Every time I encounter the words ‘last acceptable prejudice,’ my estimation of the person writing or speaking them declines by a factor of 1,000. I’m usually inclined to stop paying attention altogether, because this phrase is a clear indicator that the person in question isn’t worth my time, and is, in fact, someone I should actively be avoiding. Yet, the phrase keeps popping up, over and over and over again, in a wide variety of media, and it often remains unchallenged; I see it coming up in quotes, in titles, in lengthy essays, with minimal pushback. When Tasha Fierce confronted it at Bitch magazine a few years ago, people seemed genuinely surprised and offended when she said she didn’t agree that fat was bigotry’s last stand.
Here are some things I’ve heard called ‘the last acceptable prejudice’ recently: fat hatred, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, classism. There are, I’m sure, many more. In fact, pretty much every ism has been tagged as ‘the last acceptable prejudice’ (with the exception, generally, of racism, and I suspect that’s because white activists tend to use this phrase more than anyone else, and they like to pretend racism doesn’t exist). Even if we do the most rudimentary of math here, it’s clear that something is wrong, because something can’t be the ‘last’ of something if multiple things are competing for the ‘last’ title.
But let’s set that aside for a moment, because I don’t want to get caught up in obvious semantics when there’s a bigger issue at play here, which is the genuine belief that something is the ‘last acceptable prejudice’ in a world full of prejudicial attitudes. People use this phrasing because they think it’s true, and because they think it furthers their activism, and in the process, they do a lot of damage, in addition to making themselves look absolutely ridiculous.
I’ll see, for example, yet another story about blatant fat hatred, and the response is that hating fat people is ‘the last acceptable prejudice,’ with the implication that other people aren’t discriminated against in employment and housing, that other people aren’t treated like garbage by society, that other people don’t become figures of mockery. I encounter the comment that ableism is ‘the last acceptable prejudice’ on the grounds of a disabled person being effectively barred from a building due to poor accessibility, as though gay men have never been told they can’t enter a public pool together, as though ‘whites only’ signs were a thing of the past.
When people label something as the last acceptable prejudice, they’re usually members of the marginalised group they’re talking about, and there’s a strong note of oppression olympics to it. They want everyone around them to know that they are the most oppressed, that oppression against them is so mainstream and casual in society that it’s widely accepted and no one even cares. And they want to position themselves not just as differently oppressed (because all oppressions are different, particularly when they lie at intersections of identity), but more oppressed.
What they may be looking for is attention, or sympathy, or something I’m not really clear on, because I get trapped in their bizarre tactics and can’t seem to look any further beyond the nakedly wrong complaint that the prejudice they experience is the last acceptable prejudice. That they are the only ones experiencing hateful social attitudes so deeply ingrained that people engage in them utterly without thinking, and that people know that they do so by and large in a safe environment. This is just so obviously wrong that I get hung up on it, because I can’t understand the logic.
But more than just being wrong, it’s also a classic example of setting marginalised groups against each other, rather than helping them work in solidarity, and it explains why intersectionality and an understanding of intersocial prejudices is so important. Because when people hear that ‘x is the last acceptable prejudice’ and they’re members of group y, what they’re hearing is that they don’t experience prejudice—which is in direct opposition to their personal lived experience of the world, and to what members of their social group know to be true.
So what they’re hearing is that members of group x don’t care about members of group y, and aren’t interested in learning about the issues that members of group y deal with. That group x may in fact be perfectly happy to achieve social gains on the backs of members of group y; if you say that fat is the last acceptable prejudice, for example, you’re ignoring the role of, say, racism in society, and, of course, you’re telling fat people of colour that they have no place in your framework of understanding. You’re demanding that they split their identities and create something new for you, something that falls out into neat, clean lines.
This ‘last acceptable prejudice’ rhetoric is highly divisive, creating huge gaps between communities that could be working with each other to accomplish common goals. The fact is that prejudice, period, is widely accepted in society and culture, and this is what needs to change. Fighting all prejudices is important, and considering a variety of strategies and groups in that fight is critical. We must be aware, too, that because prejudices and oppression are variable, a one-size-fits-all strategy will not work. We gain nothing by trying to isolate prejudice into scores of its own little boxes; if you will forgive a Harry Potter metaphor, this ‘last acceptable prejudice’ stuff ends up splinching people as they’re torn between various aspects of their identity and experience.
Do you want to tell a disabled gay woman that fat is the last acceptable prejudice when she’s endured disability hate crimes and homophobic taunting? Would you like to tell a young Black man that sexism is the last acceptable prejudice in a country where being young and Black is grounds for being shot, by police and civilians alike? What are you accomplishing with these statements, other than sending a clear signal that there’s only one community you care about, and that is your own?