Monday, December 24, 2012

Prejudice, in all its forms

When I lived abroad, people tended to make a lot of assumptions about me based on their generalizations or stereotypes about foreigners from America. I figured when I returned to the U.S., this would stop. However, it turned out that people are still making assumptions based on generalizations or stereotypes, they are just doing so with a different set of them.

Several weeks ago, I met an new acquaintance of my husband's at a coffee shop for the first time. At the early stage of our conversation, we were discussing size differences in beverages. The country I used to live in did not offer "venti" size drinks, but it did offer "short" ones. This talk about everything being bigger, including the spaces around the tables, in the U.S. prompted this new acquaintance to mention how large the people in America were. Clearly, she was referring to weight.

As a way of handling this somewhat derogatory remark, I mentioned that I felt American weight issues were largely linked to acculturation. We are acclimated to larger portions and find them natural and normal. My husband also pointed to his drink and said that it cost a mere 20 cents more to go from a large to a venti so you are economically encouraged to have more. We proceeded to discuss how the cost of food products is largely wrapped up in marketing, packaging, and sales and that the cost of the actual food you are consuming is such a small percentage that there is much more profit in getting you to fork over an extra dime or quarter for more food because of this.

This new acquaintance, who I actually really like and I was not offended by what she said at all, in large part because she accepted what I said about food and culture with a thoughtful mindset rather than a defensive one, made assumptions about me based on how she saw me as I am now. I'm fat, for sure, but she's also a little overweight. She was looking at me as a "normal fat" rather than an "abnormal fat" and had no idea that she was talking to someone who used to weigh 380 lbs. and who has lived most of her adult life over 300. If she had known, my guess is she never would have casually remarked about how large Americans are to me within the first 3 minutes of having met me.

It isn't only about weight that I've found people are reaching conclusions about me. My sister-in-law has had several conversations with me in which she's has taken to "educating" me about a variety of things which she has no experience with and that I have, shall we say, copious experience with. The absurdity of her telling me what it is like for people to grow up with an alcoholic parent, in poverty, or to be around seriously mentally ill was hysterically ridiculous.

It's as if she just can't hold the thoughts in her mind that I grew up incredibly poor, surrounded by dysfunction, worked with seriously mentally ill people, and with an alcoholic father when she looks at me. She simply can't reconcile whatever image she holds of the present me with a person who lived that life and takes to talking to me as if I were an idiot who can't possibly understand or empathize with the difficulties of the people she is talking about. I've literally had to repeat each of these points at least 3 times during various discussions to make her understand that I'm not some middle class entitled person (which, ironically, she is) who has landed on these shores after an exciting and privileged life abroad. I've worked hard, suffered greatly, and came from absolutely nothing.

The intransigence of the stereotypes and generalizations people form about another person based on present day limited knowledge is something I find very frustrating, especially since people instantly believe my life was an easy one. They see me as middle class economically (even though currently I have no income at all), educated, and out of touch with the difficulties of minorities and the poor. The idea of "white privilege" is all around me and people speak as if I have no idea what it is like to be a minority and to experience prejudice. They assume I don't know what it is like to be judged on sight, rejected based on skin color, or have doors closed to me based on ethnicity.

 I spent 23 years being gawked at, insulted, talked about, turned away, and having my opportunities severely limited because I was in a country where more than 99% of the people were not like me. I think I do have some idea what it is like to be part of a minority. What is more, I spent about 20 years of my life at home in America being marginalized because of my weight. I have always been part of an oppressed minority, at least up until now. But, people don't see that, and won't even believe it when I tell them, because they cannot break out of the thought box their generalizations about me lock them in.

I find that I was less frustrated by the prejudices I experienced abroad than the preconceived notions I experience back home. Part of the reason for that is that my former home abroad is not a country in which people are educated about prejudice and how not to act on it. Part of it is that I disconnected emotionally from those people as a survival mechanism and could do so because they saw me as outside and I could see myself that way. Here, the perceived inclusion is stifling because I'm in an individualistic culture which is fiercely intent on pigeonholing me as something other than an individual. Even when I assert clearly that I am not what people perceive me to be, they push back or refuse to see who I truly am in favor of their notions.

One of the sources of my depression has been a deep disappointment and frustration at how I am perceived and how I did not expect to have this sort of thing happen. While I did not expect people to look at me and assume I used to be much more overweight, I did expect them to at least be open-minded to the fact that I can't be sized up with little more than a look. People used to think I was a lazy, donut-scoffing pig before based merely on my looks. Now, they think I'm some easy-living, entitled, spoiled middle-aged white lady. Perhaps I was naive in thinking that losing weight would change the way people reach conclusions based on appearances. The cursory judgement didn't end. The conclusions people tend to reach just changed, and they're not really for the better in my experiences. They still diminish me. They still serve to elevate others at my expense. They still are shallow and self-serving.

13 comments:

justjuliebean said...

I think you're asking too much of people. Seems to me it's human nature to categorize people, and since looks are most prominent feature, that's what it's based on.

screaming fatgirl said...

I didn't expect the acquaintance not to make a derogatory comment based on size. I do expect people not to believe they know who I am by looking at me. I also expect them to accept what I say when I tell them about myself, not to have to insist on it three times.

Categories are one thing. Stereotypes that are meant to diminish are quite another. These people aren't trying to understand me. They are trying to elevate themselves at my expense. If I were to do this (look upon a minority person or a disenfranchised person) and "categorize" them according to a diminishing set of attributes, I would be labeled as a bigot. However, it's okay for people to do it to me and continue to do it to me in the face of new information which should change their initial perception? Really?

However, you are probably right. I do expect too much of people. Clearly, most are incapable of accepting people for who they are or waiting to see who they are rather than inflicting their stereotypes on them.

Escape Pod said...

Of course it's exasperating to have someone insist on their preconceptions of you. But I also think many of us know people who are in full self-deception mode, and we've learned not to simply accept what they tell us about themselves.
I also think most people, whether they realize it or not, spend a lot of time comparing themselves to others, and identifying characteristics they think make them superior. Why do so many of us need this to boost our self-esteem? I don't know the answer to that, but it seems to be extremely common.
For me, the trick is to figure out why I care. Why do I care whether someone really understands me, or is constructing a false view of me based on their own perceptions and stereotypes? I'm working on caring less about what others are thinking about me, and caring more about what I think about me, and how I treat others. I can't say I'm good at it yet, but when I practice it, life is a lot less stressful and frustrating!

screaming fatgirl said...

I care because I don't like being regarded as if I don't know things I know incredibly well. I care because I don't like people looking at me and thinking they know and understand me with a glance.

The latter has been with me all of my life in the worst possible way. When I was much heavier (which was the case for the vast majority of my adult life), this cursory summation of me meant that regarded me with overt disgust, often made critical comments, and tormented me openly. Being the victim for so many years of such summary estimation perhaps has left me sensitive to it even now. I don't like being underestimated whether it be based on my fatness or my skin color. To think I've lead some easy life (or continue to do so because I'm white and walking around in a certain place at a certain time is just as wrong as believing I'm lazy, stupid and gluttonous because I'm fat.

I care because, most of all, this is a major contributor to destructive behavior in the world and if people would pause and consider applying the same depth of experience to others that they'd like to have applied to themselves, we'd live in a much more humanistic and compassionate world. That is not a pipe dream, but merely a reflection of what I believe would be the case if we stopped pigeon-holing people as a means of coping with our own psychological issues.

Jackie said...

Hey SFG,

I am so sorry to hear about this (though quite selfishly glad to see you posting, as I love to read your writing).

Two thoughts come to mind:

First, in my experience, depression is so all-sapping of energy (emotional, spiritual and physical) that slights and offenses take on an exponentially worse quality. Unfortunately.

Second, I think that most people think that there will be some kind of "worth it" effect in first-impression perception after losing weight. In some cases there is, and the "halo effect" kicks in. But not always.

In my experience, the same people who labelled you "donut munching seacow" earlier will be the same ones who will think "born on Easy Street" now that you're skinnier.

These kind of people, (in my observation at least), have a kind of built-in "lens of deficient empathy" as the way through which they view the world.

People used to think I was not very smart ("ditz" was the term) because of my manner and presentation. It used to bother me until I read this from Hillel, I think:

"We don't see things the way they are; we see them the way *we* are."

The trick, then, is navigating your way through the world, despite it all.

I've had to learn to let some things go; in other cases stand and fight the battle. You will definitely be in my thoughts, SFG, and I hope 2013 is more peaceful for you.

Jackie said...

Hey SFG,

I am so sorry to hear about this (though quite selfishly glad to see you posting, as I love to read your writing).

Two thoughts come to mind:

First, in my experience, depression is so all-sapping of energy (emotional, spiritual and physical) that slights and offenses take on an exponentially worse quality. Unfortunately.

Second, I think that most people think that there will be some kind of "worth it" effect in first-impression perception after losing weight. In some cases there is, and the "halo effect" kicks in. But not always.

In my experience, the same people who labelled you "donut munching seacow" earlier will be the same ones who will think "born on Easy Street" now that you're skinnier.

These kind of people, (in my observation at least), have a kind of built-in "lens of deficient empathy" as the way through which they view the world.

People used to think I was not very smart ("ditz" was the term) because of my manner and presentation. It used to bother me until I read this from Hillel, I think:

"We don't see things the way they are; we see them the way *we* are."

The trick, then, is navigating your way through the world, despite it all.

I've had to learn to let some things go; in other cases stand and fight the battle. You will definitely be in my thoughts, SFG, and I hope 2013 is more peaceful for you.

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Jackie, and thank you for your comment. There is a lot of wisdom in there and I appreciate your sharing it.

You are right that depression is very sapping. The strange thing is that I don't necessarily feel "slighted" so much as "willfully misunderstood". I think that a lifetime of being pigeon-holed has exhausted me. I never believed in the whole "if I lose weight, all of my problems would be solved" fantasy, but perhaps I naively believed that the knee-jerk underestimation of me would stop. I see now that it just occurs from a different footing.

It is, of course, quite true that we don't see people, but see ourselves. That would be fine, if all of that projection weren't a collective weight taxing my limited capacity to cope at this time.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

I am curious about your perspectives and thoughts as to WHY so many human beings seem to persist in "...pigeon holing people as a means of coping with our own psychological issues..." rather than conversing together (respectfully) with an orientation towards achieving mutual understanding?

"justjuliebean" suggests that "...it's human nature to categorize" one another, yet you see this behavior as more than that--as more akin to disrespectful behaviors (using "stereotypes") "...meant to diminish..." other people. I agree with you, and I see this form of disrespect (this failure to recognize...and this failure to empathize) as a manifestation of widespread (learned) social domination that has become almost habitual (to the point where it's barely noticed or acknowledged).

It feels like a "disappointment" for you---to be seeing these kinds of distressing (destructive) social behaviors from a different (changed) point of view (e.g., from a different position of social status---or at least from a differently perceived position of social status), but please give yourself more compassion and recognition for all that you are accomplishing each time you choose to socially engage with others rather than choosing to remain socially isolated (and hence more insulated from potential social jabs.) The latter choice requires far less courage. I should know.

Brava for choosing the scarier (more uncomfortable) route! That's where the real (lasting) learning happens.

--hopefulandfree

Jackie said...

Hi again SFG,

I really appreciate hearing back from you and truly hope things improve. I think depression is the WORST-- it's just so soul-draining that it's the biggest Catch-22. In order to get yourself out of it, you need to muster up the strength that the D. sapped in the first place. :(

I had two ideas for you, SFG:

1) captainawkward.com

It's an advice column with so many great scripts for dealing with people like your SIL. I have also started to read "The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense" which looks quite promising.

2) I can't remember if you're in the Pacific NW, but if you are the lack of sunlight and Vitamin D can really contribute to depression. There are lamps you can buy on Amazon that can really help.

This isn't a suggestion, per se: In my experience, finding a good therapist/counselor at times of massive transition has really helped. Initially, it was hard to justify the cost but it ended up being some of best money I've ever spent.

Again, my best wishes and good luck, SFG! I think you are just terrific and have learned so much from your website. :)

screaming fatgirl said...

hopeful and free: I think that humans developed the need to stereotype as a defense mechanism. It springs from the same evolutionary roots as prejudice. There was a time in human history when being able to quickly sum up a person and decide if he or she would be friend or foe aided in survival. However, just like other aspects of our evolutionary heritage, this is something that education, culture, and personal growth can assist us in overcoming. The sticking point is that you have to want to not be a slave to your biological tendencies. Writing them off as what everyone does or seeing them as inevitable is a shoulder shrug of indifference.

The interesting thing is that we don't allow people to cop out in this fashion when it comes to racial prejudice. We hold them accountable and insist they be socially responsible and equitable, but we don't apply this to other forms of stereotyping or other "isms". It's okay to look at a guy and think he's a dumb redneck or a woman and think she's a stuck up snob, but it's not okay to think a black person is (apply racially offensive characteristics stereotype here). If we can overcome one, we can overcome others, but we have to want to rather than lazily indulge our baser impulses.

Regarding engaging with people, I'm simply tired of being a screen onto which people project their issues. Where I lived before, stereotypes and prejudice were projected on me, but I could let that bounce off more easily because they were coming from an obvious place of ignorance. Here, well, people aren't ignorant so much as intransigent. When I dealt with people one to one in the Asia country I lived in and I told them that I was not what they believed me to be, they accepted that. They didn't insist upon their version of me. Imagine how it feels to be dealing with people who speak the same language as me and persist in holding onto their views despite ample evidence to the contrary!

At the moment, I don't see persisting with such people as anything other than a Quixotic attempt to educate them in who I am. Frankly, the conclusion I'm reaching is that there is absolutely no value in doing so. Rather than fight their misconceptions, I will permit them to persist in the comfort of them and move on. Those who can't internalize what I have to say aren't worth my investment in time or energy. I don't say that dismissively or as a way to devalue them as people (each person has equal value), but rather to say that I will allow the relationships I have with such people to stay in a holding pattern rather than to build deeper understanding and intimacy. You can't change people, especially when they are trying so hard to hang on to their worldviews.

Jackie: Thank you for your advice. The web site you recommended certainly looks interesting.

I would say that, right now, I'm "disillusioned" with my home culture. I think that I imagined things as being better than they are in the absence of experience to the contrary. It wasn't exactly "the grass is greener" thinking so much as not having to deal with people in a certain way for a long time. My depression has largely lifted by now, so I won't be seeking therapy, but, in general, I think it is good advice to do so.

Thank you so much for reading and for your kind comments, both of you!

Anonymous said...

Your acquaintance's comment was, however, mere fact. Americans are large in comparison to people from pretty much every other country on Earth. Our portions, conditioning, increasingly sedentary lifestyle, reliance on new drugs to save us from our self-induced health issues, and reliance on processed convenience foods, gullibility to the "bargain" of a 32-ounce cup of soda as opposed to a 16-ounce cup, etc. are easily observable and concrete reasons that Americans are large and getting larger. You state you're "not offended" by your acquaintance's comment, but you refer to it as "derogatory" (even though what she said is nothing more than plainly stated fact) and then go on for six-plus long paragraphs about stereotypes. Again: no one gets to be 380 lbs by eating 1500 calories of grilled chicken and green vegetables and doing meaningful exercise for 30 minutes a day. Again: Americans are very inactive and very overfed, and very dependent on/addicted to gigantic coffee drinks and platters of cheap, cheese-covered food that are absolutely alien to people from other cultures, as your expatriate experience has made acutely clear. I am not sure what your conclusion/point is, here. She didn't criticize your menu choice, she is overweight (and, I assume, aware that she is overweight) herself, and merely remarked upon how easy it is to eat too much of the wrong foods way too often.

screaming fatgirl said...

Anonymous:

Her comment was intended as "derogatory". The snark was there. She clearly meant it as a way of scoffing at people. I wasn't offended, as I said, but it was intended as a way of saying something negative about people based on body size. It may be a fact, but how one asserts something conveys intent. Her intent was clear.

You're also thinking I was drinking something which could have been criticized. I drank regular coffee. She drank a large hot chocolate with some sort of peppermint syrup added in. My husband had a venti eggnog latte.

Also, you clearly have not read this blog and don't seem to know that I've lost 200 lbs. and no longer weigh 380 lbs. The reason that she made the comment to me is that she doesn't perceive me as being a member of the group she was making a snide comment about. I've been on the other side of this equation due to prejudice, which is why I "went on" about it.

screaming fatgirl said...

As a postscript, "anonymous", I can really feel your pain from self-hate. I hope that you find some value in this blog besides using it as a target to misdirect your anger. You unhappiness is very clear and I hope you find some peace.