LINGERING

Posted in Rants on October 3rd, 2012 by Ed

Tuesday's unofficial viral video of the day featured a Wisconsin newscaster responding on air to an emailer who chastised her for being fat (hence a "bad role model, especially for young girls.") You can see the entirety of the email and the response here, or watch the video below:

Really there isn't much to say about this and certainly not much I can add. The complaining viewer is an asshat, the response is accurate, and so on. You get it and you don't need it explained.

There was a specific part of her response, though, that really struck me. She noted that children are far more likely to pick up bad examples from Mom and Dad criticizing everyone on TV than from seeing a fat person. At one point she says, "If you are at home and talking about the fat news lady, guess what? Your children are probably going to go to school and call someone fat." While I don't know if that specific statement is true – it's qualified, and I'm fairly certain that there's more that goes into becoming a bully than this – it certainly is true that kids internalize these "lessons" pretty damn well. Even when we get older and (in some cases) mature to a point at which we know better, it's difficult to shake the kinds of biases that are pounded into us before we even realize it.

I heard Kyle Kinane tell a joke once (possibly to be included on his next special) about being in South Korea, wandering around Seoul during the summer and randomly noticing that very few people were wearing sunglasses. "And I'm thinking why in the hell don't Koreans wear sunglasses? Oh, right, it's probably because their eyes are….oh, son of a bitch, now I'm racist." He's probably dressing up this anecdote for the sake of comedy, but it's funny because we can all identify with it. We think this kind of shit all the time. We don't intend to. We're not all horrible people. We're just raised in a cloud of it and it becomes part of our thought process even if we actively reject it.

I don't consider myself a racist – which is precisely what a racist would say, I suppose – but like many people I was raised in and around a staggering amount of racist crap. When I was young, that stuff was everywhere: at school, at home, in the neighborhood, and so on. I sincerely doubt that I am alone here, even if we are reluctant to admit it, or that this is exclusive to white people. It's hard to overstate how difficult it is to unlearn this stuff once it sinks in…and a solid 15+ years of it allows plenty of time for it to do so.

I'm 33 years old, highly educated (on paper), and at a point in my life at which I am trying actively to be less of an asshole all the time. Yet I still find the things I was taught (intentionally or otherwise) when I was five running through my head on a regular basis. We aren't born thinking "Oh god, look at that fat person. How disgusting." We learn it over time in a society filled with people who teach is to judge everyone, all the time, according to whatever biases we find appropriate.

Now, a couple things here. First, I'm not claiming that this gives people carte blanche to be offensive; "Oh my parents were racist, so I say racist shit all the time. Not my fault." You can hide behind that until adolescence, at which point you are cognitively capable of understanding how other people feel, what prejudices are, and when you are entertaining thoughts better not thought and certainly best not said. It doesn't matter how often grandpappy said the n-word, you remain capable of removing it from your vocabulary and thought process. Second, I'm not proud of the fact that I catch myself thinking offensive crap sometimes – sexist, racist, homophobic, and otherwise biased things that I consciously reject as an adult – but I'm not ashamed to admit it. Unlearning what we were raised to believe is a continuous process, and besides, don't act like it never happens to you. If you really want to post that long, self-righteous comment about how you would never entertain such thoughts, briefly reflect on the odds against that before hitting Submit.

Strangers on TV aren't the reason people think overweight people are ugly or gross or lazy or bad people or anything else; we think that because it's taught to us. Even if we know better with age, this stuff is like a stain on a carpet – even after you remove it, it's still there. You never really eliminate all traces of it. All of those things we learned from the people around us – inerrant laws about other racial groups, reasons women are bitches, methods of detecting gays (and why it's so important to do so), kinds of people who are worth less than Us – are maddeningly persistent. It's unfortunate that so many of us lack sufficiently developed senses of self awareness to recognize that if the fat woman bothers you, she's not the one with a problem.