Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Teaching Black Women to Embrace Breastfeeding

NPR seems to be thinking a lot about the topic of this blog, black women and breastfeeding. First there was the piece in November that talked about how black women often avoid breastfeeding. Then today, another piece, also featuring Kathi Barber, about decreasing the disparities in breastfeeding rates. Why do black women breastfeed less than all other races, and how can we narrow that nursing gap?

The piece talks about the negative image that many black women have of breastfeeding, that of the tribal women, with long, sagging breasts that you see in National Geographic. There is also the belief that breastfeeding is painful and gross. In addition, most black women return to work soon after having children and we know how difficult it is to continue to breastfeed while working, particularly when doing blue collar work. Combine that with a lack of breastfeeding role models, the hypersexualization of black bodies, the inability to see breasts as anything but sexual objects, and well, you can see why we have so many problems.

Kathi Barber also sees a link between low breastfeeding rates in the African-American community and the legacy of slavery. Do 21st century moms still carry the anger of the slave forced to breastfeed the master's white children while her own baby starved? Possibly. I think the bigger issue may be the pervasive reluctance to do or be anything deemed as "white." Who are the vocal and visible black women that breastfed? There are a handful of celebrities, but how often do you encounter a black woman breastfeeding while at church or the park or at daycare or a family event?

The thing that leaves me scratching my head, and that I didn't fully realize, was that even middle-class, educated black women have pretty abysmal breastfeeding rates when compared to our white counterparts. Maybe because it seems most of the black women I know who are like me DID breastfeed, at least for a few months if not longer. If the women with the most education, the ones most likely to have a supportive work environment, to truly understand all of the benefits to breastfeeding, aren't doing it, how can we expect anyone else to?

It seems there is still a ton of work to be done and I'm grateful that people like Kathi, who founded the African-American Breastfeeding Alliance, are working hard to promote and protect breastfeeding in the black community.

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