Today (Sunday, May 6, 2012) Alice Randall, author and activist, wrote an article on race and obesity in the New York Times. (HT to Tanehisi Coates.) Randall believes that health disparities are the most important civil rights issue of our times, and took the opportunity to examine the prevalence of obesity in black women.
I found her approach deeply problematic. It represents a war of sorts in black intellectual circles between social scientists and between humanists. For Randall, the biggest challenge people interested in this issue have to deal with is black culture.
What we need is 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.
Now in analyzing the phenomenon of obesity in black communities, Randall turned to her own experience, then to the work of Andrea Elizabeth Shaw a humanities scholar, who is interested in the representation of larger black women in literature and pop culture.
It's that turn we should be troubled by, because she uses her personal narrative and then the work of someone not interested as much in the causes of obesity but rather in the representation of obese women in literature….to make an argument for a policy approach that focuses on the cultural reasons black women supposedly WANT to be fat.
I went to Detroit a few weeks ago to give a talk. No matter how you measure obesity, Detroit is one of the fattest cities in the country. I see it every time I go back home in the summer. I saw it after my talk when I hung out with some of my fraternity brothers at the club. Plus-sized women far outnumbered non-plus sized women. This didn't hamper their ability to attract men. And they looked good in what they were wearing. But I couldn't help but think how unhealthy they were.
Now in THAT moment, I could have theoretically turned to a cultural explanation. The plus-sized sisters didn't seem to be having problems attracting men. They didn't seem to have any problems enjoying themselves. In fact, I bet if I talked to some of them about their size, they could have told me about how their men love them that way. Could have told me stories about how they tried to lose weight but their men didn't want them to.
I can hear the narrative now.
My men want somebody with a little meat on their bones.
My men love my love handles.
But here's the thing. I study the politics of health disparities. After reading Randall's piece I performed a search–something Ms. Randall COULD have done easily given the resources she has. The literature on obesity is growing and can be hard to wade through. But what we know is that there is a positive association between race and obesity (black women are more likely to be obese than either white or asian women), and we know there is an association between neighborhood poverty and segregation and obesity.
Now where could this association come from? For Randall that association appears to exist because obese black women in these environments are enveloped in a culture that affirms their obesity.
But Detroit has NO public transportation system to speak of, is a virtual food desert (with the powerful exception of Eastern Market), and is simply not walkable. How might the lived environment shape obesity dynamics? How might the politics of poverty shape obesity?
I wrote my first book on rap and black politics. I wouldn't have believed it was a valid subject of scholarly inquiry had I solely relied on "expert social science" instead of relying on my own gut. Relying on our gut, given how social scientists have historically treated black subjects and "black" social phenomenon, can help us develop better theory and better political outcomes. Using our own truth to build and test theories can be a good look.
However, it can also be a bad look. Randall has the right to her own story. She can and probably has been a powerful advocate for black women's health. She doesn't and should NOT have the right to ignore the quality social science research done connecting poverty and segregation to obesity in favor of a down home approach, that just so happens to blame black women for their own condition.