A recent NYT opinion piece by Alice Randall, a writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University, has caused a flurry of discussion about just why black women are fat. The op-ed appeared in last Sunday’s NYTimes and since then a storm of critical blog posts and response articles have come out discussing it. Given how much the discussion of race & health is near and dear to my heart, I had to add my two cents to the fold.
An Unclear Thesis
First, I want to just come out and say that I found this piece to be meandering on the issue it claims to address. (Part of this problem may stem from the fact that the piece has two titles serving slightly different goals: “Why Are Black Women Fat” (explanation) and “Black Women and Fat” (discussion)). The piece starts out by painting a bleak picture: 4 out of 5 black women are “seriously overweight” (whatever that means) and $174 billion is spent each year to treat diabetes-related illnesses. This led me to believe that the piece, though an opinion, was going to do a deep-dive in its discussion of obesity/diabetes and address some complex structural health issues.
But then Randall changes course. She makes the claim that culturally, black fat isn’t the same as white fat. She argues that black fat is about so many other things; it’s about preserving the “sugar down below”. It’s about political protest against white norms. It’s about aspiring to black male preferences. It’s about a song called “Skinny Legs and All”.
Then Randall changes course again, reining herself in and admitting that black people need “to do better” because we are in fact facing a serious health issue. To illustrate this, she talks about her own efforts to change her diet and eating habits (she now walks 8-miles a week and her family eats egg whites & cucumbers for dinner). Randall concludes by saying she hopes to pass down these new habits to her 24-year old daughter so her daughter won’t face these health issues.
When I finished the article, I found myself wondering: “So that’s it? What exactly was the point of that?” I read it again and waited for clarity. Still, I had no clue what exactly Randall was trying to say. Does she think that black fat is a good thing? She seems to suggest that it’s not something that should change- black women shouldn’t be forced to meet “thin affluent” people’s health ideals. But then why is she eating salad and walking 8-miles each week? Does she think a black woman should stay at 200lbs if that’s what her husband wants? What exactly is Randall’s point of view?
It is because I couldn’t discern a clear opinion from Randall’s opinion piece that I think op-eds like Randall’s truly do a disservice to black women and the larger health community. Why? Because they squander an opportunity to truly address a serious issue on a national stage. Instead, articles/op-eds like Randall’s (unintentionally?) turn black women into an irrational and incoherent foil for the rest of American society to collectively shake its head at.
My Problem with Articles/Op-eds Like Randall’s
Part of my problem with Randall’s op-ed stems from the fact that the piece relies on highly generalized and overly-academic arguments to “explain” black female obesity. So black women are “seriously overweight” and over 200lbs because it’s what black men want? Based on what evidence? We’re “seriously overweight” because we’re protesting white aesthetics? Again, I ask based on what studies/evidence? Randall references a book by Andrea Elizabeth Shaw to support this point, but gives nothing more.  And interestingly, none of Randall’s explanations for black women being “seriously overweight” have anything to do with black women independent of the desires of some dominant group- black men and whites.
Anyway, I suppose anything is possible. Maybe part of the reason black women are “seriously overweight” is political and/or cultural. But what about the more direct and obvious explanations? Like poverty. Like lack of access to healthy foods. Like emotional eating in the face of depression, lack of resources and family support. Like mistrust of doctors and the medical profession based on a history of mistreatment/lack of information. The list goes on and on. Any number of these explanations would have been helpful to add to the dialogue, but Randall chooses to ignore the glaring structural issues around race & obesity and instead focuses on a narrow, academic and highly personalized meta-narrative. This would be fine if that title of the piece were “Why I, Alice Randall, Am Fat” or “A Black Woman and Her Fat” but that’s not what this piece purports to be.
And Now The Really Troubling Part
And then we get to, for me, what is the most troubling part of op-eds/articles like Alice Randall’s. To explain this I have to reference a really great book called “The Miner’s Canary“, by Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres. In the book, the authors describe the use of canaries by miners who worked in underground coal mines in the early twentieth century. Because the nervous system of canaries were more sensitive to toxins in the air, miners would use these birds as an early warning system that a mine was becoming dangerous. Guinier and Torres argued that in many ways African-Americans function as “canaries” in the “mines” of American society- giving early warning signs of dangers that will eventually affect everyone.
And so I come to what I think is the most dangerous part of articles/op-eds that single out black women when it comes to obesity: articles like these are obstacles to right-sizing the obesity/diabetes epidemic. Articles like these cast obesity and diabetes as a problem that plagues some “other”-black women, poor people, uneducated people- not an issue that touches everyone and needs to be addressed by everyone.
Well, guess what? Not everyone who is diabetic is overweight! Not every black woman is struggling to stay over 200lbs! And there are white women, Latino men, Asian children, etc. who struggle with their weight and diabetes everyday. While these issues may affect the black community disproportionately, obesity/diabetes isn’t a black (woman) problem. It’s a people problem. And it’s only getting worse.
Here’s hoping that someday the NYTimes yields the floor to an op-ed piece on obesity that speaks to all people- one that is sensitive to race, but not trapped by it. For a problem this big we need solutions, not scapegoats.