Thursday, April 18, 2013

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'It's Only Natural': White Breastfeeding in Blackface?

If you are just now tuning into my blog, then you should know that yes, I do have a problem with everything. Maybe that's a stretch, but it's not too often I find myself taking anything at face value (whether that's always good or bad is up for debate). I like to think my critical thinking skills are always turned on and tuned in, but besides, I have entirely too much of a child-like curiosity, which involves a lot of question-asking, for that. I thought I would briefly weigh-in on this new campaign launched by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health. It's only natural focuses exclusively on Black breastfeeding. Their website says it "helps African-American women and their families understand the health benefits of breastfeeding—not just for babies, but for moms too," and there are several categories dedicated to the following topics:

  • Planning ahead
  • Addressing myths
  • Overcoming challenges
  • Finding support
  • Fitting breastfeeding into your life
  • My breastfeeding story

I don't want to give the impression that I don't think the site is useful; I think the videos are gorgeous, and the stories by the women who are featured in them are honest and heartfelt. When I first visited, I got a rush, followed by warm fuzzies -- the ones I always get when I hear about Black women breastfeeding. But after I looked at it again, I couldn't help but think of how much this initiative reminded me of a quote by Audre Lorde that a friend shared the other day, on Black Feminism, and all that it encompasses in what is the complexity of Black women's lives:

“Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface. Black women have particular and legitimate issues which affect our lives as Black women, and addressing those issues does not make us any less Black.”

I have criticized the free breastfeeding books offered by the Office on Women's Health before -- the ones that supposedly highlight the different "ethnic" groups; African American, Latina, Native American, and Chinese (though I could not read this last one). A cursory look may not reveal much, but a deeper one will show that they are literally nothing more than a murmur of white culture; (check them out, and compare them with the so-called "neutral" one they offer -- the one filled with majority white people -- because white is always considered the objective, of course). The OWH claims they are exclusive to each group, but if you look closer, you will undoubtedly agree that they simply herald the breastfeeding culture of white society, with Women of Color used as proxies. They reproduce mainstream ideas about breastfeeding, and don't delve deeper into areas that truly concern us, from our own perspective and our place in this society. This is, at least, how I see it. And these ideas seems to be along the same lines of the It's only natural campaign, and because of that, there are a few questions I have: 

Where are the issues specific to Black women -- instead of just repeating that 'Black women don't breastfeed' and simply saying we need to -- and showing us how to put a baby on our chest? Why are they making the breastfeeding inequity a Black woman's pathology instead of implicating other people who are responsible? And when I say 'other people,' I mean everyone! Where are the conversations on institutional racism that is perpetuated throughout society, and stand in the way of a slew of areas that shapes how we feel about our bodies, our self-esteem, our family life and every other area? White supremacy? The glorification of white bodies? The vilification of our partners, or the history of mistrust with healthcare professionals? Where is the conversation about structural violence, and how we can challenge this outside of the breastfeeding realm, which is inextricably linked to our rates?

I won't deny that just seeing or hearing the breastfeeding stories of those among our peer group, or others in our social circle can offer support. I recall the presentation by the founder of the Black Mothers' Breasfeeding Association last year at the ROSE Summit -- and how she shared that her presence alone -- being physically there in the company of a Black mother who was on the cusp of quitting was enough to encourage this woman to continue nursing her child (yes, I have goose bumps right now -- just like I did when I listened to this from my seat in the audience, almost one year ago). And I'm not saying that It's only natural does not provide assistance to women. What I am saying is that breastfeeding is more than simply the mechanical steps of attaching an infant to its mother's breast -- especially for Black women. And Black people. If indeed we have the lowest rates of any group in this country it is not just by chance. And the Office on Women's Health must take this into account as well as a more critical and holistic look into this area, and integrate these important aspects as part of their strategy, if they truly wish to impact and create real and lasting change.

But these are just some of my early thoughts.

Have you visited the site? What are yours?