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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.
For more info and resources, check out:
- “Seven Ways To Support Black Breastfeeding Week”
- Dear White Women: Why We Need A Black Breastfeeding Week
- It’s Only Natural! A Women’s Health Initiative For Black breastfeeders
- Acquanda Stanford’s call for Black Queer narratives about breastfeeding!
I never cease to be amazed/horrified by the many and varied ways that racist systems of oppression manifest themselves over time. Heartened to see good work being done on this front, though.
I find the breastfeeding push to be an example of policing motherhood. Leaving aside the right to bodily autonomy each family has the responsibility to make choices in their best interest. It really can interfere with the ability to work. And autostraddle has covered that the benefits of breastfeeding have been vastly overblown.
I’m a black woman. If it’s not practical for my family I feel no obligation to breastfeed. I would do my best because I wouldn’t want give anyone a reason to doubt my fitness motherhood. I deeply resent that the medical community is pushing this when there are so many other concerns plaguing black mothers.
You make an excellent point here. All women should feel empowered to breastfeed if they choose to do so. And there should be opportunities for mothers to make that choice regardless of race or income level. But we need to make sure that the conversation doesn’t shame mothers who are unable to breastfeed or simply choose not to. Mothers should be able to make the choice to breastfeed (or not) based on what’s best for themselves and their families, but that choice shouldn’t have to depend on their income level or societal expectations.
This was meant to specifically address the racialized stigma and disparity in breastfeeding which makes Black folks less likely to breastfeed, not to say every Black woman must then do so. Much like how someone might write a piece about the gender disparity in say, the sciences, or stigma surrounding women’s bodies and nudity it doesn’t mean all women must then become scientists or go nude-it just means we should have the same opportunities as anyone else if we so choose, and the road to it shouldn’t be difficult. I then highlighted initiatives that wanted to make the road less difficult, though not necessarily mandatory. You are right that there are many reasons why might not be able to breastfeed, due to health, work, ability, etc, and I do not mean to dismiss or erase that!
I agree that racialized stigma is a problem and I understand that your article is getting that across. My problem is primarily with the advocates. I didn’t see that they were advocating against the reasons aka income, lack of support that lead black women not to breastfeed.
I do think this topic differs from the disparities in the sciences because breastfeeding is intimate. It touchs on the most fundamental bonds between mother and child. Black women are often portrayed as bad mothers and the breastfeeding push plays into that. The closest comparison I could make would be the obesity epidemic and fat phobia. Yes, breastfeeding is optimal in the first year of life but the danger is overblown.
Honestly breastfeeding or not breastfeeding isn’t going to have impact on child welfare. Proverty is the largest danger to black children.