Content Warning: this post discusses anti-Black racism and fatphobia throughout. There is also mention of eating disorders in paragraph 5.
Systems of oppression are problematic for an obvious reason—they actively cause harm via structural and systemic violence. “Structural violence” is a term that has been widely adopted in the humanities and social sciences to describe the violence enacted through our economic, legal, political, religious, and cultural social systems. Our social systems (that is, the actual arrangements of our social world) are violent because they cause injury and harm. Poverty, for example, is a form of structural violence in which those lacking financial security are prevented from meeting their basic needs. The fact that poverty disproportionately affects Indigenous, Black and other nonwhite populations is a further form of racist structural violence.
More than this direct harm of structural violence, though, systems of oppression are particularly pernicious because they obscure our ability to understand the oppression we hope to dismantle.
Activists and scholars have long been pointing out that accurate depictions of systemic violence often fail to achieve an appropriate response. This is for a number of reasons. Social institutions are built on racial and colonial violence, and these social systems are only able to function as intended through the maintenance of historical injustices. On top of this, as individuals, people are not well-equipped to recognize the oppression that exists in these systems. This means those who occupy positions of privilege must rely on the testimony of others to inform them how injustice plays out on the ground. However, people (especially more privileged people) are not good at this, either. Accounts of systemic violence are often unbelievable to privileged folks who hear these accounts. Ignorance, then, is bolstered and maintained through systems of oppression.
All this leads to structural and group-based misunderstandings about the actual details of oppressive systems, and therefore, perpetuates systemic violence. A particularly salient explanation of this is found in Da’Shaun Harrison’s book Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness. Harrison gives an account of anti-fatness emerging as a manifestation of anti-Black racism: anti-fatness is anti-Blackness, and those occupying socially privileged positions almost always fail to see that this is the case. (Go read Da’Shaun Harrison’s book—they speak powerfully and clearly about these issues!).
Popular depictions of the harms of anti-fatness focus on the media’s obsession with thin bodies: the harms are blows to self-esteem, the physical harms of cyclical dieting, and the ways anti-fatness contributes to eating disorders. It is true that these are all harms of anti-fatness, but it is telling that the harms we hear about are those affecting thin and white people.
The reality is that anti-fatness dehumanizes those who do not meet what some might call ‘standards of beauty’—this dehumanization is extremely violent, and leaks into virtually all our social institutions. (For an informative, albeit harrowing, account of medical fatphobia, see Marquisele Mercedes’ essay on the fatphobic legacy of our healthcare systems). It is important to recognize, as many scholars have highlighted, these so called ‘beauty standards’ do not measure anything except proximity to whiteness.
This racial violence of anti-fatness is often dismissed by more privileged individuals. If the only problems a person can see are those that are most likely to affect them, then white and thin people are unlikely to recognize the core of the violent systems that surround them. Thin/white folks, then, tend to focus on the harms of anti-Blackness only as it affects them (that is, as anti-fatness).
Harrison calls these residual harms. White people who experience the harms of anti-fatness “experience the ramifications of a violence that was created through colonialism and white supremacy.” This experience, recall, only occurs “at the hand of anti-Blackness,” which is to say white folks experiencing anti-fatness “are experiencing the residue of their own violence.”
This is all to point out that privilege often obscures the violence of oppression. An appropriately aimed social intervention, then, must recognize that the most salient harms enacted through structural violence are the residual harms of oppression. This recognition, of course, does not solve our problems. We need activism and social movements to elevate the voices of those who experience systemic violence most harshly. More than this, we need mechanisms through which we can take these voices seriously to enact appropriate social change. If it seems like we have few tools at our disposal to reform our current systems, then perhaps we should heed the advice of Da’Shaun Harrison and the many scholars and activists who stand with them: real solidarity requires a commitment to destroying the World through which we are all are actively harmed.