Popular stereotypes of healthy and fit include: white, upper to middle class, and moderately thin. When you think of the word vegetarian, almost certainly a non-person-of-color comes to mind. If you imagine a yoga class, your imagination likely populates with a room of thin, fit white women. While fitness visionaries, such as Dr. Ian Smith, Billy Blanks, and Jeanette Jenkins, have revolutionized the face of the fitness industry through representing the black community, the rest of our race has yet to push aside the soul food and take control of our health. The beautiful family pictured to the right is a rarity.
Why does black continue to represent an antonym for healthy? The answer is complicated, ranging from our cultural relationship with food to our continued struggle with preventable diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. Focusing on food, why aren’t more fresh vegetables, fruits, and healthy cuisines included in black cultural traditions? Arguably, the black community’s intricate relationship with soul food dates back to slavery and limited access to fresh food. While the racial climate has progressed, low-income communities primarily populated with black people still lack fresh food resources and encourage dependence on processed foods. It is no wonder that the vast majority of African-Americans are overweight and struggling with their health. Convenience kills. If fried-everything is around the corner and fresh food is ten bus stops away, expediency trumps doing the right thing.
When unhealthy habits become embedded in culture, it perpetuates unhealthy behavior. Not only is it common for African-Americans to indulge in unhealthy food, but also eating healthy has become somewhat a cultural anomaly. Other than First Lady Michelle Obama’s mainstream push to get America to “move” and adopt a healthier lifestyle, how common is health advocacy within the black community? It’s not enough to state the dire statistics. What about encouraging individual action? Is it safe for each of us to tell our grandparents, parents, siblings, and children that we will not have fried chicken for dinner? Can we cook a meal of primarily vegetables without being labeled a health nut or accused of acting white?
Reading a popular black forum, one black woman told a story of her southern relatives ridiculing her healthy choices in food.
I always hear comments about how just because I like to eat healthy every once in awhile or eat a wide variety of food, I’m “eating white”…We wonder why we have so many health problems in our community …when I’m at family functions and I don’t pile on my plate, [they] look at me crazy [saying], “…You better pile on that plate…[you’re] eating like a white girl!”
Similar to speaking proper English and being smart, why is eating healthy also met with the popular phrase, “you’re acting white?” Unhealthy is not a healthy norm. While there are health activists working everyday to change the state of the black community, they cannot do it alone. It’s time for each of us to take a fierce and personal position, while combatting “unhealthy” as a complacent cultural tradition.
How can the black community make “healthy as white” a fading norm? Or will “healthy” remain an accepted antonym to “black” for many years to come? Speak on it.