(WOMENSENEWS)--There is a pervasive and damaging stereotype among African Americans about what a black breastfeeding mother looks like and by extension, who can legitimately represent our community in breastfeeding advocacy.
This can undermine the important work of saving black women and ensuring healthy, thriving black babies.
Among white mothers, the prevailing stereotype is that women such as Angelina Jolie, Gisele Bundchen and Gwen Stefani breastfeed. These women are affluent, successful, fabulous, stylish and very much to be envied and emulated. They impart cachet to breastfeeding, and often a "bad mother" judgment if you don't.
This is a marked change from the early 1900s, when white, wealthy women led the march to formula feeding. People of color followed. But when white elites backtracked to the breast, not so many African-Americans followed. But the bridge had been built joining white women of different lifestyles in the breastfeeding cause.
This bridge still feels broken in my community. Among African Americans, the stereotype is that "Earth Mothers" breastfeed. You know the Erykah Badu's, the sisters with beautiful African print cloth head wraps, who wear their hair in its natural state, eat raw foods or a vegan diet and delivered their babies "naturally" at home or in birthing tubs. I adore these black women.
I, on the other hand, am rarely seen without three-to-four-inch heels and a designer handbag. My hair is chemically relaxed and I'm not afraid to weave in a few tracks when I want to feel fabulous. I often prefer (organic) meat with my meal. I don't wear Kente cloth or cowry shells. Oh and hold on to your uteruses, because, even though I ended up having two C-sections, my original birth plan said one thing: Epidural, please. In bold letters.
Yet, I enthusiastically breastfed both of my children for 15- and 13-months respectively. I struggled, laughed, cried, sacrificed, ooh and aahhh-ed through those months even when my well-intentioned mother said, "Breastfeeding is for poor people," and I had minimal social support and zero multi-generational support.
The nuanced challenges of breastfeeding while black persist regardless of your hair, wardrobe or lifestyle choices. In my work, I have seen women of all walks, looks, shapes and sizes passionately embrace breastfeeding.
Despite my own lack of support around breastfeeding, I am committed to working to increase awareness of breastfeeding in our vulnerable communities and to thinking about innovative ways to address the 40-year racial disparity in breastfeeding rates that transcends socio-economic lines.
Black babies are dying at 2.4 times the rate of white infants before their first birthday; a disparity the Centers for Disease Control estimates could shrink by 50 percent simply by increasing breastfeeding rates among their moms.
Does my bling mean a thing, when respiratory infections, asthma and childhood obesity run rampant among our infants and children and studies show that exclusive breastfeeding can significantly reduce these risks? When our neighborhoods are virtual deserts when it comes to meaningful breastfeeding resources and support while they are simultaneously flooded with aggressive infant formula marketing?
Does the state of our hair really matter when black women are dying from childbirth-related complications at four times the rate of white women?
In New York City, the problem is particularly acute--black women are nearly eight times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than whites. In California, black women accounted for only 6 percent of births in the state, but they represented 22 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in 2002 and 2003. Breastfeeding has health benefits for the mother too.
Unfortunately, oftentimes when Jimmy Choo and I walk into a room of other breastfeeding black women to learn from them and exchange ideas, I often sense more side-eye glances because of my appearance and background. The supportive, let's roll-up-our-sleeves together love often escapes me. I am finding that the stereotypes about what a black woman breastfeeding advocate should look like are becoming an unwelcome obstacle to my intent and purpose. I feel isolated and much like an interloper in a room of brown faces.
An Identity Problem
I face questions about my certifications or my lactation consultant status by other black women. I was once told by a black woman that I wasn't "qualified." Another sought to comfort me on the challenges of being an "outsider." This is in stark contrast to what I experience in the white community where my passion seems enough to open doors.
I've researched our history and tried to make sense of these phenomena. I have come to believe that part of this stereotypical identity problem is likely that we are still stigmatized by what I call the "National Geographic effect." That is, for years the only images we saw of black women breastfeeding were women from Africa--tribal women with elongated earrings and dangling breasts. And perhaps because that is our media-fed association with breastfeeding, even some African American women have subconsciously subscribed to that identity. Therefore, the women who dress in a more "Afrocentric" style with hair and accessories reminiscent of the Motherland are more accepted as "authentic" black breastfeeders.
The rest of us of are inauthentic, Westernized imposters, I suppose.
This distortion cries out for counterbalance.
Laila Ali and other black celebrity moms publicly support breastfeeding. But we haven't had a Hollywood mom (or enough of them) of the same stature as Angelina or Demi Moore step up. We need more prominent role models to help build the bridge. I have written about this gaping hole for years. Perhaps Halle Berry could have been this person. We are waiting on you, Beyonce.
My Sister's Keeper
Meanwhile, we fail to realize that dividing lines have been used to weaken black Americans and destroy our communities for years. Since the days of slavery, color has been used as a tool of separation and preferential treatment among African Americans. The residue of the "house" and "field" Negro divide has long remained with us. And when color hasn't divided up, we have found class, ethnicity, education and even, bourgeois versus "ghetto" to separate us.
The strength of any culture or people who have ever achieved anything has been in their willingness to stick together, protect each other, and be their sister's keeper.
Even in my (sample sale) designer labels, I am my sister's keeper.
Just as the "authentic" black experience is just as varied as the skin tones in which we come, so is the black breastfeeding experience. We are all in this together. We need to dispel these myths and broaden our minds about what a black breastfeeding mom looks like or risk stifling much-needed voices and ideas, and excluding scores of black women. Risk creating a self-inflicted wound to the critical mission of making sure every black infant has fair and equal access to the best first food--breast milk.
So please bring the kale crisps and I'll bring the creme brulee and together we will self-define and redefine black breastfeeding and transform the first food experience for every black mother and child. Who's with me?
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Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist and author and a leading voice on the African American motherhood experience. She is currently an IATP Food and Community Fellow working on improving access to the first food in vulnerable communities. A divorced mom of two, Kimberly is also the founder of Black Breastfeeding 360 degrees --a soon-to-be released online multi-media content collection on the black breastfeeding experience.
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