The real secret of breastfeeding: it kills a lot of babies.

Burundi African woman and child

Is there anything more emblematic of white privilege than medical colonialism?

Colonialism is the practice 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 the well off white people.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Invoking simple, contented black women who function based on instinct not intellect is racism, pure and simple.[/pullquote]

Classic examples of medical colonialism come, not surprisingly, from medicine. The Tuskegee experiments, when black men with syphilis were deliberately left untreated, are the most egregious example, but medicine has plenty more including the story of Henrietta Lacks and the use of her HeLa cells for research, and the work of gynecologist J. Marion Simms, who practiced on female slaves to perfect his techniques for repairing obstetric fistulas.

Lactivists have enthusiastically embraced medical colonialism and today’s piece on NPR is a paradigmatic example. Entitled Secrets Of Breast-Feeding From Global Moms In The Know, it romanticized the lives of “primitives” in order to justify the practices of the privileged.

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!

What’s their secret to instinctual breastfeeding? It’s the same as their secret to in homebirth. They and their babies die in droves.

According to USAID, the infant mortality rate in Namibia is 32.8/1000 and maternal mortality is 265/100,000. In the US, The infant mortality rate is 5.82/1000 and the maternal mortality rate is 26.4/100,000.

Their secret is that instinctual birth and instinctual breastfeeding leads to an infant mortality rate 450% higher than in the US (where we have easy access to formula) and 900% higher than in the US (where we have easy access to obstetric interventions).

It is reprehensible that the NPR article doesn’t even mention infant mortality, let alone address it, but it is typical of medical colonialism to ignore the appalling rates of suffering of black babies and mothers. Instead, we are treated to cluelessly racist “happy, simple black people” version of life in nature.

One idea is that the mom and her newborn have long, uninterrupted contact right after birth. Since women are at home, there are no doctors and nurses whisking the infant away for weighing, fingerprinting or tests. This contact allows the newborn’s suckling instincts to kick in, researchers have hypothesized…

Or maybe it’s because when limited to exclusive breastfeeding, babies just die.

The second hypothesis is that Himba women learn how to breast-feed throughout their childhood. Because women see their moms, siblings and friends breast-feed while growing up.

“Breast-feeding in public isn’t stigmatized at all,” Scelza says.

So by the time they have their own babies, Himba women know what to do and it appears instinctual. Here in the U.S. we hardly ever see mothers breast-feeding. So women never really learn.

Or maybe it’s because when limited to exclusive breastfeeding, babies just die.

Well, turns out both hypotheses aren’t quite right.

“I’m telling you that’s exactly what I thought was going on until I started to talk to Himba women,” Scelza says.

A few years ago, Scelza interviewed 30 Himba women in depth about their experiences breast-feeding, especially in the first few days after birth. And guess what? Himba women are a lot like American women…

Two-thirds of the women said they had some problems at the beginning, such as pain, fear, troubles getting the baby to latch and concerns about the milk supply — just like American moms…

“Most women talked about having little knowledge about early infant care, such as how to hold babies or how to be sure they’re sleeping safely,” Scelza says.

So how do the Himba get over these problems? They have a secret weapon many American women don’t, Scelza says: Grandmothers.”

And yet when limited to exclusive breastfeeding, babies die in droves.

Prof. Scelza and NPR are practicing casual medical colonialism, 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 American women (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.