The casual racism of breastfeeding advocacy


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.