'High white obesity rates jeopardize whiteness,' prof claims

An assistant professor at Portland State University recently argued that talking about obesity “can help reproduce racial injustice.”

Rachel Sanders, who teaches political science through an intersectional feminist lens, asserted in a July 28 article in the journal Groups, Politics, and Identities that “even sympathetic representations of obesity as a pathology most prevalent among black and Latina/o women and children can help reproduce racial injustice.”

Black people have the highest rate of obesity in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which explains why much of the discourse surrounding obesity references race, Sanders laments.

Talking about the high rate of obesity among racial minorities is problematic, she contends, because doing so can “effectively reify white superiority and maintain white dominance,” especially at a time when “fatness is deeply stigmatizing, fat bodies denote civic unfitness, and high white obesity rates jeopardize whiteness.”

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“Processes of devaluing fatness, blackness, brownness, and femininity—and thus of idealizing thinness, whiteness, and masculinity as norms and passports to privilege—have been central to the semiotic construction of the ideal American body," she states.

Sanders further argues that talking about minority obesity rates perpetuates racism because it “invites and justifies discriminatory and exclusionary practices that sustain structural racial inequality,” adding that it could play into the “Welfare Queen” trope that stigmatizes Black women on welfare for being “lazy” and “bad mothers.”

Black women, Sanders points out, already face a great deal of social marginalization.

While the CDC notes that obesity increases one’s risk for issues like heart disease and cancer, Sanders argues that the “pathologization of fatness” should be “questioned,” because “being fat is not tantamount to being unhealthy.”

To fight “racialized obesity discourses,” she recommends that people must consider how conversations about healthy eating can “justify derogation and marginalization of individuals who do cannot or do not adhere to them.”

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“To combat rather than reproduce racial inequality, anti-racist anti-obesity discourses must expose obesity as an embodiment of structural racism and promote structural transformation,” she concludes.

Campus Reform reached out to Sanders to request clarification and elaboration of her claims, but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen