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Cato was Here

October 22, 2013

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In trying to come up with a title for Cato Taylor’s entry, I mostly thought of Kelis’s “Bossy”. I often think of that song when it comes to Cato. Mostly because Kelis rules and because Cato is the type of smart and confident that will likely make her someone’s boss, if not all of our boss someday (#catoformayor). I think I even met her in a board room in Edmonton when we were both volunteering for the queer arts festival.

Past the initial shock of being in a room with another fat woman of colour, we eventually bonded over all things Beyonce, the Wire and organizing events that were a little less white when possible. And girls, always girls (they make the white ones cute sometimes though).

This girl is so smart that I don’t even know how smart she is so I asked some questions about the world of philosophy and how she’s changing the world with that brain.

Words and pictures by Karen Campos

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How does being a fat woman of colour inform your style?

Totally and completely. I think that being fat has had the largest and most immediate impact on my relationship to fashion and my own style—so much so that it took me a long time before I was sensitive to the ways being a woman of colour also fit into the mix.

I have always been decidedly, obviously fat; I’ve never experienced thin privilege (or the surely devastating loss of it) and “thinness” was never really something that seemed attainable to me. I gave up any ugly duckling fantasies I might have harboured pretty early on, which might sound kind of grim, but was also kind of liberating.

I was able to have something of a bizarre, detached relationship with fashion where I could kind of love it and admire it, but also not really be pressured by the images I saw as “being fashionable”—it was always kind of impossible for me. I was never going to find the clothes in the magazines, let alone the “fashionable” clothes my friends were wearing in my size at a “plus size” store. And going to a high school that required a uniform just allowed me to continue that kind of detachment.

Going to university and suddenly having to choose an outfit everyday (horrified me to say the least) and I was forced to confront my relationship with style and fashion (and with the crap shelled out by plus size stores.) I decided that I was no longer willing to allow myself to be excluded fashion, from being fashionable or having style, as a fat woman. However, making that decision and living it are two very different things; I have certainly left my fair share of dressing rooms in tears. Plus-size clothes are far more expensive than “regular” clothes and the selection is often dismal, particularly in Canada. And it is not exactly an overnight thing. It took me years until I was comfortable wearing bright colours in ways that drew attention to the lower half of my body and I still lack your killer confidence when rocking thigh baring shorts.

As a fat woman of colour in a society that so devalues our bodies and caricatures our sexuality, showing your body, adorning it as you please and being confident in your skin, can be both a tremendously empowering and tremendously vulnerable act. Often simultaneously.

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Earlier this year I profiled Farrah Khan who discussed the ways we, as people of colour, feel like unicorns in certain spaces where there’s nobody really like us. I have this image of you as the unicorn of philosophy. Can you tell me a bit about your experience in school?

Hah! You’re not the first person to have called me a philosophy unicorn and I so hope that this somehow comes to be one of my officially recognized titles from now on. Unfortunately, institutionalized philosophy does have a, frankly, pretty well deserved rep for being one of, if not the most homogenous of all the humanities. According to the most recent data from the Canadian Philosophical Association’s Equity Committee (which, full disclosure, I am currently a member of), only 31% of tenure-line philosophers in Canada are women and the majority of them are able-bodied white women. Visible minorities make up only 5.5% of the profession and only 0.3% of those surveyed identified as having a disability. And Canada is actually doing pretty well comparatively; as of 2011, less than 125 of the 11,000 members of the American Philosophical Association were black and less than 30 of those were women. Of the 14,000 professors employed in all disciplines in the UK, only 50 are black and none of those 50 are philosophers. So, yeah…as an out queer fat woman of colour who, at times, presents as physically disabled (I occasionally walk with a cane), I have always stuck out in philosophy like something of a sore thumb. As you might imagine, my experiences thus far in institutionalized philosophy (I’m a PHD student just less than a year away from completion) have been pretty mixed. I have both borne witness to and experienced sexism and racism and have seen close friends deal with both macro and micro forms of sexual aggression which, if the blog What is it like being a woman in philosophy? is any indication, seem to run rampant within our discipline.

However, I have also had a lot of wonderful experiences which have sustained me and help keep my passion for philosophy alive. I’ve met many wonderful, thoughtful, passionate people through philosophy who have become cherished friends and mentors and the support i have received from these folks over the years has been essential to my continued dedication to my work. But, I think like many other “unicorns” working in fields where our mere presence is “important” and worth noting, I have something of a complicated, sometimes fraught relationship with philosophy.

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What do your parents think of the philosophy route?

Hah! You probably should ask them! Though I would say they’re pretty much on board at this point, even if this was not always the case. I, like many other philosophers, kind of stumbled into philosophy. I actually still don’t really think of myself as a philosopher as i never considered it as a major, let alone as a profession when I started university. My original plan was medical school and my first undergraduate degree is in immunology and microbiology. I discovered philosophy through a philosophy of gender and sexuality course I took as an elective because i needed an essay credit, and it sounded interesting, and i was already involved in queer organizing and activism, so it seemed like a good fit. I was pretty immediately hooked and the more courses i took, the more I loved it. My parents weren’t exactly thrilled to hear I was giving up my plans for a financially stable career in medicine for the much precarious route of academic philosophy and it wasn’t something they fully got at first. My mother is a canadian who worked as a educational assistant with children with disabilities and my father is a Bahamian immigrant who started out mowing lawns and working as an overnight janitor in Canada and eventually started his own construction cleaning company. They didn’t have many personal examples of people choosing to do something like get a phd in philosophy that they could draw on. But, ultimately, they are proud of me. They have always stressed for me their confidence that I could do anything I wanted to in life and have always supported me in pursuing whatever it was that made me happy. And my dad still gets to tell people i’m going to be a doctor, just, as he says, “not a real one”

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I’m relatively new to the city of Toronto and the diversity of people still blows me away every day. However, this summer I spent some time Scarborough (part of the Greater Toronto area, geographically a suburb), where you grew up and that was a shock in the best of ways. I don’t think i have experienced that kind of space anywhere in Canada where there was barely a white person in sight. The contrast of your current city is quite evident (no shade). Was it a tough adjustment and what do you miss?

Moving to edmonton in 2008 was definitely something of a shock to the system. Prior to Edmonton, I lived in London, Ontario for about 7 years which also isn’t exactly the most diverse place ever, but was close enough to Toronto that I never felt too far from home. Edmonton has been something of a different deal, and while i have enjoyed my time here and met some amazing people, I’ve also really come to appreciate how lucky I was to have been born and raised in Toronto. I lived, went to school and had a part time job in very different parts of the city (Scarborough, Rosedale-ish and Leaside respectively), so interacting and being friends with different people from different races/cultures/class statuses every day was very normal to me. So in some ways I had a really good sense of class and racial differences, but not necessarily of them as segregating forces. I remember being appalled when I first went to university and saw all the black kids sitting together and all the white kids sitting together in the cafeteria and not knowing where to go as a mixed race kid. It really wasn’t until I left Toronto that I really started to understand the importance and implications of race. I like to joke that while I always knew I was black, I didn’t really realize just how black I was until I moved to london, and I didn’t really feel it until Edmonton.

I miss a ton of things about Toronto – my friends, the food, the arts scene and the multitude of queer communities – but, i actually think the thing i miss most is riding the subway. I always felt like i was really part of the city when i was on public transit, surrounded by people from all different cultures and races and classes, each with their own unique history and their own unique future.

Whenever i visit, it isn’t until I hop the train at warden station with my headphones on that i really feel like i’m at home.

How has living in these cities impacted the way you dress?

Generally speaking, I definitely dress up a bit more in Toronto than I do in Edmonton (sorry kids). Beyond having to adjust to the unique weather challenges that Edmonton poses (try finding a winter coat that will keep a fat girl warm in -40 and isn’t completely fugly and shapeless), I think I have a tend to dress down a bit more in Edmonton as a way of blending in. In Toronto, it isn’t as surprising to see a fat woman or a woman of colour who is wearing something creative or interesting or different. In Toronto, I feel like I’m just another woman in an interesting outfit on the street or the subway. But here, I often feel so conspicuous as it is due to my size and my race (and my decidedly queer haircut)  that wearing my bright pink pants or a loud print as well just feels like drawing even more of the wrong kind of attention to myself.

That being said, occasionally, no matter where she is, a girl just wants to be seen in an outfit that is on pointe.

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Sometimes when I get email from you, it takes me a minute to realize that Catherine is Cato. It’s funny because I have never been particularly attached to my name (Karen) and i find that lots of people naturally use variations like ‘Campos’ or ‘KC’. How did you become Cato? Is there a difference between feeling and context with Cato and Catherine?

I wish Cato had a better origin story, but its not really that exciting. A friend of mine came up with it during a some down time in a grade 10 high school biology class and it stuck, so much so that now even my parents call me Cato. Admittedly, I’m sure I had something to do with it “sticking”. I never really felt like Catherine fit, it always felt a little too formal or put together or regal for me. I associated the name Catherine with the thin, white, graceful princesses and queens of history and I was far too clumsy and weird for that. I liked and, still like, the ambiguity of Cato. It had no history, I could fill it in as I liked. I do, however, still use Catherine in my day to day life and use it exclusively in my work life as a philosopher, so it kind of feels like my business face now. And I’ve always had many nicknames; I have friends who call me Cat as well and my mother likes to call me Kitty on occasion, but only she gets to do that.

Style/life heroes?

I have always been been drawn to and inspired by strong, independent, passionate people who are not afraid of breaking rules or being unique. I have always loved both Tilda Swinton and Bjork, neither of whom – obviously – is human, but rather some kind of fearless alien goddesses currently deigning to grace us mere mortals with their presence. Even if I don’t love their particular outfit (though I often do), I always admire their creativity and the sense you get that they are having a lot of fun and do not give a shit what anyone else thinks. I also have a confusing and deep love for both Beyonce and Jay Z and am hopelessly unable to decide which of their closets I want magically converted to my size more. Do I want to be them or marry them and which one? I don’t even know. So many feels.

Editors note: These pictures were taken at night because we missed sunlight eating delicious fried chicken at the Stockyards in Toronto but we did ride in style in Cato’s parents car.

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Karen Campos

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