Diversity: Leading by Example

One of the things I love most about UNO is the diversity of its faculty, staff and students.  UNO celebrates its diversity, wears it like a badge of honor.  Young, old, black, white, gay, straight, U.S. citizen or world citizen – UNO not only welcomes you, but seeks you out.

That’s why the CNN report about Karen Klein, a 68-year-old school bus monitor from Greece, New York, is so disturbing. In case you missed it, Klein was subjected to vile, cruel and frightening bullying by a small group of junior high school boys during what must have been the longest bus ride of her life.  Why?

Because she is obese.

To her credit, despite the obscenities, insults, and physical threats hurled at her, Klein never lost her cool.  Her responses were calm and appropriate. I seriously doubt I could have behaved so admirably.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with UNO, allow me to explain.

On a Moodle discussion board for a class internet class I took this summer, someone posted a comment describing the obese as lazy junk food eaters who blame everyone but themselves for their being overweight.   According to my classmate, obesity is a lifestyle choice.  Sound familiar?  Haven’t we been having the nature or nurture, disease or decision debate about homosexuality for years?

I think we’re coming dangerously close to creating a climate of hate in this country that targets the obese.

After all, who isn’t frustrated by hearing how “fat people” are costing taxpayers a fortune by driving up the cost of healthcare?  And how long will it take for overweight children to be blamed when soft drinks and junk food are removed from school vending machines?  It’s probably already happening.

Obesity is a complex condition that involves more than making poor food choices.  There are often psychological, socioeconomic, cultural and genetic components involved.    Sometimes, obesity is the result of an eating disorder. Do we hate people who suffer from anorexia or bulimia?  Do we simply tell them to eat and expect that to solve their problems?

No, we don’t.  So why do we expect those who are overweight to jump on treadmills and completely change their eating habits just because we tell them it’s the healthy thing to do? It would be like telling someone with ADD to pay attention in class and then ridiculing them when they can’t.

Bullying by junior high school children is horrible, but intolerance by adults is worse. Is it any wonder the young men who verbally assaulted Karen Klein thought it was so funny they couldn’t resist posting the video of their disgraceful behavior on YouTube for the entire world to see?  If we, as role models, exhibit such intolerance, how can we expect better from those who aspire to be like us?

UNO is a leader in diversity.  Statistically, we are the most ethnically and economically diverse university in the State of Louisiana.   While we celebrate our open and accepting culture, let us examine how we treat the overweight, remembering that younger persons, like those who humiliated and intimidated Karen Klein, will follow our lead.

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