Duchess Harris is an associate professor of American studies at Macalester College and an adjunct professor of race and the law at William Mitchell College of Law.
In an op-ed earlier this month in the New York Times, Alice Randall argues for "a body-culture revolution in black America. Why? Because too many experts who are involved in the discussion of obesity don't understand something crucial about black women and fat: many black women are fat because we want to be."
I disagree. I'm not sure that black women want to be fat. If they do, they've been keeping pretty quiet about it.
She goes on to argue that, medically, "black fat may be the same as white fat. Culturally it is not."
While it's true culturally that black men celebrate a Beyonce butt, it hardly means that they want us to look like Gabe Sidebe.
She continues, "I know many black women whose sane, handsome, successful husbands worry when their women start losing weight."
I'm married to a black man who, as a surgeon, has had to perform liposuction to remove a cancerous tumor. He feels a little differently.
Of course everyone's entitled to unsubstantiated opinion. But Randall critically missteps when she tries to support her opinion by skewing history and political fact (maybe she's taking pointers from our friends on the political right who re-contextualized national health care as fascist). She writes: "To get a quick introduction to the politics of black fat, I recommend Andrea Elizabeth Shaw's provocative book 'The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women's Unruly Political Bodies.' Ms. Shaw argues that the fat black woman's body 'functions as a site of resistance to both gendered and racialized oppression.' By contextualizing fatness within the African diaspora, she invites us to notice that the fat black woman can be a rounded opposite of the fit black slave, that the fatness of black women has often functioned as both explicit political statement and active political resistance."
I can see how fat could have been an act of resistance during Reconstruction; not so much in 2012.
I do agree with Randall that the government shouldn't mandate exercise. Instead it should examine the land-use policies that facilitate development of predominantly wealthy and white suburban neighborhoods that have altered the distribution of food stores.
When I lived in north Minneapolis, the grocery store didn't carry perishable food. Most of us black women don't live in "walking friendly neighborhoods;" therefore we are fat.
And while I think that black women need to change, America needs to change first. Black women weigh more than 200 pounds because white people gave us fatty scraps during slavery and we had no choice about what we ate. We weren't fat, then, because we did physical labor. After Reconstruction we continued to eat the scraps, but moved into less physically demanding work (if we work at all).
My children attend a private school that comes with a $10,000-a-year tuition price tag, and it doesn't have a cafeteria or a sports program. We pack our kids' lunches with healthy food, which costs at least $50 a week, which translates into $2,000 a year. The school encourages the parents to enroll their children in sports, and we chose competitive dance, which is in another town. Dance costs $3,500 a year. The program starts at 4 p.m. and we both work. Because we can't leave work at 3:30 p.m., we have to pay someone to drive them, and pay for gas.
Our lifestyle would be prohibitive for most white people. I'll buy you a vegan meal if you can name three more black families with a "dance nanny." Our children aren't fat, but we spend $15,000 a year on each of them so that they aren't. If they were fat, it wouldn't be because we'd want them to be. It'd be because the government has led us to diabetes as a pit stop before the prison industrial complex. It is killing us softly, and health should be the embodiment of disobedience. That is truly an unruly black politic.
For a more in-depth discussion, I recommend reading Maya Rockeymoore's piece at the Huffington Post.