The casual racism of breastfeeding advocacy

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Ironically, one of the most racist examples of breastfeeding advocacy that I’ve ever seen can be found on the website of a bastion of liberalism, National Public Radio.

Entitled Secrets Of Breast-Feeding From Global Moms In The Know, it exploits black African bodies to promote the values of privileged, Western, white women.

Invoking simple, contented black women who function based on instinct not intellect is racism, pure and simple.

It’s almost like in the U.S. we’ve lost the breast-feeding instinct. That Western society has somehow messed it up. [Evolutionary biologist Brooke] Scelza wanted to figure out why: What are we doing wrong?

So a few years ago, she traveled to a place with some of the best breast-feeders in the world.

In the desert of northern Namibia, there’s an ethnic group that lives largely isolated from modern cities. They’re called Himba, and they live in mud huts and survive off the land…

Moms still give birth in the home. And all moms breast-feed.

“I have yet to encounter a woman who could not breastfeed at all,” Scelza says. “There are women who have supply issues, who wind up supplementing with goat’s milk, which is not uncommon. But there’s basically no use of formula or bottles or anything like that.”

And Himba women make breast-feeding look easy, Scelza says. They even do it while they’re walking around.

See the simple, contented black women who function based on instinct not intellect!

It is a ugly illustration of the casual racism undergirding Western natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocacy described by academic feminist Rachelle Chadwick:

Colonial ideas about indigenous and black women’s bodies as primitive and animal-like and thus primed to give birth (and breastfeed) easily and without pain or the need for medical assistance, are rooted in ideologies of racial difference and Social Darwinism…

[T]he ‘primitive’ woman, “haunts western women’s birth stories” as a romanticized, racist ideal that valorizes the power of the instinctive, pure or ‘natural’ birthing body …

The NPR story checks every box of racist, colonial assumptions.

But that isn’t even the worst part of the casual racism displayed by NPR.

The article utterly IGNORES the fact that the babies of these women die in droves!

According to USAID, the infant mortality rate in Namibia — where all the mothers “instinctually“ breastfeed — is 32.8/1000. In the US, the infant mortality rate is 5.82/1000 — where Western white women have supposedly lost their instincts. The infant mortality rate among the Himba is higher still at an appalling 49.9/1000.

Prof. Scelza did not see fit to mention the fact that the babies of the Himba die in droves. It’s not that she didn’t know about the unusually high Himba infant mortality rate. I found the figure on her research website, a throwback to the casually racist National Geographic photo essays of my youth, complete with happy “primitives” with exposed breasts.

It is reprehensible that the NPR article doesn’t even mention infant mortality, let alone address it. It is a classic example of medical colonialism. Colonialism is the practice of one country occupying another country or region and exploiting it for the benefit of the occupier. Medical colonialism is the practice of exploiting black bodies, knowledge and practices and co-opting them for the benefit of well off white people.

Scelza and NPR actually think the major issue here is how to increase breastfeeding rates in the US (a preoccupation of Western, well off, white women) and ignore the REAL issue here, how to decrease the infant death rate among the Harimba people. But what’s few dead black babies when you are trying to convince white women to breastfeed? Not even important enough to mention, apparently.

“I think that there’s enormous pressure to succeed with breast-feeding in the U.S. and that you feel like if you can’t do it that this is a huge failing as a mother,” Scelza says. But Himba women didn’t seem to think the problems related to breast-feeding were a big deal.

It’s hard to imagine how Scelza and NPR could be more racist if they tried.

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  • Bob Laughlin

    Black Breastfeeding Matters

  • Grey Sweater

    Nice to see women called “breastfeeders”. Rarely have I seen something so over the top sexist and racist and gross.

    • Griffin

      Yes, repugnant.

      Given that, I’m surprised Scelza uses the word ‘woman’.

      I mean, come on, ““I have yet to encounter a female who could not breastfeed at all” is MUCH better than the politically correct “I have yet to encounter a woman who could not breastfeed at all,”

    • The Kids Aren’t AltRight

      When I took the hospital breastfeeding class, they referred to us as “the breast” from time to time.

      • Grey Sweater

        Feminism!

  • Mel

    I’ll never forget a commentator here or at another site who was describing explaining to a set of new grandparents in Africa that their daughter had needed a C-section. The commentator was expecting some kind of pushback, but the grandmother was thrilled that her daughter had had a live baby born safely through a C-section. The grandmother had had two obstructed labors where the baby had to be extracted through a fetotomy similar to what vets do with cows in a bad way.

    Pretending that the Himba are choosing “natural” but really substandard care rather than making do with the only choices they have is sick.

  • Christine O’Hare

    How can they not figure out that the Himba are doing these things (birth at home, breastfeeding, goats milk supplementation) …because they literally have no other choice! They didn’t “choose” to birth and feed their babies that way – its literally the only way available to them.

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    “I have yet to encounter a woman who could not breastfeed at all,” Scelza says. “There are women who have supply issues, who wind up supplementing with goat’s milk, which is not uncommon. But there’s basically no use of formula or bottles or anything like that.”

    Wait a minute. It’s “not uncommon” to supplement with goat’s milk, but “there’s basically no use of formula or bottles or anything like that.”? How does that math work?

    How do they give goat’s milk if not with bottles? Have the baby nurse on the goat directly? And for formula,isn’t goat’s milk something “like that”?

    Why do they use goat’s milk? Because clean formula is not available. So they have to resort to goat’s milk. And it’s not uncommon!

    Moms still give birth in the home. And all moms breast-feed.

    I’ve related this comparison before. Native Americans used to think that if they painted the right symbols on their horses’ hind flanks, it would protect them from the white man’s bullets. I gotta tell ya, I don’t see that as all that wise.

    • MaineJen

      I think the technique (if bottles are not available) is sometimes to soak a rag in the milk, and let the baby suck on a corner of the rag. No matter what, it’s comparable to formula supplementation and this woman is full of shit.

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        I think the technique (if bottles are not available) is sometimes to soak a rag in the milk, and let the baby suck on a corner of the rag.

        Obviously, that’s WAY better than using a bottle…

    • Rita Rippetoe

      Actually in some parts of the world where goats are used to supplement human milk it is customary to hold the baby up to the goat’s teat until the baby is big enough to sit up on its own. This is probably more sanitary than anything else in the absence of refrigeration, clean water to wash milking vessels, etc. I recall reading that in rural Greece nursing directly from a nanny goat was regarded as a predictor of physical prowess. A local champion wrestler had been so reared.

  • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

    Gotta love the “They give birth at home, YAY!” attitude. Sure wonderful home birth and no interventions, so many more babies are dead or permanently damaged due to lack of interventions and equipment but “all natural”. And thats not even mentioning the rate of obstetric fistula due to complications and unavailability of C-section.