Until Black Lives Matter, starting from pregnancy and first foods, we have not done our jobs.
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During this moment of global reckoning on racism and systemic oppression, it’s important to think about all the ways racism has impacted Black women in America, including their pregnancy and breastfeeding experiences. In fact, if we are going to build back better, we need to do so from birth.
That includes the important pregnancy and birth period, but it also includes our first foods — the initial infant nutrition that lays the groundwork for our health trajectory, our early exposure to dangerous sugars, and our likelihood for diet-related diseases in the future. These matter.
The body of evidence is clear that breastfeeding reduces the risk of ear infections, respiratory illnesses, and the likelihood for type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Despite the known health and societal benefits, Black breastfeeding
During slavery, Black women were stopped from breastfeeding their own children and forced to breastfeed the children of their masters, often to the neglect of their own. In slave narratives, you can read heart-wrenching stories of slaves whose own babies suffered or died because they were forced to breastfeed their oppressor’s child.
At this moment of racial reckoning and broad-based allyship, it’s time to think about making reducing breastfeeding disparities part of the equity agenda. And most importantly, undoing the series of events that contributed to where we are now.
That includes rethinking how we make breastfeeding accessible to all, not just in messaging, but in the context of Black people’s lives. That starts with more state and federal paid leave policies.
Unfortunately far too many Black women and other women of color are in fields that don’t offer paid leave, making continued breastfeeding a privilege for those who have corporate jobs or can afford to take unpaid leave.
But it’s also important to decolonize the lactation certification process. It’s time to knock down ideals, such as the so-called “evidence-based” research in breastfeeding that never asked “evidence based on whom?” It’s also essential to consider who has traditionally been centered in creating mechanisms of breastfeeding support.
Over the years, well-intentioned, white women have led the breastfeeding and human donor milk community to great heights, but have also contributed to disparities of access, information, and support.
For example, La Leche League International (LLLI), the most well-known mother-led lactation support organization, has done great work advocating for the legal rights of mothers for years. Yet they historically only set up their support groups in white suburban neighborhoods and for many years only catered to stay-at-home mothers.
For decades, the “evidence” for developing breastfeeding support interventions nationwide was modeled after LLLI, explains Dr. Aunchalee Palmquist, PhD, MA, IBCLC, a medical anthropologist focused on infant feeding and assistant professor in the department of maternal and child health at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.
That data set provided zero insight on the cultural barriers in Black and Latino communities, the impact of employment, or the role of grandmothers, who have been proven to be critical to continued breastfeeding among women of color.
Black women were therefore denied culturally relevant resources because of the focus on white women. Today, the LLL USA leadership council includes only one Black woman, even though Black and Latina women make up 30 percent of the U.S. female population, and women of color are projected to be the majority of all U.S. women by 2060.
What better time than Black Breastfeeding Week (BBW), which runs from August 25 to August 31 annually, to have an uncomfortable and overdue public conversation about the realities of breastfeeding for Black women.
That includes following the money and asking the real questions about who is getting what.
Too often, power and white privilege, including the governmental and philanthropic systems that fund breastfeeding interventions, suppress the Black woman-led and community-centered work that actually holds the greatest potential to dismantle the long-standing racial disparities in breastfeeding.
This year’s theme for Black Breastfeeding Week, “Revive, Reclaim, Restore,” speaks directly to the need to reclaim the breastfeeding tradition. This was stolen and corrupted during slavery and afterward when Black women were used as wet nurses when they were denied other work options.
The restoration work that needs to happen must take place on all levels, including looking at who is funding the work and how. The suppression of Black-led interventions is often aided and abetted by government funding systems and philanthropic efforts that mostly fund white mainstream institutions that often bring in Black organizations as tokens.
When Black breastfeeding disparities work suddenly became de rigueur, the area was flooded with white organizations who had never done any of this work on the community level. However, they had the relationships and organizational infrastructure to quickly capitalize on major funding opportunities.
That’s white privilege acting against the best interest of Black breastfeeding.
Still today we need more Black women reaching the highest ranks of lactation consulting, the International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC).
In my near decade of breastfeeding advocacy work, I continue to hear stories from Black women who have been charged very high rates by white IBCLC’s who they need in order to get the mentoring hours for certification. I hope this is the year that all ends.
Ultimately, the call to revive, restore and reclaim Black breastfeeding is an internal call to action. For Black people, from Black people.
Breastfeeding is our social justice movement as we declare the health and vitality of our infants as critical to the health and vitality of our communities. This year, Black Breastfeeding Week features special “COVID-19 Conversations” and a series of Facebook Live events related to race and liberation.
And liberate we must. Breastfeeding is the beginning of liberating ourselves from a narrative that says we don’t care about our children, therefore the systems don’t have to care about our children.
As, I often say, the stereotypical Hollywood and media narrative for years has portrayed us as perfectly capable and desirable for taking care of other people’s children, but somehow incapable of taking care of our own.
The narrative says we are powerless against the influences that leave our children gunned down in the street and our own grown Black men crying out for their deceased mamas while being killed by police officers.
This is what Black Breastfeeding Week is about. From our inaugural celebration 8 years ago, when our theme was Black Lives Matter, breastfeeding has always been our living, breathing, lactating, sucking, and nurturing rallying sign against the norm. A personal protest sign (fist up, breast out) and one of the earliest manifestations of Black Lives Matter.
It is about our power to change the health course and parenting course for our children by starting with a powerful (but not easy) commitment.
And as we are demanding systemic change in our communities, rallying in the streets, and building multiracial coalitions of support, BBW is about us also insisting on having the same breastfeeding support systems that white affluent neighborhoods have had for years.
We want support for an infant’s optimal food to be exactly what we want for all: healthy food — and for it to be hyperlocal and easily accessible. Instead, too many Black communities are “first food deserts” where parents can’t easily access the support they need to successfully breastfeed.
Physicians and healthcare professionals also play an important role. Too many Black women say that healthcare professionals don’t bother to educate them or their husbands and partners about breastfeeding because they’ve assumed we won’t do it anyway. Or they don’t trust us to do it right.
Pandemic. Recession. Racial uprisings. Racist political system. We will revive, restore and reclaim through it all. Join us!
Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, author of five books, and a co-founder of Black Breastfeeding Week. She is also the founder of Irth, a new app launching this Fall that will be a “Yelp-like” platform for Black women and birthing people to find and leave hospital and physician reviews of care. Follow @iamKSealsAllers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and @theIrthApp on Facebook and Instagram to learn more.