Black Breastfeeding Advocacy: It Takes All Styles

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Stereotypes within the African American community can marginalize some would-be breastfeeding mothers. Kimberly Seals Allers says health benefits should be the all-important focus; not personal styles in dressing, eating or caring for your hair.

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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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This article speaks directly to me! I too am a professional educated black woman who loves her designer bags and shoes and (gasp) straightens her hair. But I also breastfed my son for 12 months and am currently breastfeeding my 5 month old daughter. I love breastfeeding and believe that it's one of the best choices a mother can make for her child. Many of my college friends who had children refused to even try to breastfeed, which made me wonder how well they educated themselves about the benefits of breastfeeding.

I wonder how we could fix this issue in our community, because it seems that even the "educated" black women are completely clueless about breastfeeding and its many benefits.

I think you have really hit the ball out the park with your summary of breastfeeding in the African American Community.I hope we can use this informative tool to help others think about the stereotype and boxes we put each other in innocently,not maliciously.We sometimes find it hard to except pure honest love affection and concern.Let me start by thanking you for even caring enough about us to share this information.The word is getting out we are slowly getting back to breastfeeding but we need all of us in our community to help.Yea it would be nice to hear MRS.JaZ or Halle speak up but we have our intelligent first lady Michelle Obama and there are black breastfeeding advocates all over this nation trying to reach out. So all is not lost we are getting there.
Yes it does take all styles and I like yours.

Terry Jo Curtis IBCLC
Indiana Black Breastfeeding Coalition