

  8. 8 Piffle
    July 1, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    Another Whitey, Whitey, McWhiteser (irish/scots–red hair and all) here to say that I really appreciate discussions like this; because there’s just no other way for me to start to understand. I’ll just sit and listen and learn.

    PS. I think I’ve seen vesta44 do the name thing with Fatty Fatty McFatty so she and nuckingfutz are the ones I’m emulating.

  9. 9 withoutscene
    July 1, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    I don’t really have anything to add, but great post!

  10. 10 Bree
    July 1, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    You might have something on being fat and light-skinned. I’m biracial (although my features are prominently more “black”) and fat, and it’s been years since I have experienced any ridicule towards my skin color or my size. I joke that I look like Halle Berry’s before picture.

  11. 11 littlem
    July 1, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    “I joke that I look like Halle Berry’s before picture.”

    Happy birthday, your mom.

    HAYULL of a post.

    One day, I overheard a group of boys talking about she and I, and one guy pipes up “Wait, who’s T.?”

    Other dude: “Oh, that’s the big, fat crispy (in reference to skin tone) girl that hangs around FashionableNerd.”

    First dude: “Oh, hell, that chick is ugly! So I know FN has to be fucked up in the face to hang around her.”

    Other dude: “Nah, man, she’s a light-skinned chick. Long hair and stuff. She ain’t all that skinny, but she’s alright.”


    *runs screaming*

    “she’d get questions asking “what ARE you”, as if she was some newly discovered creature”

    *runs screaming from forcibly repressed memories*

    *realizes it’s 2008*
    *overwhelming surge of rage*

    *falls out*

  12. July 1, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    *calls ambulance*

    While we wait on help to get to littlem, I’m gonna touch on something I didn’t in the post. It kinda amazes me the terms we have in the Black community for our skin color. Crispy might be used to define the darkest ebony, “light bright” (a term which I am guilty of using and have since stopped) for those on the lighter end of the spectrum, and so on and so forth. When I was much younger, I was known as “high yella” (spelled that way because it’s how my Southern family pronounced it). Which begs the question: as opposed to, say, low yella? And WTF does that even look like?

    Since I’ve abandoned my usage of “light bright,” I tend to explore skin color in food terms. It’s quite a bit nicer than being refered to as a toy, don’tcha think? 🙂

    *watches repressed memory paramedics place littlem in ambulance*

    She’ll be just fine folks.

  13. 13 em
    July 1, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    (clueless outsider)

    I’ve heard “high yellow”, it comes up in song lyrics and historical fiction. I’ve never heard crispy and wouldn’t have the vaguest idea what it meant!

  14. July 1, 2008 at 9:07 pm

    As another Whitey McWhitersons, I also want to thank you for explaining to me what “thick” means. In my forays through online dating I’ve been bewildered by men who say that they like “thick women” but not “BBWs”.

  15. 15 MayDarling
    July 1, 2008 at 10:05 pm

    Yo. This one touched a friggin’ nerve, I must say.

    A white co-worker and myself got into this discussion today. She has a preference for black/latino men and is currently dating a black man. Her dude happens to be on the lighter side of the spectrum. And she asked me if any kids they would have would be dark. I, of course, said, hell yeah, it’s not only possible, but probable. And she semi-freaked out.

    I was slightly offended by that. But I digress.

    Then she said that her b/f’s mother and other brother were “dark.” The brother happens to be Michael Jordan’s shade (which is a very delicious cocoa brown) and the mother was “as dark as you (me).”

    Funny. In my ordinary travels, never have I been described as “dark.”

    I have heard “medium brown”, “hershey colored”, “red-brown”, “a nice in-between”, etc.

    In other words, not “too” dark and not “too” light. About the shade that folks aspire to when they tan. The kind of color that old-timers would describe as if ya brown, stick around.

    I even had a Nigerian co-worker of mine talk about getting some sort of skin-lightening so she could be my shade. How much did that shit freak me out?!

    But today’s episode brought home to me how much privilege I enjoy by being squarely in the middle color-wise and even size-wise (as an in-betweenie, previously discussed in a more fluff comment). And how with a misplaced? word was my privilege stripped away. The minutae of shades that I (and probably 99.5% of black folk) see were distilled into one simple binary.

    Boggled the mind to put that perspective on for a minute.

    And when I saw your post today…dang.

    Clearly a meme to be thoroughly examined as it is floating about in the wind.

  16. July 1, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    LOL @ “What are you??” I’m another one of those Whitey McWhitersons (albeit German, so talking on an international level I am often the one who has no idea what people are on about), but I remember that as a child I was once asked, “What country are you from?” – because they figured that since I have dark hair and dark eyes, I must be an immigrant or something! I think I even got that several times. The “what are you” situation happens quite often with gender, though. That must be embarrassing.

    Anyway, thank you for this post. I’m discovering whole new worlds as I read more about this topic.

  17. July 1, 2008 at 11:53 pm

    Ah, yes, Fatgirlonadate. The elusive “thick” category. For those not used to seeing the term, I’d compare it with “inbetweenie” as far as size is concerned. Not thin, but not fat. I find “thick” to be up there with “height/weight porportionate” (what in the chartruse hell IS that?)–they’re in that limbo of size, if you will.

    And MayDarling? Skin lightening creams are a continual sore spot of mine. Seriously. It’s right there with the other, ahem, “ethnic” hair care items in the Wal-Mart. I suppose while I’m relaxing my hair I can bleach my skin too. 🙄 On the flip side, however, I had a young White woman come up to me one day and ask me what tanning oil I used to get my skin this color. *holds head* I wasn’t offended, I was just bewildered. Years later, I still am at a loss when I think about it.

  18. July 1, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    Somebody MY AGE has a DAUGHTER who wrote something THIS AMAZING?

    **CLONK** Is there room in littlem’s ambulance for me?

    Damn, I knew white people marginalized and prejudged each other all the time according to skin tone (or ethnicity), and I had some idea that it happened among black people too, but this is the most vivid portrayal I’ve read of it happening in modern times, thanks.

    Frank’s Place! I loooooved that show, it was way ahead of its time and I was hopping mad that they canceled it. Thanks, Twistie, for the reminder.

  19. July 2, 2008 at 12:33 am

    Heh. I’ll make a phone call for the ambulance to turn around, Meowser. And I’m blushing at the compliment–thanks! 😀

    Unfortunately, the whole color hierarchy hasn’t changed much even in modern times, even though the paper bag test isn’t used anymore. But even in pop culture the references are there. In fact, in a Kanye West song called “School Spirit”, he has a line that goes

    I’ma get on this tv, momma
    I’ma, I’ma put shit down
    I’ma make sure these light skinned *@*&!@ never ever come back in style

    Yes. Light-skinned is totally a trend, y’all. But what that stems from is that some Black women won’t date darker skinned men(and the inverse is true as well.)

    About this show called Frank’s Place. I heard about it once when I was watching a documentary. How long did it last? I’m kinda sad that I didn’t get to see it (was I even old enough to have been able to watch and understand?)

  20. July 2, 2008 at 1:11 am

    Frank’s Place was on CBS for one season, 1987-88. No DVD or other home video exists, unfortunately. When it does I will be all over it. I think part of the reason it didn’t do that well in the ratings is because audiences were expecting it to be a straight sitcom and for Tim Reid to be a Venus Flytrap-like character like he was in the WKRP series from the 1970s. Instead, it was a sophisticated “dramedy” with no laugh-track and some pretty incisive political stuff (along with some hilarious comedy) — like I said, way ahead of its time, although I think the M*A*S*H audience would have come around to it if the network had given it more of a chance. This was before Fox, before the WB/UPN/CW network, before there was ever much in the way of original programming on cable. In that setting it probably would have done really well, I think. Sigh.

  21. July 2, 2008 at 1:18 am

    Wow. That sounds like my style of show. And nope, I wasn’t remotely old enough to understand it. (I would have been 2 turning 3 at the time). It probably wouldn’t have lasted long in this day and age either, considering some of the asinine programming they have out nowadays. Maybe in the mid to late 90s, it would have been awesome.

  22. 22 Carleigh
    July 2, 2008 at 2:58 am

    Thank you for writing this.
    I hate being asked “What are you?” I get asked that both because of my physical appearance and my Serbian last name. (I find it increasingly hard to answer politely.) I assume it’s mostly because I’m a small woman, so most people feel like they have the right to say anything they want to me at any time.

  23. July 2, 2008 at 10:08 am

    Oh man, this post is f’reals. As a woman of indian origin, the same bias marginalization exists. As if arranged marriages weren’t already a way to dictate a woman’s life how about having your worth decided by whether or not you were light-skinned or dark, and worthy of love. Just goes to show that these ‘ hiearchies ‘ are a lot more complex that we realize. Awesome post!

  24. July 2, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Carleigh, I tend to not answer politely when folks ask me “what are you mixed with.” I simply reply: “My mama and my daddy,” and that quiets the foolishness.

  25. 25 sso
    July 2, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    I’ve been a frequent recipient of the “What ARE you?” remark, usually accompanied by some type of puzzled expression. I am half Asian and half Hispanic, for the record. My mother (Asian side) told me that pale skin was valued when she was growing up in Taiwan, and her mother would always tell her to stay out of the sun to stay fair. My dad’s side of the family has pretty dark skin, though it seems to have skipped him. I’m darker than my dad, but lighter than his family (who still live in Peru). Fortunately, my mom does not ascribe to my grandmother’s view of skin color. I’ve always rather enjoyed my “permanent” suntan.

  26. 26 i_geek
    July 2, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    I HATE the “What ARE you? question. I’m half white, half Latina (Mom is of Northern European ancestry, Dad is of Mexican ancestry) and have light olive skin with really dark eyes and dark hair. When I was younger, people would get in my face and play “guess the gene pool”. Not a one has ever guessed correctly. I’ve gotten everything from French to Spanish to Italian, Greek, Russian, Lebanese, and even Israeli. Now that I’m older I find that attempting to join a people of color group results in a number of members asking me “What ARE you?” in a rather hostile manner, which I read as “You’re not welcome here, you’re white.” Well, yeah, I’m light-skinned, but my dad’s not white. At this point I’m not sure if I even know what I am.

    I don’t know why the hell people care so much about classifying/ranking people on how they look. My best friend is fully Vietnamese and was born in Vietnam to parents who are obviously Vietnamese. Because she’s curvier than the Asian stereotype, she fields all kinds of questions and comments that she must not be all Vietnamese, she’s probably half-French, and I think there have even been insinuations about paternity (which is a huge insult against her amazing mom).

  27. 27 intellectualfeminist
    July 5, 2008 at 11:41 pm

    Fashionablenerd, you already know this but I love you and not just a little! In my family we are the international tree of love, as I like to call it. I find that the racial binary is one of those things that essentially means nothing, but everyone knows about it and refuses to let it go. I think that’s what amazes me the most. People cling so much to these made up categories, that’s its really difficult for me to talk about it. People tend to spend so much time categorizing me that they don’t realize how silly it all really is.

    On another note, in your list of light skinned nicknames you left out my personal favorite, “red” or “redbone”, which I catch a lot. I hate that. What I hate even more is that this seems to be some sort of invitation for the “I have Native American in my family” response, which if I were full blooded native american would irritate me to know end. But maybe that’s just me. Anyhoo, there’s my two sense. This is such a sensitive and confusing subject for me. Thanks for writing about it!

  28. 28 DiosaNegra1967
    July 7, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    o fashionable one: great post! i tried to explain this to my best friend (who’s alabaster mcpaley – LOL) and she’s weirded out by this….she just can’t wrap her head around WHY color or skin tone can “trump” fat….and, on occasion looks!

  29. 29 DiosaNegra1967
    July 7, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    oh i almost forgot: hair texture and length can also “trump” fat…..when my hair was longer, teh menz couldn’t leave me alone…..but once i cut it and went natural….fuggetaboutit!

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