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I am a plump African American professor at the oldest public HBCU in the country and a national expert on media weight discrimination and people of color in the professoriate. I am concerned about some of the statements in Dr. Marybeth Gasman’s response to the Historically Black University Lincoln’s policy that penalizes its students who are “heavy” in body as well as mind by forcing them to pass an additional “Fitness for Life” course or refusing to graduate them. The policy is certainly unethical, probably illegal and ironically racist, sexist classist AND counter-productive.
The policy is racist because African Americans whose ancestors survived slavery – i.e. were able to work 12 hours a day on little more than a single chittlin’ and a biscuit under horrific psychological stress – have a very efficient metabolism and for a many reasons tend to be fatter than other Americans. Most of these reasons don’t have to do with being lazy, pigging out or ignorance about ideal healthy lifestyle choices. We are constantly facing so much discrimination based on our body size already that it is a scary second (third, fourth…) slap in the face to have an HBCU that has a concentration of African American women discriminate against us too. By matriculating in college, the students signed up to show intellectual rigor in order to graduate rather than be punished by an extra course to pass. Those who were born with a luckier genetic draw from the deck get to do their graduation march on their academic merit rather than their weight.
The policy is sexist because African American women tend to weigh more than all other race women in the country and Understanding Gender At Public HBCUs reports that females are 63% of the students enrolled at HBCUs. It’s also physiologically harder for women to lose weight than it is for men.
The policy is counterproductive because fat people, especially fat women, are already under full attack on every front. We know we are fat. Others who feel they have the right to openly harass big people, just as it used to be okay to harass us because we are Black, wouldn’t let us forget it even if the media did. Just last a couple of years ago, as an HBCU African American full, tenured professor, a male student screamed repeatedly at me from an open dorm window “Dr. D - Fat Ass!” Fat female students are under even MORE harassment than fat male students. Naturally thin students with abominable eating and exercise habits in speech, broadcast and online journalism courses want to lecture the fat students and me, their fat teacher, about what they assume are our poor eating and exercise habits.
Lincoln’s policy is classist because as a group, students who go to HBCUs are more likely to be first-generation college students; poorer than any other 4-year college student; often overscheduled and over working to earn part or all of their way through university, usually with no financial help from their impoverished parents. Lincoln’s policy places greater time AND financial demands on students who are struggling with far more than their weight. Also poor people are more likely to be bigger too because they have less access to affordable, tasty, healthy food.
Preventing students, no matter how brilliant, from graduating from college just because they are big is counterproductive. It only adds to their humiliation and stress, increasing the likelihood that they will exercise less and, if they do compulsively eat – eat more of the wrong kinds of foods.
If Lincoln University really cares about the obesity epidemic in the Black community it ought to require ALL students, not just the ones with “more bounce to the ounce,” to complete their Fitness for Life class as they do (or as part of) Freshman Orientation or any physical education requirement. The thinner students may be as unhealthy as some of the fatter students or worse. Notice I said, “SOME” of the fat students because one can be fit and fat. I eat a well-balanced, health-oriented diet, exercise 5 times a week and I am still a plus-sized woman. I refuse to use the “O” word because I am NOT a walking disease or symptom for that matter. I am not alone. Many of our thinner counterparts are couch potatoes and eat far more so-called bad foods. Also thinner students who eat poor diets and don’t exercise regularly may find themselves slipping in to the discriminated size range as their youthful metabolisms age.
I hope Lincoln University stops this ugly size discrimination before a big student with deep pockets successfully sues them for a gigantic number of dollars and contributes to the demise of another precious HBCU. Gasman is wrong when she says physical education has long been part of our intellectual development. It’s part of our physical development that, in the effort to attract more students with faster-to-complete programs, most colleges have dropped as a requirement. Also at a time when colleges are offering more online degrees, ending physical education and even exit exam requirements, Lincoln University should be ashamed of their nasty fat phobic fitness course. I would implore them that as their namesake “freed the slaves,” may Lincoln University let my chubby people go. Let freedom ring and let my chubby people graduate if they’ve got the grades… to go.
Submitted to Online Diverse Issues in Higher Education 11/30/09
To see Gasman’s story see http://diverseeducation.com/blogpost/183/1.php