Anti-Blackness as Anti-Fatness: An Interview with Da’Shaun L. Harrison
Da’Shaun L. Harrison’s recent book Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness is a call for revolution. “Out there is a reality where fat Black folks are experiencing the harms of anti-Blackness as anti-fatness,” they write; “Black liberation is the end goal, and for it to happen, fat liberation must also be part of that goal. Not ‘body positivity,’ but freedom” (3). To achieve such freedom, Harrison writes, we need to begin to reckon with the fact that racism and fatphobia are not only systemic issues, but are manifestations of the same corrosive belief: that of the Black body’s inferiority.
In their book, Harrison traces how fatness and Blackness refract through our ideas about desire, health, policing, and gender. These standards, they write, are not just “something the Black fat body has been removed from but rather [are] something created precisely for fat Black people, or the Black fat, to never have access to” (2). Because of this, Harrison argues, individually-oriented movements like the body positivity movement aren’t enough. Instead, we need to look further: to the systems created to devalue the Black body and, ultimately, to the assumptions on which those systems were built. As part of our series Fat Talk, Harrison corresponded with me about their new book and the entangled relationship between fatness and the Black body.
Eileen: You argue throughout the book that anti-Blackness and anti-fatness are not intersecting attitudes, but part of the same ideology—that they exist inside one another. Could you tell me more about that? How does that distinction affect the way we can start to address these issues?
Da’Shaun: Anti-fatness is anti-Blackness. It is the condition under which the Black fat is held captive to and by the World. Anti-Blackness creates the World and gives meaning to everything in it. So in other words, anti-fatness is the framework by which the (Black) fat subject is forced to be inhuman: an object, the Beast. It is the global structure that determines how we are engaged in life and death, as well as who lives and who dies. In this way, fatness — like Blackness — is always and already criminalized, penalized, objectified, marginalized, and defined by the libidinal economy [or the collective unconscious (or by society)].
This distinction is an important one because it makes clear that these ideologies do not and cannot exist independent of one another. To destroy one requires the destruction of the other. “Intersect” implies that they exist on their own and meet at a point; I’m suggesting that they have the same origin and, therefore, must have the same end.
Eileen: You make some brilliant connections between the War on Drugs and the War on Obesity. How have these movements asked Americans to orient fatness and Blackness in the public consciousness?
Da’Shaun: These wars have been the foundation for the propagandization of the public with the institutional backing of the U.S. government, government-funded science organizations, and the media. They’ve helped to cement centuries-old ideas about fatness as a killer, and Black people as killers (which is to say, both fatness and blackness are seen as criminal). The idea is that fatness, blackness, and black fatness are immoral, unjust, sinful, and unrighteous. How we are positioned in modern society must be explained, in large part, through these two wars.
Eileen: As you point out, one of the most urgent areas where the connections between anti-fatness and anti-Blackness are revealed is in police violence, especially against Black men. Cases like those of George Floyd and Eric Garner, for instance, reveal how fat Black people “experience police brutality at disproportionate rates because their ‘largeness’ coupled with their Blackness is read as dangerous, destructive, and inherently violent” (66). How does the shift you’re proposing in the book—understanding anti-fatness as anti-blackness—change our understanding of modern movements like Black Lives Matter? How can we respond differently to the structural violence of policing through this lens?
Da’Shaun: The Black Lives Matter movement was started, in many ways, as a rallying cry for the world — and, particularly, the police — to see us and our bodies as human, a plea for police to stop murdering us. Anti-fatness as anti-Blackness invites us to move away from the humanist understanding of state violence — and Black Death — as something that one can contend with by removing Black folks from the rest of their subjugated identities that erase the different modes of violence we experience. It is important to contextualize the compounded violence of anti-Blackness. Under anti-Black violence, we experience (trans)misogynoir, cis/heterosexism, ableism, anti-disfiguredness, and more. Anti-fatness as anti-Blackness seeks to clarify not only that there is an additional meaning of black as threat for the Black fat, but also that no Black subject can separate themselves from this reality.
In that way, anti-fatness as anti-Blackness also moves us away from the humanist understanding that our deaths can be contended with through pleading with state powers. If the foundation on which anti-fatness is made into a global structure is anti-Blackness (through slavery), then state powers are only capable of furthering that violence — not ending it. As such, this analysis or “shift” that I’m offering is an invitation to leave the desire to be Human behind and instead take interest in destroying anti-Blackness as a global structure.
Eileen: Fatness has felt so prominent in our public consciousness in the wake of COVID, especially with the inundation of messages to “lose the quarantine weight” and “get back in work clothes!” I couldn’t help but think of these messages while I read your chapter on desire and beauty. There, you ask, “What would it mean for us to lean into Insecurity as a political tool in which we free ourselves from insisting that we perform ‘perfection’ and total confidence in order to advocate for our collective liberation?” (17). How can we take advantage of this historical moment to claim insecurity—to go “beyond self love” to a place of liberation?
Da’Shaun: The COVID-19 pandemic has been a time of immense loss, great sadness, and separation from the ones we love. This sort of strain can cause bodies to change, to morph, to adjust. This could be a pivotal moment for us to find a home in the body we have, to move away from punishing our bodies for being what we see as imperfect and towards an understanding of perfection as violent. That’s the framework I’m applying to Insecurity as a tool. If anti-Blackness, anti-fatness, and Desire/ability are what determine what is and is not “flawed,” we owe it to ourselves — and others — to break away from these violent structures. This moment calls for us to denounce Desire and Beauty altogether and to commit to destroying these concepts entirely.
Eileen Sperry holds a PhD in English Literature with a concentration in Cultural Studies. Her teaching and writing focus on early modern English literature, embodiment, and poetics. Her current book project explores death and decay in early modern lyrics.