Measuring Black breastfeeding with a white stick?: Why I’m intentional in leaving white women out!


I figured out what about Black breastfeeding, has been bugging me for so long. Well I recognized this before, but now it’s to the point where it actually — more than just ‘bugs’ me — it’s troublesome and makes me ill. It’s the consistent way Black women are ranked against white women when it comes to our breastfeeding rates.

There’s a number of things I could write non-stop about why this is so problematic –aside from the obvious that it’s senseless because we don’t have the same history. And it continues to place white women as the highest point of all things desirable, and the shining light that we all aspire to move towards, and that’s ridiculous, at least.

Just the other day I went digging around for some concrete examples, in order to explain my point. I didn’t have to go far — they were just there waiting for me. In a google search bar, I typed in ‘african american breastfeeding,’ and a few of the results are below — each one is from a different article, the title in bold and — almost always at the very beginning of the article the author felt the need to impart on readers how Black women fare against white women. These are a few of the top hits in that search:

Study Suggests Reason Why Black Mothers Breastfeed Less Than White Moms

‘When it comes to breastfeeding, a persistent racial disparity exists: Black mothers have lower breastfeeding rates than white mothers.’

Who, What, Why: Why do African-American women breastfeed less?
‘According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent figures, only 62% of black babies born in the US in 2010 started breastfeeding, compared to 79% of white babies. After six months, only 36% still breastfed, compared to 52% of white babies.’

Why Breastfeeding Rates Among Black Mothers Lag Far Behind And The People Trying To Change It

‘Though black mothers showed significant gains in breastfeeding within less than ten years, lactation advocates say there’s much work left to be done in shedding light on recent improvements, debunking misconceptions, and combating institutional forces that preclude women of color from bonding naturally with their babies. As of 2013, black mothers lag behind their white and Hispanic counterparts in the practice by at least 20 percentage points.’

African American Women and the Stigma Associated with Breastfeeding

‘A persistent discrepancy exists between African American mothers and mothers of other races who breastfeed. African American mothers have been lagging behind their white counterparts for years when it comes to breastfeeding.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the initiation rate of breastfeeding among African Americans is 16% less than whites.’

Breastfeeding rates for black US women increase, but lag overall: Continuing disparity raises concerns
‘According to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breastfeeding rates improved nationwide in 2000-2008, and some of the greatest improvement was among black women. However, only about 59 percent of black mothers breastfed in 2008, compared to 80 percent of Hispanic mothers and about 75 percent of white mothers.’

I could copy and paste these all day long. There’s plenty more examples to be found where these came from, in the very first links on google and even deeper into the search. They ranged from national articles, to journals and personal blogs, and keep in mind my cursory search never mentioned anything at all about white women. I didn’t look for Black breastfeeding vs. white breastfeeding.

Whiteness is valued in this country and placed on a pedestal — the results of hundreds of years of white people themselves forcefully requiring everyone to measure up against their self-imposed social, political, and biological yardsticks. And as sad as it may be, the reality is that these types of things clearly give the sentiments that we aim to be like white women. It seems so badly ingrained, that we don’t need them to do the work in continuing to unfairly pinpoint whiteness as the standard — we’ve got it under control.

I get that folks want to shine a light on disjuncture, in order to show how, because whiteness has worked to dominate and is revered in society, there are consequences that manifest and — here’s the evidence — look at us vs look at them. Look at how ‘well’ they’re doing and look at us. I get it. I truly do get it and I understand — I overstand — what folks are attempting to do. And I don’t disagree that there are, in some very specific instances, places for this type of statistical data — perhaps a particular study that focused on a multicultural group of women that will highlight all of them, or so. But I find myself ill at the frequency and the consistency that it takes place. To me it’s akin to a kid peering through the window of a candy store, just yearning. And I’m not sure why either, because truth be told white women don’t even have the highest breastfeeding rates in this country, so it becomes even more telling — not to mention, egregious — that their stories continue to be exalted. However well intentioned folks are to shine a light on the need to increase Black breastfeeding rates, it’s a distortion of reality that has consequences.

We all know that Black breastfeeding is much more dynamic and robust. It is much greater than how we stack up against white women. It’s been a hard road for us in all facets of reproduction, and this is nothing I have ever denied and would be crazy to think otherwise. Our story is like no other. And this is why, in my opinion, it remains that much more necessary to change our outlook in this area. I personally do not aspire to be a white woman. And there is no part of me that believes that continuing to center their stories will strengthen our struggle. I also do not believe that power and transformation cannot be extracted by recognizing and changing these areas, even when highlighting this difficult path. Changes in language on who we highlight as a start, means a change in the way we view our experiences and will require an expanded framework for captivating the rich (including the complicated) history of Black breastfeeding and the other facets that are connected to it. It requires being holistic, and moving away from simply focusing on biology (breastfeeding is much more than a baby connected to a breast). But instead it commands an different type of attention and reverence to this facet of reproduction that has been very powerful in Africa, in the way Black midwives tended to women, and can highlight the spiritual components that are usually never discussed, causing a shift in thinking on ways to transform, working to return this power to our communities.

I have some ways I’ve worked to ensure I don’t measure Black women against their so-called ‘white counterparts’. It starts with being intentional in my language in making sure I, as best as I can, discuss the multi-faceted aspects — even with brevity — Black women have a rich tradition in breastfeeding that has many layers of complexities. It has been radically disrupted because of various events in history, involving — perhaps — slavery, and the introduction of infant formula. So few of us are now involved in this tradition like we once were. [Yes, it’s alright to go into details on whiteness, sexism, etc.], then perhaps another adage could be: It seems like everyday more and more of us are recognizing this and are working harder on finding ways to truly get Black people in our community to return to this really critical aspect that honors our legacy and saves our lives. I don’t think it’s idealistic or that it negates components of history that contributes to this story on why the conversation even exists. It doesn’t let white people off the hook: there’s plenty of room for elaboration. I think it, at least, is a start that focuses on us and helps to move us away from the trauma that is whiteness that has been a part of our narratives for just too long.

6 thoughts on “Measuring Black breastfeeding with a white stick?: Why I’m intentional in leaving white women out!

  1. Thank you for writing this. It was an eye-opener. I honestly hadn’t ever thought of it this way. Especially with breastfeeding, centering the white experience could encourage some whites to think women of color are less able (somehow due to their color) because they are less likely to breastfeed. This kind of encourages racism. Apples can just be compared to apples and oranges to oranges. I will be embracing this as much as I can.

  2. I’m a researcher and am guilty of this, and hadn’t realized how troubling this comparison is until this post. I’m working on another article now and am being very intentional about how I frame it, and the implicit and explicit messages I’m sending. Thank you.

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