This past week marked Black Breastfeeding Week, an initiative that began last year in response to the gaping racial disparity in breastfeeding rates. Recent data from the CDC revealed that 59% of black mothers have breastfed, as opposed to 79% of Latina/Hispanic mothers, 75% of white mothers and 67% of Native American mothers.
Given that breastfeeding helps lower infant mortality rates and that breast milk has been shown to reduce the risks of conditions like Type II diabetes and asthma, phenomenas that disproportionately affect Black babies, this is definitely a problem that needs to be addressed.
So, why the disparity? Kimberly Seals Allers, the founder of Black Breastfeeding Week, cited a variety of factors when she spoke to The Huffington Post about the issue, including miseducation, a lack of black mothers in breastfeeding marketing/education materials, formula marketing strategies and social stigma, such as the association of breastfeeding with poverty. We battle race baiting anti-choice propaganda and ableist lies about “vaccines causing autism in African-American male babies.” Institutional barriers exist as well — the CDC released a study last week that revealed that racial disparities in breastfeeding may be caused by maternity healthcare practices in hospitals, where 62% of African-American babies and 79% of white babies were breastfed at birth. Facilities in areas with higher black populations were less likely than other facilities to support breastfeeding. Furthermore, in a world where paid maternity leave is directly related to whether or not a woman will breastfeed, another CDC report on breastfeeding noted that “low-income women, among whom African-American and Hispanic women are over-represented, are more likely than their higher-income counterparts to return to work earlier.”
Furthermore, Black motherhood and bodily autonomy has been historically undermined and often robbed from Black women in numerous ways. From this country’s first visions of us as wild oversexed Jezebels able to easily produce the next generation of slaves and doting mammies, caretakers and nannies for our slave-master’s children, we haven’t been seen as individual and capable loving nurturers to children. Instead, we’re often perceived plainly as vessels who birth free laborers, social problems, and institutional burdens. Black women are described as “Welfare queens” or “Bad Mothers” rather than “At-Risk” or “Undermined,” despite the blatant evidence that the latter is more accurate, considering institutionalized racism’s impact on poverty, housing and job discrimination, educational access and reproductive and sexual health resources. Black motherhood is often demonized and shamed — just ask Shanesha Taylor and Raquel Nelson. Later on in life, Black mothers must grapple with a racist society that automatically deems their children criminals, a misidentification that can result in murder — just ask the mothers of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell and countless others.
When it comes to actual motherhood and breastfeeding, this pattern of hyper-sexualization and lack of ownership over our own bodies continues. In “Is Slavery Why Black Women Aren’t Breastfeeding?,” Kimberly Seals Allers addresses the dark history of Black women being bought as wet nurses for breastfeeding their slave master’s white babies while their own children were put to work or lynched. Also, the idea that breastfeeding is somehow at odds with our sexuality or inherently sexual stays with many of us. A recent Madame Noire article entitled “Why Don’t Black Women Want To Breastfeed” features a conversation between a group of Black mothers in which many admitted that they were unable to “see past their breast as sources of sexual amusement for their men and pleasure for themselves, and as a primary feeding source for their newborn children.” Allers writes that “due to the oversexualization of the breasts, some women have forgotten or are even uncomfortable with using the breast for its actual intended purpose.”
Allers also speaks to a lack of role models in breastfeeding advocacy, which she notes is “white female-led.” This means that “many lactation professionals, though well-intentioned, are not culturally competenet, sensitive or relevant enough to properly deal with African-American moms.” Controversy erupted when Black mother Karlesha Thurman posted a photograph of herself smiling in her graduation gown and gleefully glowing in her moment of success while breastfeeding her baby. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we’re doing — black motherhood is still policed away from the choice of breastfeeding.
We can’t ignore the real effects societal and institutional racism and race-baiting in health and medicine has on Black families and parenting. These are all systemic attacks against Black motherhood. At all levels, Black motherhood and sexuality are at risk.
But slowly, the tides are changing and conversations are starting. There’s evidence that addressing the issue brings results, too — only 47% of black mothers said they breastfed in 2000. Local and state initiatives to help stave off the risks of infant mortality among Black communities are growing across the country. Black parents, birth advocates, doulas, doctors, and breastfeeding advocates and allies at both in the world and in online communities like Black Women Do Breastfeed, Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association, and Acquanda Stanford are working to give a fair, honest, real, and inclusive look at what Black breastfeeding looks like.
Support, visibility, and advocacy of Black breastfeeding is instrumental in the health of ourselves, our children, families, and overall communities.
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