Robin Kelley on Why the Struggle for Justice Will Never End

Recently I listened to an episode of Throughline called “There are No Utopias.” It features a long interview with the historian Robin Kelley, who is an expert on social movements in the United States and is well known for his critiques of capitalism as it relates to race. He has also published widely on Black American art, music, and culture.

Listening to this Throughline episode inspired me to start writing some of my podcast-listener thoughts again, and there were several things in this episode that struck me. First, I learned some really interesting things about the labor movement during the Cold War. I already had a general sense of a backlash against labor in which it was construed as “anti-American,” but I wasn’t aware of the ways in which labor was actually empowered — or felt empowered — during the Cold War. And that came from a couple different angles: the feeling of connection to a global movement of working people, on the one hand, and the pro-labor policies and laws enacted by FDR on the other.

Kelley outlines this bit of history — how, during the Great Depression, Communist organizers were able to mobilize farmers and workers in Alabama, thanks to a confluence of events and circumstances — in order to give us some rich historical context for the ongoing struggle of Amazon workers in Bessemer to unionize. In the process, he gives us a much clearer understanding of why and how that effort was so energizing.

Another thing I really appreciated about this episode of Throughline was the way it helped me to think about my own teaching, especially when I have to teach Marx. As someone with a rudimentary understanding of critical race theory and its critique of how institutions can reproduce racial inequalities in income, health, education, and other areas, I have a fairly clear picture of some of the intersections between race and class. But when it comes to the idea of racial capitalism, my conceptualizations are a little more vague and intuitive (in part because I have not done enough of my own homework in this). So listening to Robin Kelley talk through his ideas was really helpful.

In discussing Cedric Robinson’s concept of racial capitalism, Kelley says:

“Cedric is fond of quoting Otis Madison, who was a colleague of his, who basically says, you know, racism wasn’t created for Black people. For Black people, guns and tanks are sufficient. It was created for white people to convince them – right? – that somehow you need to be on the side of the people who exploit you, you know? And that is the magic of racial capitalism. The secret to racial capitalism is a capacity to, once again, capture white working people who are convinced that somehow being white is a thing and that they deserve some things as a result of it. And yet it ends up exploiting them as well, but differentially.”

This concept wasn’t new to me, but it was useful to hear it explained in this way, because I think, then, you can begin to see specific manifestations of it. For example, a 2020 New Yorker article, “A Preventable Cancer is on the Rise in Alabama,” describes a panel of working class white men in Tennessee who state that they are opposed to government services such as Medicaid – while at the same time, they admit to benefiting from those exact same services. So they were opposed to the same services they said they benefited from. The article does not describe this contradiction explicitly in terms of racial capitalism, but this is one lens through which this contradiction could be understood. The panelists described their concerns about how, with “government” programs, people on welfare and “illegal mothertruckers” benefit from such services at the expense of “ordinary” Americans. The racial connotations of those sentiments are as clear as day.

In essence, the New Yorker article theorizes that the reason poor and working class white people are against such services boils down to racism and the fear that “others” will also benefit from them. The author mentions a book called Dying of Whiteness, which argues that “people who voiced such views, fuelled by racial animosity and ‘the toxic effects of dogma,’ ended up supporting policies that put their own lives at risk.”

I’m not sure this is a perfect illustration of how I understand racial capitalism, because it is focused more on state services rather than private capital and the exploitation of labor. But Kelley’s description of Robinson’s definition, above, feels relevant because it’s an example of white people acquiescing to their own oppression as a result of having been “captured” by the idea that whiteness is a thing, and that they deserve some things as a result of it. (More to come below, however, on how Kelley links the role of the state to the idea of racial capitalism.)

When I teach Marx, I try to show how the link between race and class is much more complex than it might seem on the surface. One way of interrogating this, I think, is to look at the ways corporations appropriate the discourse of things like Black History Month and, in recent years, Black Lives Matter, in their advertising; and then look into what their labor practices are actually like. And this is how the episode of Throughline opens before introducing Kelley. The co-host Ramtin Arablouei says, after presenting a compilation of saccharine Black History Month themed ads:

“These are all advertisements from AT&T, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Google and Peloton for Black History Month. And this is just the start. There are so many more of these ads you can find easily online. They feature Black Americans on the move, working hard, laughing, being inspired. Sometimes we see historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks in them. They are reminders that these companies want consumers to believe that they very much care about Black people and their history. Yet the hypocrisy is hard to ignore and very cringe. Companies like AT&T and Google have been accused of unfair labor practices by their Black employees.”

The idea that capitalism is dependent on racism is, in my understanding, what is at the heart of the concept of “racial capitalism.” It’s an idea that I am happy to accept, but that I’ve also had a tough time making intellectual sense of, precisely because of advertisements like those referenced above. I follow the idea that there can be no justice or liberation under a capitalist system, because exploitation is a defining aspect of capitalism. And I follow the idea that the capitalist world system as it has developed is dependent on racism. But that is what has made me so skeptical of certain ways of talking about “equality.” I first went through this in my journey through feminist literature and thought – is the goal really equality within an exploitative system? Women should have the right to work and pursue careers, and women should be allowed to participate in politics, yes… but is that really the end goal, when the structures and institutions themselves are what need changing? Is the goal really for women to just have equal opportunity to become powerful and exploit others in the same way that men have historically done? So for me, when I started to see ads by big companies capitalizing on Black identity, I had many of the same thoughts about race; in addition to Arablouei’s reaction of the ads being cringe because of their hypocrisy. The quote below from Abdelfatah explaining Fred Hampton’s concept of “liberation” does a great job of describing what I mean here.

So, couldn’t you have a system of capitalism where all identity groups are able to join a ruling class and participate in the exploitation of workers and the poor? Couldn’t exploitation be based purely on something like caste, or lineage? Already, in the US, many people have this idea that poor people are poor because they aren’t as skilled, or they just don’t work hard enough. Couldn’t a version of capitalism rely on something like that? Or couldn’t there be some other way of justifying the exploitation of one group and the rule of another?

This interview helped me to understand the idea that a non-racial capitalism is not possible more clearly, and I think the reason is that Kelley frames it by referring to the “racialization” of certain groups of people. This way of framing it helps me to look at it from another angle, because — if we remember that race is socially constructed — then almost any social identity marker can be racialized. Capitalism relies on the existence of an exploited class — and the only way (or a very good way) to ensure that class doesn’t unite, doesn’t question their oppression as a class, is to sow divisions among them so that some of them believe they are superior, or of a higher caste, than others (and, I’d argue, a sufficient percentage of the lower caste internalizing that idea; guns and tanks might be sufficient, as per Robinson’s definition, but wouldn’t it be even better if the lower caste blamed themselves for their disadvantage?). I think that, maybe, part of this can also come down to how we’re defining “race.” But after listening to this interview, it is becoming more difficult for me to imagine a version of capitalism that is non-racial that would also be able to survive for very long. In Kelley’s words, “the secret to capitalism’s survival is racism.”

More importantly, I think that my original questions around this idea might have been missing the point. When Kelley talks about “creating” a version of capitalism that is non-racial, it occurred to me while listening to this interview that he doesn’t mean “creating” from scratch in a hypothetical universe, the way I’d been thinking about the concept up until now. Maybe the idea is that creating a non-racial version of capitalism is impossible based on the system we have now, with the history we are all already a product of. And, really, that is the more interesting and more relevant discussion.

“So racial capitalism for [Robinson] is a way of not describing a type of capitalism but of establishing that capitalism extracts wealth and structures value by assigning differential value to human life and labor – that is to say, some workers are more valued than others because of how they’re racialized. So what that means is that whole groups of people are determined to be less human. Certain groups are subject to slavery or land dispossession, like Indigenous people, denied citizenship. They turned into migrant labor. Migrant labor hardly has ever been racially neutral.”

There is also a discussion in this episode about a Fred Hampton speech in which he says “we understand that racism is an excuse used for capitalism. And we know that racism is just – is a byproduct of capitalism.” Kelley and the hosts of the show talk about the ways in which this might contradict the idea of racial capitalism as described by Robinson, but to be completely honest, I am not really seeing how. If anyone can explain further, please comment. Maybe describing it as a “byproduct” implies that capitalism is not necessarily dependent on racism? I don’t want to spend a lot of space reproducing this part of the interview – you can listen to it yourself. But it sounds like maybe it boils down to how much emphasis is put on race versus class. For example, the co-host Rund Abdelfatah elaborates on Hampton’s concept of liberation:

“Liberation – we usually hear that and think about political freedom or, in the context of Black history, freedom from enslavement. But the liberation Fred Hampton and other Black Marxists were advocating for fell more in line with the liberation of “The Communist Manifesto.” They believed that true freedom must include freedom from the economic oppression of capitalism, that the working classes who represent the majority of the people should be in control of the country instead of the elites.”

Kelley ends with some thoughts that really stuck with me. To paraphrase, or to give my interpretation of his final thoughts: there can be no utopia, but at the same time the struggle for it will never end. It reminds me of a quote someone shared with me when I was in college, most likely apocryphal and attributed to Gandhi, which I can find no trace of by Googling: “It’s impossible to win the fight, but imperative that you keep fighting it.” In Kelley’s words:

“We have to keep remaking our vision over and over again and remind us what we’re doing is only struggle, this – only struggle. No promise of liberation, you know, only the promise of struggle. And what that means is that we have to consciously rethink where we are. … And at the center of all that, of course, is love – agape, as Dr. King would say, the constant struggle to make community. Because the deeper our communities, the harder it is to break us apart… With all of our mistakes and errors and all of our misjudgments, we move forward together. And that’s without the expectation that there’s going to be some kind of rainbow at the end at which we’re all going to be happy. …

“I avoid optimistic and I avoid pessimistic [laughs]. I don’t even use hope; I always use struggle. And why do I do that? Because I think that you cannot be an intellectual in a think tank, sitting around thinking about these things on your own or on a blog and decide what needs to be done. You can only do it in struggle with other people because that’s the source of ideas.”

In a weird way, I find this idea – that there is no promise of liberation, only struggle – kind of empowering. My goal doesn’t have to be the liberation of all humankind; just the continuation of the struggle in its direction.

Podcasts and videos:

Throughline: There Are No Utopias

Code Switch: Do The Golden Arches Bend Toward Justice?

Code Switch: Soul City: A Utopia For Black Capitalism

Kimberly Jones, How Can We Win

The Roxane Gay Agenda, Our Tax Code is Racist (w/ Dorothy A. Brown)

Chris Smalls on the Daily Show, The Man Who Took On Amazon and Won

John Oliver, Union Busting

Books and articles:

Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition

Robin D. G. Kelley, “What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism?” in The Boston Review

Kwamé Turé and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America

Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism

Jonathan M. Metzl, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland

Eyal Press, “A Preventable Cancer is on the Rise in Alabama,” in The New Yorker

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Dorothy A. Brown, The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans – and How We Can Fix It

Robin D. G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, And The Black Working Class

Black and white photo of protestors in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1959, protesting school integration. They hold large American flags and signs that say "Race mixing is communism"
People protesting school integration in Little Rock, 1959,
holding signs that say “Race mixing is communism”

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The Complicated History of Democrats, Republicans, and Race in America

These three podcast episodes cover some of the very interesting history of how the Democratic and Republican parties have changed since the country’s founding, particularly in terms of how demographics shaped their support (or lack thereof) of abolition and, later, the civil rights movement. The second two podcast episodes also discuss the evolution of the parties in terms of economic policy, states’ rights, business interests, “free market capitalism,” and the Christian right.

Below are links to the episodes along with the blurbs provided for them on the podcast websites.

Code Switch: The Original Blexit

How is it that the party of Lincoln became anathema to black voters? It’s a messy story, exemplified in the doomed friendship between Richard Nixon and his fellow Republican, Jackie Robinson.

Civics 101: The Republican Party

What role did slavery play in the formation of the Republican Party? How did a scrappy third party coalition create what became known as the Grand Old Party? And how did the party of Lincoln become the party of Trump?

Civics 101: The Democratic Party

How did the Democratic party become “blue?” Why were they initially called Republicans? And most importantly, how did the party that supported slavery become the party that nominated our first African-American president?


File:Republican presidential ticket 1864b.jpg

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The Politics of Fat

Content warning: The content linked to in this post, and to a lesser extent in this post itself, explicitly discusses body image, eating disorders, and fat-shaming.

We all “know,” culturally, that being fat is bad. But what does that mean, exactly? How do we know that? And what are the social effects of women being the primary focus of that moral judgment?

Recently I listened to a rerun of This American Life called “Tell Me I’m Fat.” I’ll run through my reactions and then link to other resources at the end.

This episode is a great example of This American Life doing what it does best – presenting several stories related to a particular theme in a style that combines journalism and anthropology. The stories in “Tell Me I’m Fat” are some of the most engaging I’ve heard on this show. They interrogate our politics, society, and humanity. It’s definitely worth a listen.


Prologue and Act 1: Lindy West

In the Prologue and Act 1, Lindy West tells the story of her coming to grips with being fat and how that played out in her job as a journalist and her relationship with her boss, Dan Savage. I think she brings up a lot of interesting thoughts, including her critique of the perception in our culture that being fat is okay as long as you’re trying to “fix” it. In other words, it’s not okay for a fat person to just be happy the way they are.

The ensuing discussion about weight and health is an old one, at least for me — but, in case there’s still doubt in your mind: Yes, it is possible to be fat and healthy at the same time, and cultural assumptions that equate being fat with being unhealthy are often inaccurate and have consequences for the way big people are treated within the health care system (see the slam in the references below).

In the interview with West, we are asked to question several assumptions in quick succession. “Where do you get your confidence?” is one of the questions West is most frequently asked. Because self-confidence is such an issue in general, and in our society it is an even more difficult battle if you are “too” big, the mystery is apparent and the question is a reasonable one. But to me, this question suggests that on some level, even if it’s unconscious, the assumption is that she doesn’t really deserve to feel confident. I can glean this in part from my own personal experiences as someone who has internalized that idea about herself.

In another part of the interview, West points out the problem with term “overweight,” as it implies that there is a “normal” or “correct” weight and people can be categorized (and therefore judged) accordingly. I liked that she pointed this out, and I think it’s a good way of showing how these categories are socially constructed. Maybe by some medical metric there is such a thing as “over” weight, but who gets to delineate those boundaries, and based on what criteria?

As Roxane Gay writes in her book Hunger, “In truth, many medical designations are arbitrary. It is worth noting that in 1998, medical professionals, under the direction of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, lowered the BMI threshold for ‘normal’ bodies to below 25 and, in doing so, doubled the number of obese Americans. One of their reasons for lowering the cutoff: ‘A round number like 25 would be easy for people to remember.'”

I think this should draw our attention to the fact that even measures of “health” are contrived, despite efforts to make them neutral or objective. For one thing, correlations can be misleading (correlation is not causation, after all). Several health problems, like diabetes, can cause weight gain (rather than the other way around). This obscures the real health consequences of weight when weight itself is seen as a problem instead of the underlying health issue itself.

On top of that, West says, “If you were concerned about my health, you’d also be concerned about my mental health” – alluding to the depression and anxiety that can result from public shaming, as well as conditions such as body dysmorphic disorder. People who fat-shame in the name of health rarely seem to care about the mental health effects of social pressures and stigma. To paraphrase West: “You don’t know what I eat or how much I exercise, or whether I’m actually healthy, and quite frankly my health is none of your business.” The upshot, though, is that when people pull the “health” card, it usually is not about health at all. It’s simply an expression of their socially programmed aversion to fatness on aesthetic or moral grounds.

Another thing that West said that struck me was “I take up a lot of space.” West means it literally, and says it in humor, but it made me think of Penny’s book and Gay’s book – where physically taking up space seems to have some deeper connotations about taking up political and social space. There appears to be a relationship between social/political space and physical space in the way women unconsciously understand their permission to exist. So this statement – “I take up a lot of space” – made me think about that, and made me recall my own complicated understandings of taking up different kinds of space. There is also a moment in the Netflix documentary Knock Down the House that made me think of this – when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is practicing a speech to herself and recites the mantra, “I need to take up space… I am here.” To me, it’s a very interesting aspect of what it means to grow up girl in America.

One of the things I found really striking in this part of the podcast was when West talked about a change she went through as a result of Leonard Nimoy’s book (around 12:30 in the podcast). It is worth listening to, because it illustrates the extent to which cultural standards of beauty are constructed. The changes she went through, as she contemplated Nimoy’s book and body positive Tumblrs, weren’t just conceptual; they re-wired her brain. She said she could feel it happening; she had decided – “what if I found [fat rolls] objectively beautiful?” And her brain, as she put it, “was changing shape”; she was deliberately changing the way her brain made her see beauty. (For a racially charged version of this, see this episode of Invisibilia).

Perhaps the sentiment that stuck with me most in Act 1 of this episode is: “You know what’s shameful? A complete lack of empathy.” And I think that’s key to understanding why not only a general aversion to fatness persists, but also the impulse to denigrate or morally shame those considered “fat” (whatever that even means).


Act 2: Elna Baker

This story touched me the most out of all five acts in this episode, because, I think, I sympathized and empathized with Elna’s story the most; even if my own experiences have been far less medical and not nearly as severe.

Elna tells the story of how when she was fat, she did not believe she was actually treated any differently than anyone else. She was happy, and didn’t believe people were shallow enough to judge her for the way she looked. When she lost weight and became thin, however, she likened her experience to the SNL skit where Eddie Murphy masquerades as a white man and sees the difference in how people treat him: everything changed.

She says that her motivations for becoming thin were to get a job and to find love, and she is able to give us a unique and stark point of view on how that worked out for her since she went from “fat” to “thin” in such a short period of time (about six months). She gives us a first-hand account of the differences in social experiences between being fat and being thin as a young woman in America.

There are several moving stories she tells throughout this journey, but the one that really gave me all kinds of complicated emotions was the conversation she recorded with her husband shortly after they were married.

Here is an excerpt. Ellipses indicate places where I redacted dialogue. Please listen to the original story in Act 2 to get the whole picture!

Elna: You would never have been attracted to me before. You know that makes me really sad? …

Mark: You mean you married someone that wouldn’t have been attracted to you?

Elna: You wouldn’t have loved me. You would never have talked — I mean you would have talked to me, we would have been friends. But you wouldn’t have ever dated me, ever.  …  That’s true, right?

Mark: What do you mean?

Elna: It’s true.

Mark: That I wouldn’t have dated fat Elna? … I don’t know. Probably not. …  I’ve always said I think the real you is the skinny you.

Elna: That’s stupid! …

Elna narrating: This argument over which is the real me, old Elna or new Elna, goes on for days. …  Here we are in the car. Mark explains that he doesn’t think I became comfortable with myself until I was thin. …

Elna, to Mark: It wasn’t like me in a fat suit. It was me. That’s what I was. So I wasn’t like, oh, this feels really big and uncomfortable. It just was me as a human. I was just a human. It was me.

If you only listen to one Act from this episode, listen to this one.

This Act covers so many issues all at once, and while it doesn’t explicitly unpack them, I think they are there to be unpacked and they are highly relevant.

Here are three other thought-provoking quotes from Elna in Act 2 (ellipses mean redactions):

“As New Elna, I once went on a date with a cute guy who said to me, ‘I know this is going to sound mean, but I just can’t tolerate fat people,’ and then took my hand for the very first time. And I held his hand. I said nothing. I didn’t tell him about Old Elna. We went for a walk. I went out with him again. It’s sad that New Elna gets everything Old Elna wanted, because I think Old Elna was a better person than New Elna. … New Elna didn’t have to be a good person. I just had to be thin. It made the world seem so bleak, like –  ‘This is the system? Really?’ It made me less hopeful about people. When guys came on to me, it didn’t feel like it was about me. I could be anyone. It made it hard to trust people.”

“I was happy when I was overweight. I had no idea I should be sad. I was free before. I had trained myself not to care what people thought, and I’d done a good job of it. … I just was. That’s the person I sold out to become this person.”

“As New Elna, I threw out all my pictures of Old Elna and all the pictures in my parents’ photo albums too, because I didn’t want people to see them. And when I looked at those photos, they made me feel bad, because in the pictures, I looked happy. And I’d look at them and think, ‘you’re so stupid to think that you’re happy.'”

There are a lot of things going on there, I think, and it goes beyond simple explanations of individual self-confidence. Elna’s story gives us a useful basis for talking about broader cultural influences on the way many women in the US see themselves. (And this doesn’t even touch on the complexities added when one has to think about race or transgender identities.)


Image result for renoir fat women

Renoir, The Bathers, 1918-19


Act 3: Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay brings several more nuanced perspectives to all of these discussions. She makes an important distinction between “Lane Bryant” fat and socially debilitating fat, and she brings the topic of race into the discussion.

This Act is only 5 minutes long, and personally I would have liked to hear more of her analysis about knowledge and discourse and power and the way terms like “super morbidly obese” have an effect on both health care professionals and the people that term is meant to apply to.

But Gay’s book Hunger covers it all, and you should definitely read it. You can also watch her TED Talk “Bad Feminist.”


Act 4: Christian weight loss movement

In Act 4, reporter Daniel Engber tells the story of a Christian university that used students’ weight as a barometer for how dedicated they were to their religious education. The university was subject to a lot of criticism for its tactics – like measuring students by placing them in water tanks to see how much water they displaced. They also suspended students who were deemed too heavy according to their standards – but, as Engber rightly points out, this concern with weight was not at odds with the broader American culture; it was just more explicit.

Act 4 quotes John F. Kennedy, who said: “There is nothing, I think, more unfortunate than having soft, chubby, fat looking children, who go to watch their school play basketball every Saturday and regard that as their week’s exercise” (this quote can be accessed here). With my “liberal” 21st century glasses on, I find that quote quite surprising and insensitive.

This segment was interesting for me because I didn’t realize that there was a religious component to the moralization of weight.

Sidebar:  Coincidentally, I recently heard about this in another podcast – the always excellent Ologies (which I highly recommend), in an episode called “Food Anthropology (FEASTS) with Katherine Spiers.” It’s worth listening to that whole episode purely because it’s super interesting and tells the story of the origins of green bean casserole. But for the purposes of this topic, the Christian influence in the American diet and weight loss obsession can be found at the above link at 14:12–15:28. The host Alie Ward quotes a Presbyterian minister from the 19th century: “Moral women should follow a plain, abstinent diet devoid of spices and indulgences, lest it lead to civil disorder.” Alie rightly, I think, says “a.k.a. being able to kick the ass of the patriarchy, is what I’m assuming.”

I always assumed the moralizing over fatness, even if it did seem to be gendered, was primarily to do with more general moralizing over health issues with roots in relatively recent history. But this brief interlude in this episode of Ologies made me realize that it might run deeper than that; there might be some set of collective moral norms that have been passed down via Puritan and/or other religious influences, which dictate dietary and bodily ideals for women and tie them directly to literal moral imperatives.


The Upshot and Discussion Questions:

I think this podcast (and the sources I’ve referenced) can be used for a lot of different educational purposes; it challenges norms, and it covers a disparate series of stories with the same theme in a way that opens up space for a lot of questions.

Throughout all these stories, what links them is this focusing on weight or diet at the expense of more worthy causes to spend time, money, and energy on – particularly for women. What could we accomplish if we spent our time and money on other things?

Here are some discussion questions that come to mind:

  1. All the main stories focus on women, women’s stories, and/or women’s weight. Why do you think that is? Is it a coincidence? Or is there something about the American experience of the politics of fat that is particularly female?
  2. Which story did you find most compelling? Why?
  3. What can we as a society do to curb the stigmatization of being “heavy”?
  4. Where should the line be drawn between what is “normal” and what is not?
  5. Is it fair to scorn people for being unhealthy in some ways but not others (or at all)? Can we assume anything about a person’s health by visually assessing their weight? Are we really concerned about others’ health when we talk about weight, or is something else causing us to comment on it?
  6. Is beauty culturally subjective? How do you know?
  7. Why do you think our society is so concerned with how people look, and why does it almost always overshadow everything else about them; like if they are kind, or intelligent? Does this affect women more than it does men, in your opinion? Why/why not? Does it affect people of color in different ways than white people? How?


Links and Resources Related to this Podcast:



The Body is Not an Apology


The Get: “The Body Is Not An Apology

Invisibilia: “A Very Offensive Rom-Com

Code Switch: “Pretty Hurts

Ologies: “Kalology


Articles and Books:

David Engerman, “American Knowledge and Global Power” and
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things
      (how categories, like BMI or the calorie, are socially constructed and value-laden)

Roxane Gay, Hunger

Caroline Knapp, Appetites: Why Women Want

Don Kulick and Anne Meneley (eds.), Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession

Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things

Lindy West, Shrill


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Podcasts and YouTube videos for Education

I listen to a lot of podcasts.

lot. I have a long commute and I travel a lot, and so I spend a lot of time walking — to and from home and train stations and airports and classes and bookstores and bars — and sitting on moving vehicles that move too much for me to be able to read comfortably. And so I listen to podcasts on long journeys by train and bus and plane as well.

As it happens, the kind of podcasts I enjoy the most are also the kind of podcasts I learn a lot from. As a result, I frequently find myself in the annoying position of knowing I learned something from a podcast, but not being able to remember exactly where so that I can reference it again. And as I listen, I’m always making connections between what I’m learning from the podcast and what I’m studying (or have studied before); but those connections are soon lost as I get off the train or go to my next class and start thinking about something else. As a teacher, this is annoying because I want to be able to direct students to relevant material that interests them; and also because I often use podcasts or YouTube videos as supplemental class material. It’s annoying when I can’t remember where I heard what.

I tried to remedy this by writing in a journal to keep track of what I was listening to, but my motivation faded after just a few days (trust me, it’s more work than it sounds). I then thought about creating an Excel database to keep track of everything, along with my comments and references to other related sources, so I could connect some dots to other resources, but that just felt like even more work and maintenance — and, ultimately, not the best way to organize things anyway.

So I thought I would try blogging instead. I reacted to an iTunes University Oxford anthropology lecture once before, and it ended up being one of my favorite blogging experiences. What I’d like to do here, then, is some more of that — but hopefully not just react to podcasts I listen to; my ambition is to create little mini-syllabi on a particular topic and provide some of my own commentary to go along with it.

This will, I hope, and if I can get in the habit of it, become an educational resource of sorts not just for myself, but for anyone else who wants to learn more about a topic independently, or to teach classes about it. In addition to the thought that it might be of potential use or interest to others, I’m inspired by the idea that other people might leave insights and further resources in the comments that might help me learn even more. So I am rather optimistic about this approach.

Within the next few days, I hope to get the first such post up; which will be about a recently re-run episode of This American Life called Tell Me I’m Fat; and would be appropriate, I think, for a Women’s/Gender Studies kind of class.

And with that, I will leave you with one early 20th century perception of beauty. Very white, but defies other contemporary standards.


Renoir, “Bather Admiring Herself in the Water” (1910)

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In praise of awkwardness


Awkwardness …. Well it makes us feel a little awkward.

Recently, I had a very interesting conversation with Elizabeth Saleh from the American University of Beirut. She talked about some research she has been conducting among Syrian refugees children in Beirut and how awkwardness was a key part of the anthropological method. She described how she would visit various research sites to sit and observe as part of ethnography, and how this entailed a good deal of awkwardness at the beginning. People would wonder: ‘Who is this woman?’, ‘What does she want?’, ‘What is she actually doing here?’, ‘Does she work for the government?’ Essentially, she explained, you have to get beyond that initial period of awkwardness in order to make progress in research.

That got me thinking about the awkwardness that is involved in a lot of the fieldwork I have done, and how awkwardness is more or less…

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“Get Out” and Continuity

I have many thoughts about the recent film Get Out, as it is rife with all kinds of symbolism and brilliant social commentary. But for this post I just wanted to hone in on one thing: the concept of historical continuity.

By pure coincidence, I saw the film shortly after I read the novel Kindred, by Octavia Butler, for the first time. One of the things I really liked about Kindred was the way it used a common science fiction storytelling device — time travel — to make a point about how connected we really are to the past, how close things like slavery really are to current politics (brilliantly depicted in The 13th), and how much history defines our contemporary relationships even when we think we’ve moved beyond them.

Get Out, I think, did something similar, but in a different way. The story did not use time travel, but rather other sci-fi storytelling devices (I am trying to make this blog post spoiler-free and not be too specific!) to make a similar point about the continuity between the past and present. We are all products of the history that brought us here to where we are now, and we all feel the effects of that to this day — whether we realize it or not. The past is not present in Get Out the way it is in Kindred, but the point is the same; the past is really not that far away, and it affects our relationships, our society, our politics — right now.

I think this is part of the reason why a Swahili song was chosen for the opening and closing credits (and that the message of the song is what it is). This was a very subtle but effective choice, and does several things for the symbolism of the story. Among them, I think, is to bring everything full circle. If we are connected to our past and our histories in ways we may not necessarily be conscious of, this tale of warning in an African language reaches back even further.

I have no profound closing thought here, but I look forward to more films like this. And I can’t wait to see more Afrofuturism and Black sci-fi/horror in the mainstream because these creators and artists have been around for a long time and it is high time we saw more of it.

The next novel I plan to read is The Parable of the Talents, also by Octavia Butler. In it, Butler imagines — in 1998 — a US senator who promises to “Make America great again.”



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“Pro-life” Trump is engineering an American Kristallnacht


Here’s a ridiculous scenario: Imagine you drive a red car. One day, the mayor of your town says that, every week, he’s going to head over to the post office and pin up a list of people who have done bad things with red cars.

The list includes people who have bought red cars, people who have borrowed them, and people who have stolen red cars; and it includes everything from driving with a broken tail light to deliberately plowing through line of kindergarteners. The list doesn’t specify: It just has names of people driving red cars, and it says they’ve all done something bad.

This goes on week after week, and even though you’ve never so much as failed to use a turn signal, you start to notice that you’re getting dirty looks when you step out of your red car. You find yourself parking around the corner, just so no one…

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One Man’s Reasons for Supporting the Women’s March on Washington

I recently shared a WaPo article with my brother Paul on Facebook, which was entitled “Men are slow to show support for the Women’s March. Is it considered unmasculine?”

I wondered what he thought about this question. I asked him why he is supporting the Women’s March on Washington this coming Saturday, and why he felt he could or should participate in it even though it is the “Women’s” March. How would he explain his support to a man who felt that a women’s march excluded him and his concerns? I found his answer conscientious and thoughtful; and it reflected many of my own reasons for marching.

Here is his response (posted with his permission, links added by me): 

To be honest I usually don’t like to talk about these things over social media. Mostly because my views are nuanced and often, perhaps, incomplete. I think I would find it difficult to do them justice if I was writing a PhD dissertation, let alone a few sentences on facebook. But I think I can say a few things I feel relatively confident about.

I’ll first say: I get it. Calling it the “Women’s March” does not necessarily communicate the welcomed inclusion of everyone. But we should remember the context. This was a grassroots demonstration that started off as a simple facebook post to mobilize women and has erupted into an event of historical size. To the credit of the organizers, they recognized the size of their demonstration and have worked hard to make it as inclusive as possible (in a short period of time without losing its original identity; not a simple task).

Importantly, I would argue that the response is not unreasonable. If we assume the voting process is a fair one, then yes, we have voted to the presidency someone who objectifies women and condones violent sexual assault (among other things*). It seems reasonable to me that some women (and dare I say, some men) want to voice their dissent. In fact, I’m surprised so many men are okay staying silent on the subject.

In a few months I will graduate from medical school and start pediatric residency. During my training I have seen the emotional and physical scars left by abuse. It is, in fact, not okay. It is, in fact, horrible. As a new physician, I take the health of my patients seriously, male and female. So yes, when I hear a politician (now in our highest office) normalize sexual assault, it gets me upset. For me this issue is not particularly “liberal” (whatever that means). I march with women to add my voice to those saying it’s not okay. It’s not okay to abuse people.

It’s an individual’s choice whether the message of the march resonates with them. If a man does not feel comfortable going to a “women’s march”, I generally have no issue with that. I do, however, reject the idea that a man going to a women’s march is somehow “un-masculine.” The challenges that face women, face us all. We as men can choose to ignore that. Or we can engage in the conversation.

Besides I heard they’ll have punch and pie.


My brother and I, at a Women’s March prep meeting in Philadelphia


* and this, and this, and this, and this, and this.

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The US elections (and their aftermath), covered as we do African elections

mohamed el dahshan. economist, writer, speaker, compulsive traveller.

Had to be done (actually surprised it hasn’t already):

Writing about the latest US elections like US media writes about African countries.


**COUNTRY CRISIS WATCH** [insert CNN “breaking news” type of jingle]

The US of A, a nation located in the center of the North American continent, is shaken by its latest electoral results, which threaten the weak racial equilibrium the nation has painstakingly built since the abolition of racial segregation, a mere half a century ago, thus heralding a fresh round of racial tensions and social instability.

Donald Trump, a local TV star and known megalomaniac who has repeatably admitted to sexual assault and is known for exotic hairdos and inexplicably poor vocabulary, has risen to unlikely prominence on the back of a populist wave, which saw him make unattainable promises to the large swathes of the population reeling from economic difficulties, blaming them on local minorities and foreign trade…

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Of Course Poppies are Political

The Disorder Of Things

As we approach Armistice Day, which comemmorates the end of World War One, the British media is awash with the usual froth about poppies: the badges sold by a veterans’ group, the Royal British Legion, to raise funds for veterans and their families. This year’s poppy-outrage story is that FIFA has banned British footballers from wearing poppy armbands at this weekend’s matches on the grounds that they are political symbols. The plucky English Football Association plans to defy the ban. FIFA is wrong to ban the armbands, but only because bans on freedom of expression should be opposed in whatever form. But they are, of course, entirely right that the poppy is a political symbol.


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