Beyonce Breastfeeds Blue Ivy: Can White Advocates Give Black Moms Our Breastfeeding Victory?

By KIMBERLY ALLERS

Dear White Women,

I know the breastfeeding world is all abuzz over reports that Beyonce breastfed her beautifully brown baby, Blue Ivy Carter, in public last week and that we consider this a victory for all nursing moms everywhere, but I need to claim this moment for African American women. And I need to ask you to step aside or better yet, step behind us in support, while we relish this extremely significant time.

You see, as you may have heard, black women have had historically low breastfeeding initiation and duration rates for over 40 years. And while we had made some solid gains in initiation, when it comes to the gold standard of infant nutrition, exclusive breastfeeding for six months, we have a lot of work to do. But when it comes to the power of celebrity breastfeeding role models—to normalize breastfeeding, add the lifestyle cache and make it trendy like has happened among white women—we have very few. The fabulous Laila Ali comes to mind. But not many others. And certainly nowhere near the A-list nature of your breastfeeding celebrity roster which includes: Angelina Jolie (on the cover of W magazine, no less), Gisele Bundchen, Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Nicole Ritchie (take breath), Jennifer Garner, Jenna Elfman, etc, etc,etc… You do the math.

Beyonce is our Angelina Jolie. Our Gisele, Madonna and Gwen wrapped up into one fabulously black and married woman.

Meanwhile, with all the news reports about Beyonce, and all the breastfeeding “advocates” talking about its impact on the nursing world, not one advocate mentioned the particular significance to black women–which is so striking since many claim to be interested in our breastfeeding plight.

Shame on you.

Nor could I find any major press report that included the perspective of African American women or interviewed a black breastfeeding expert (I’m always available).

Did Beyonce turn white when she started breastfeeding? Or are black women  invisible in the breastfeeding world except when to report the statistics of our lack of breastfeeding?

This is not going to work. And some of you white breastfeeding advocates, one of you, should have pointed that out. If not for us then please for our babies. Black babies are still 2.4 times more likely to die before their first birthday and the CDC says increased breastfeeding among black women could reduce this needless disparity by as much as 50%.

Having Beyonce as our  black breastfeeding moment potentially means that more African American women will know that breastfeeding is mainstream and beautiful and actively practiced by the celebrities we admire. The celebrities from our community. It means that more black women, particularly young women,  may consider breastfeeding their babies–something our community urgently needs.

If, therefore, more black babies are breastfed then more black babies have a chance to have healthier lives–fewer respiratory infections and lower rates of asthma and childhood obesity–health problems that are running rampant in our children.

If that, indeed, is what’s at stake,  if that is the possibility within having Beyonce as ours, then I am putting my heart and soul and power and passion and weight and girth and that of my ancestors (who likely wet-nursed your ancestors) in asking you to help us declare this as our black breastfeeding moment.

Thank you.

Kimberly Seals Allers

P.S. Jennifer Garner just delivered a baby boy so you’ll be back in the game fo’ sho’.

Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, a leading authority on issues relating to mothers of color and author of The Mocha Manual™ series of books. This piece first appeared on MochaManual, Kimberly’s pregnancy and parenting blog for African Americans.

RELATED POSTS:

1. Dear Michele Bachmann: Shut Up About Black Moms and Breastfeeding
2. Nipples and Ninny: An African-American Mom’s Breastfeeding Journey
3. Beyonce’s First Time Out With Blue Ivy Carter: Remembering the Newborn In Public Jitters
4. First Pictures Of Blue Ivy Carter: Check Out Beyonce & Jay-Z’s Beautiful Baby!

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

27 Comments

  1. I know many black women who choose to breastfeed. As usual, we’re statistically deemed medically inadequate. I don’t buy it.

    • neither do I, neither do I! All the black women that I know breastfeed their babies. I really don’t care what white women do nor do i care for a pat on the back from them. All I care about is empowering my own race and black women about the importance about breastfeeding.

  2. What white women or white BF advocates say, write feel or think about any of us is irrelevant. I see no need for a pat on the back from them. I feel no.need to be included in their conversion at all.

    World wide,more indigenous people of color breastfeed than white OR black Americans anyway.
    Black American mothers are re-learning how to do what is best for our babies and that is great.
    Kudos to Beyonce for doing what is best for her family. But I’m sure she didn’t do it to be a spokes person or advocate for black women best feeding. She did it cause Blue needed to eat. Period. Which is the same v reason that any of is should do it.

  3. I love this blog. However I think I may ruffle some feathers with what I want to say. As a white woman – yes I am a white woman who religiously reads this blog – I am thrilled to see any woman breastfeed in public.
    I was never patted on my back, yet received awkward glances when I spoke of my nursing relationship. These glances unfortunately came from white women.
    SO yes I am thrilled to see Beyonce nursing her baby in public. But this is a victory for all nursing mothers regardless of color. To title your blog post “Dear White Women” sparks negativity around a subject that is deeply rooted from love. Deborah Cox, Mariah Carey, Ananda Lewis, Tia Mowry, Essence Atkins are black women in the public eye who have spoken about breastfeeding.

    Beyonce breastfeeding in public is a GOOD thing – let’s hope for a breastfeeding boom, both in white women and BLACK women. But I am just a WHITE woman – what do I know?

    • I think you made an excellent point! Even though I tend to not want to pin so much stock into how much “props” black women are getting from white women about breatfeeding I get the author’s point. The media makes it seemd like only white people do things right and they are very quick to point out what black people do wrong. Forgive me if I rolled my eyes at the end of your statement, I saw no need for the sarcasm especially on a blog dedicated to brown/black mothers.

    • I agree with Christine. I am not sure what being black has to do with it. I know more black women who have breastfed their children than those who chose not to. I think that breastfeeding is not so much a color issue as it is an economic one. Unfortunately, many of our hospitals don’t advocate and support breastfeeding like they should. Also some women may not have a strong support network to turn to when they need help or assistance with breastfeeding. My twins were born in a hospital that professes to support breastfeeding, but after I delivered my babies a lactation consultant didn’t appear until close to my hospital discharge and then she was more concerned about selling me products than showing me how I could successfully feed my children. Regardless of the classes that I took prior to giving birth or the books I read, having two babies in my arms trying to feed them was a total different story. Thankfully, I was determined. If we want to congratulate black moms that breastfeed than let’s support one another, but looking to others to do so really has nothing to do with them, there are other battles that need to be fought and I don’t think this is one of them. http://cleverlychanging.com/2011/02/breastfeeding-you-may-struggle-but-dont-give-up-black-history-month/

      • Elle–Your remark that it is an economic issue brought up a vivid memory I have, so I just thought I’d share…When my first son was new, I was nursing in a lounge area outside/inside a women’s bathroom in a department store. My son had trouble latching, I have big boobs, we were both learning, and I felt more comfortable nursing him somewhere I didn’t have to worry about him popping off a million times. So this woman (40s) and her young daughter (probably 18 or 19 years old) walk through, and the mother clucks in disgust and fake whispers to her daughter, “that is so disgusting, if you can’t afford to pay for formula when you get pregnant, I’ll help you out.” The woman was so white trash/hillbilly, it was ridiculous and here she is worried about her daughter affording formula. My goodness, if you can’t afford formula, you shouldn’t be having a baby because there are about 50,000 other things that you have to pay for when you have a baby. So, yeah, I just thought I’d share that ignorance knows no bounds. I’m sure we could all tell stories of the stupid things we’ve heard as nursing moms.

    • Christine — you completely miss the point. While its great for any woman to breastfeed, I agree. You obviously don’t know how it feels to be double marginalized and then negatively at that. If you did, you would just read the article and try to understand where the author is coming from. I totally can relate and there are numerous black women that can also relate. The conversation is only negative because you make it so. Sometimes you have to just listen.

      But then again, this is consistently what white women have done as it relates to issues affecting women. They take center stage without even acknowledging that while we share many intersections, black women face some different issues than white women do.

  4. I know Denene has made mention often about the significant lack of breastfeeding mothers in the African-American community, so I was waiting for an article on the Beyonce public BFing event on MBB. I have to say, I didn’t expect it written quite like this, but I guess I see your point. As a white nursing mother who met resistance, I’m just excited to see celebrities nurse publicly, discuss the positive aspects of nursing, etc. so that the message keeps spreading that nursing mothers are/should be the norm. And if Beyonce should be doubly lauded for being a black woman nursing publicly, then so be it. I’m in. For an issue as important as children’s health, we have to use whatever positive examples we can find and shout it from the rooftops and show it to our family and our friends and to the young people in our lives so they grow up thinking a nursing baby is a happy, healthy baby and not something to shy away from or be embarrassed by.

  5. This is a timely post. I address the issue of African Americans and breastfeeding in this recent story in the Washington Post. http://wapo.st/vx3t2C

  6. I did not know this was a problem in the AA community. My entire family breast feed. Thanks for this article.

  7. I’m just wondering if maybe Christine and I are missing a cultural issue here. Do African-American woman give more credibility to “black issues” (for lack of a better term) if white people stay out of it? For example, theoretically, if Beyonce is praised in all the predominantly African-American media outlets, but white women don’t discuss it, do other black people take it to heart more? Give it more credibility? Believe its a good thing more? Because, if so, that makes more sense to what the author is saying, and what many of the commentors have stated, and why I think Christine and I were (at least initially when I first read and before I thought about it) a bit taken aback by the tone, but probably we don’t understand the underlying issue. Both of us have nursed and been on the receiving end of negative treatment because of it, so I think we’re both “woohoo–more nursing celebrities!”. When I first read Ms. Allers’ article, I thought, well that doesn’t make sense…if you don’t want white women to acknowledge the good Beyonce is doing that doesn’t help spread the word to a larger audience, but if the act of white women spreading the word means that black women are less invested in the message, then I see how the cost/benefit analysis may elicit the author’s message.

    • Alyssa-it is absolutely possible that you two are missing a cultural issue. I can’t speak to that because I don’t know you personally. There is nothing wrong with anyone noticing the positivity that comes with Beyonce’s public breastfeeding moment. It is a win for ALL breastfeeding moms for sure. However, when the only publicity that black women usually get seems to be for being horrible, welfare mothers that don’t breastfeed, declining to acknowledge the race of a mainstream black celebrity that is breastfeeding ( in public no less) seems (to myself and many other black women) an obvious and perhaps deliberate oversight from the breastfeeding community.

      We are just asking that it be acknowledged.

      Thank you for asking.

  8. Got it. The message is less “‘dear white women…step aside'” and more “white women, black women, humanity in general, acknowledge not just the act of a woman nursing in public, but the fact that said woman is a black woman, a woman from a group of people that has been harangued in the media for its low bfing levels.” And thank you for answering because I honestly don’t believe we learn anything from anyone different from ourselves unless we open a dialogue, but it takes two to carry on that conversation.

  9. I was a breastfed baby. I breastfed my children for years. My 7 year old stopped nursing at 3, my 4 year old stopped nursing at 2. I am still nursing my 2 year old right now.
    Breastfeeding your children is the very best thing you can do for them. Breastfeeding isn’t just a 6 month thing that the medical community is now endorsing. Breastfeeding is initially for nourishment and then as the baby begins to try food nursing is more for comfort and emotional support. Weening a child is done over time according to the child needs.
    As an African American mother I’m glad to hear my fellow sisters are breastfeed their own babies more. I say their own because we were NYSE maids for decades busing white children as well as our own. It’s society that dictated that when baby formulas came about it was “the proper thing” to do. To not breastfeed your own baby but to feed them formulas. Over time women started saying wait my body makes the best for my body and that’s what’s baby will eat. That transition of briefs and practices took years to come about. Black people are very traditional and as a people we may be hip and trendy but we tend to be slow when it comes to making more healthy choices about how we ate going to care for our bodies and in this case how we will care for our children. I think just having the conversation and if Beyonce has to be the one to make it mainstream them so be it. I love Beyonce’s music but she’s not a role model of mine. I’m
    Not going to pat her on the back for doing something that’s the most normal right as rain thing in the world. So what she’s breast feeding her child that’s what everyone should be doing.
    Yes I think there are alot of socieconomic factors that stop African American women from breast feeding.
    Like eduction level of the mother, marital status of the mother, income level of the mother. These issues tie into AA womens decision to breastfed.
    Also the govt’s WIC program pays for infant formula so where is the motivation to breastfed for those AA women receiving that assistance.
    Also breast feeding is a huge commitment. On that alot of women are not willing to make.
    When a women makes the choice to breastfed it makes a statement. That is irregardless of her race or socioeconomic background. Breast is best! The more women who breastfed the better for the world.

  10. Wow!!! This is obviously a very touchy subject among women regardless of race. I am AA woman and when my son was born (seven years ago), I was blessed with a huge support system that totally encouraged me to breastfeed but generally speaking these words of encouragment did come from women of color rather than caucasian women. In the beginning, I admit my reasons for breastfeeding were purely economical because why pay for formula when our Maker so beautifully created mommies to provide free, ready-made nourishment for our babies?!

    After over a year of nursing, my bonding experience was so incredible that I then I started suggesting to any new mom, who might be receptive to all the unsolicted advice they were already receiving, to breastfeed.

    To be perfectly honest, how a mother chooses to feed her baby is just as personal as her choice in diapers and so no one mother/group should be applauded nor criticized for those choices.

  11. Today I learned that unlike with my other two children, I will not be able to breastfeed my newest edition which will be making his debut in 5-6 weeks. I am a black woman who was not breastfed as a baby, but among my black friends, breastfeeding is totally the norm. I am totally devastated, both because I know what that bonding experience is like, and I now can’t have it, and also because I was proud to be an advocate who often nursed in public with no shame.

    One thing, though, that I consistently have taken issue with, even before getting my news today, is that breastfeeding is what is “best.” Breastfeeding has so many good things about it, no doubt. And nutritionally, it is “best” for the baby, when there is nothing in the milk itself that could cause harm. But babies don’t live in a vacuum where they are hooked up to mechanical boobs that give milk. They are attached to women, and it’s really the mother-baby dyad that has to be considered when we think about what is “best.” And even more than that, it’s the entire family that must be considered when we think about what’s “best.”

    I have a psychiatric illness (another thing we don’t talk about as black women) that requires medication, an illness that went undiagnosed, with grave consequences, in my last two pregnancies, an illness that is severely affecting my ability to care for my family right now. In order to make sure that I can be the kind of mother that all three of my children deserve, breastfeeding is actually NOT best. If I stay on my medications, breastfeeding could be extremely detrimental to the health of my baby, and if I don’t stay on my medications in order to breastfeed, the chances of me hurting myself or my children are great.

    Again, I understand the want and need to make a cultural shift in our community toward breastfeeding when it’s appropriate. But we risk alienating a whole group of determined, responsible, caring mothers who want to do what’s “best” when we narrowly define “best” as breastfeeding. I wish we could stick to providing information about being the “best” mothers we can be given our circumstances instead of the judgment that is implied in declaring one way as “best.”

    • Gradmommy, you are correct about the fact that psychiatric illness is not discussed as much in our community as it should be. In addition, what about those mothers who CAN’T breastfeed. My mother tried to breastfeed me, but was unsuccessful. When my sister tried to breastfeed my niece, my niece could not tolerate the milk because my sister was on medication that she had to take after my niece was born. I am now facing this issue. I am seven months pregnant and would love to breastfeed, but because of surgery to remove what turned out to be benign lumps from both breasts when I was in the seventh grade

      • I may not be able to breastfeed. I will be disappointed, but sometimes that’s just how things go. Though nurses say chemists will never be able to mimic a mother’s milk, there are good and healthy formulas out there. Thank you, Gradmommy, for bringing up this issue! I am going to try my hardest to breastfeed, but if I literally can’t, my daughter will be fine.

  12. I’m an AA woman who breast feed by chance. I remember walking to the bus and over hearing two white ladies discussing a formula recalled that resulted in an infants death. Even though my mother breast feed support was not offered by anyone in my family or community regarding breast feeding. Most black women I asked about it said it was disgusting or “no one but a man sucks on my titties”. But I guess it depends on the ammunity you live in. So I signed up for some free classes and educated myself. I’ve been breastfeeding for two months and plan to for at least 18 months. Wic helped tremendously by giving me a free Medela double breast pump through one of their programs. So honestly the free formula was not a deteriant. I glad Beyonce took the initiative for women everywhere by breastfeeding. But this doesn’t help our community out by not openly discussing the importance to the children of black community.

  13. This article did not make me think of how fabulous it is to have such a famous black woman to be breastfeeding, and the consequence it could have on black mothers. It just made me think of all the famous white people who breastfeed. It wasn’t a very positive blog post.

  14. Rachel O'Leary

    I’m a white woman who assists mothers with breastfeeding, after having lots of help myself when I breastfed my babies, and learning skills etc. I’d like to acknowledge one of the most helpful women I came across. When I was breastfeeding my toddler on the underground/tube/metro in London, she leaned over and said: “You’re hungry? You have your food, don’t let anybody shame you.” I nearly cried with relief. She was black. I tell everybody about her!

  15. I get what you’re saying about how relevant this moment is to the black community, but why make such a divisive blog post about it? I’m a white woman who is going back to school to become a lactation consultant because I am SO passionate about breastfeeding as a public health issue. My mother is a nurse and a WIC educator and seeing that WIC buys and gives out about 50% of the formula produced in this country, and also hearing her lament the state of children’s health and maternal education in her practice, I think this path is one of utmost importance in our country at this time of super high rates of obesity and childhood diabetes. We are all mothers, why can’t breastfeeding be a battleground where we UNITE rather than make it a white/black thing? I’m sorry that the color of my skin makes my care for your children’s health irrelevant. Actually, I’m not sorry, I’m disappointed that we as women haven’t come farther at this point. It’s so discouraging to have genuine love and support rejected because of race. I wouldn’t hesitate to nurse a black baby, or any baby, who was hungry, in my world milk=love. I have love for all people, all children. I get that Beyonce is ‘yours’, I get that it should be mentioned that she is black because in so doing the message to black mothers would be clear that breastfeeding is something to emulate. I just get frustrated at the tone, ‘step off, white woman.’. I come from an immigrant family, my brother spent two and a half years in Africa in the peace corps building schools, my mother is a nurse, my husband is a race scholar. This article smacks of that old adage, ‘There are too many people in the world too angry at a world that is not the slightest bit angry at them’. White women are not the problem. You not understanding ‘alliance’ and ‘pick your battles, and your enemies’ is the problem. Be mad at formula companies, at the lack of support, at media, but to generalize and lump all white women together is polarizing and unproductive to the conversation and the larger issues we ALL, as women, are facing. So, shame on me? No, shame on YOU for pointing a finger at white women, and for what exactly? And perhaps you’d care to enlighten me on how a white woman with nothing but the best of intentions can possibly penetrate the black community and address these, again, public health issues without being diminished to nothing but her whiteness? I DO care about your babies, but I don’t care for the attitude that black women don’t feel the need to be involved in this conversation with white women at all. That our opinions are irrelevant. I get that this country isn’t beyond institutionalized racism, but as sisters who share the motherhood experience, we should be beyond this division. White women mother black babies, black women mother white babies, it’s all about the common goal, ladies. Or at least it should be. I shudder to think what kind of backlash I would get if I titled a blog post, ‘Dear Black Women’, and went on to tell them ‘shame’ for offending me by celebrating one of ‘my people’s’ achievements. I would be called a racist, and they would be right.

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