The Real Reason Black Mothers Are Being Pushed to Breastfeed

Efforts to close the racial breastfeeding gap are more complicated than they appear.

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photo Getty Images/LWA/Dann Tardif
Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photo Getty Images/LWA/Dann Tardif
Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photo Getty Images/LWA/Dann Tardif

On Wednesday, social-justice advocates across the country began to gather — on social media and in person — for the start of the ninth annual Black Breastfeeding Week. This year’s theme, “The Big Pause: Collective Rest for Collective Power,” reminds its participants that radical social change is a long game, that imagining a new world requires rest, self-care, and deliberate focus. The revolution that these advocates desire is one where more Black women breastfeed, where hospitals and birthing centers devote resources to support Black breastfeeding, and where formula companies are no longer allowed to market their products in hospitals. But Black Breastfeeding Week and the tremendous political effort behind it — with its promise of revolution in the form of lactating Black breasts — now makes visible an uncomfortable coalition between Black feminists and the state that treats Black mothers as in need of reform.

The racial breastfeeding gap has garnered tremendous popular and academic interest in recent years. In 2017, the New York Times reported on research by Dr. Chelsea O. McKinney that found that 61 percent of Black mothers initiated breastfeeding compared to 78 percent of white mothers. The gap was found to have multiple causes, including hospitals’ failure to encourage Black breastfeeding, the presence of formula in maternity wards, and the lack of community support for Black breastfeeders. The next year, a Gap advertisement for the brand’s intimate-apparel line went viral for its depiction of a Black woman breastfeeding her child. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, writer Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez celebrated the advertisement: “It is epic for a multitude of reasons: She is a dark-skinned Black woman, she is a Black woman with a wedding ring, and she is breastfeeding a toddler!” A chorus of voices ranging from public-health scholars to Black feminist activists insisted that something needed to be done about racial breastfeeding disparities, and the solution they found is seemingly simple: encourage Black mothers to breastfeed.

But the story of how we arrived at this moment is complicated. In 2005, New York State’s Department of Health declared obesity to be a significant problem plaguing the state’s citizens. And it found that it is Black people generally, and Black women specifically, who are most troublingly obese. In many ways, the racialization of obesity is unsurprising. Black women have long been culturally represented as too much, as unrestrained in their desires. Much of American political life — from the infamous Moynihan Report to the stereotype of the welfare queen — has been shaped by the idea that the health of the state requires keeping Black women’s appetites in line.

What is surprising is one of the solutions the Department of Health offered to combat obesity: promoting breastfeeding among Black women. Ameliorating the racial breastfeeding gap, the report found, would increase breastfeeding rates and decrease obesity. Breastfeeding would help postpartum Black women lose weight and instruct Black infants on how to develop healthier relationships to satiety. New York’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program had been offering enhanced food packages for exclusively breastfeeding mothers since 1994, but was newly ordered to create “breastfeeding-friendly environments,” physical spaces that would promote breastfeeding. These changes sought to alter the consumption habits of Black families by producing infants who were trained — from their earliest days — to eat only when hungry, and to stop eating when full. The state was explicitly targeting Black mothers and Black children as excessive bodies, offering breastfeeding as appetite-control training to treat food as filling merely physical needs, as opposed to social, cultural, and emotional needs.

Eight years after New York championed breastfeeding as a cure for obesity, Black Breastfeeding Week was founded by a group of Black feminist activists including Kimberly Seals Allers, Kiddada Green, and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka. Wellness influencer Latham Thomas describes the impulse of the week as “about joy” and “about my mom being able to boast that she nursed me until I was a year old and 32 pounds. It’s for our ancestors, who would have probably loved to have been able to provide nourishment for their babies.” From its inception, Black Breastfeeding Week has linked breastfeeding to a larger movement for Black life. The theme of the inaugural year, in 2013, was Black Lives Matter, and its organizers invited participants to “join us in the celebration and declaration for our children. For all of our Mike Browns, past, present, and future.”

The call to support lactating Black breasts and to educate Black breastfeeders has only intensified in a Black Lives Matter era where Black breast milk is described by Black feminist activists as physical and psychic nutrition. If breast milk has been celebrated as liquid gold — a nutritional superfood — Black breast milk is now treated as Black gold. It is thought to confer benefits on Black infants who are more likely to experience trauma even in utero. Allers, one of the week’s founders, writes, “Black women disproportionately give birth to babies who are too small, too sick, or they give birth too soon … those babies need breast milk more.” Black breast milk is figured as an early inoculation against vulnerability, a way of safeguarding Black life in its first moments. During Black Breastfeeding Week, lactation is represented on social media as a practice of Black self-sufficiency, a “gesture of empowerment and self-determination.” To be able to fully care for a child’s physical and emotional well-being is a powerful act. It is even more powerful in a moment where many of us are aware of how profoundly vulnerable Black life is to violence.

We now find ourselves in a moment where efforts by the state, nonprofits, and Black feminist activists — often working in uncomfortable concert — work to recruit Black breasts to lactate. The difference between 2005 and now is that Black mothers are figured as lacking information and support, rather than being irrationally noncompliant. They are imagined as unsupported breastfeeders rather than unwilling breastfeeders. The gap is imagined not as the cause of Black women’s pathology, but instead as the fault of hospitals that refuse to encourage Black breastfeeding and which readily supply formula — rather than breastfeeding support — to birthing people. Compassion and support are, of course, alluring. To view Black mothers as unsupported rather than deficient is to insist that Black mothers deserve resources rather than condemnation. But the result is the same: a concerted effort to encourage Black breastfeeding that relies on the same myths of Black women’s need for bodily regulation. Black mothers are still treated as in need of reform.

If Black breasts are imagined to nurture Black life, formula is portrayed as a way of facilitating Black illness and even death. Some advocates of Black breastfeeding describe formula in ways that mirror paternalistic descriptions of Black consumption habits. Andrea Freeman, who authored a powerful indictment of the formula industry’s racism, warns that formula is a “junk or fast food for infants.” This comparison is telling. Junk food has long been a racially marked category deployed to denigrate the food choices of poor Black women and their children. The language of Black breastfeeding advocacy comes to sound much like the language of the state, imploring Black mothers to refuse “junk” and to make healthy choices. Now the refusal of junk is not in the name of avoiding obesity, but in the name of producing physically and emotionally robust Black children.

Formula also gets characterized as a dangerous form of dependence. Black women have long been criticized for their imagined reliance on the state, and they are now critiqued — even by breastfeeding activists — for their dependence on what Allers terms “corporate influences and profit-making interests.” In February 2021, as Texas faced dangerous winter storms and a lack of potable water, Allers tweeted, “My heart breaks for all Texans. I pray that no mama is forced to consider BOILING SNOW to prepare infant formula for their baby. When we say #breastfeeding is critical emergency preparedness & must be supported & accessible, this is it!!” This is a vision of Black mothers as frontline responders to an emergency. It is also a vision that insists that Black women free themselves from any dependence on manufactured infant sustenance to ensure their survival.

The disaster landscape we inhabit — one marked by racial violence and pandemics — makes the rhetoric of preparedness appealing. Allers’s conception of Black breast milk as emergency preparation celebrates an image of Black mothers as risk-mitigating, prepared, and responsive to a retreating or wholly absent state. Yet this vision of Black mothers celebrates “responsible” mothers while suggesting that formula-feeders are dependent and risk-prone, precisely how Black mothers have been denigrated for decades. The rhetoric of Black gold can certainly empower Black mothers, but it also relegates some to the category of bad mothers, because of their imagined failures to tap into their gold, their distinct capacity to sustain Black life.

We must think carefully about a moment when the state, nonprofits, and Black feminist activists — even as they are motivated by different political commitments — begin to speak the same language. We have an opportunity to contend with how the state and Black feminists have united in producing the Black child as the symbol of life and the Black mother as the protector of that life, as the producer of Black gold. This is a vision of Black motherhood as worthy only insofar as it uplifts Black children, and Black communities more generally. Wholly absent from the push to support Black breastfeeding is any consideration of Black mothers as people with aspirations, desires, and needs that might include and exceed being solely responsible for the lives of Black infants. We must then imagine a radical Black feminism that values Black mothers beyond their labor in support of lives that are not their own. And we must continue to refuse a politics — however alluring — that requires us to align ourselves with performances of good citizenship. We know far too well that even if some Black mothers are able to fashion themselves as prepared, risk-mitigating, and compliant, the U.S. racial project depends on marking other Black mothers as deviant, pathological, and risk-prone.

Jennifer C. Nash is a Professor at Duke University and the author of Birthing Black Mothers.

The Real Reason Black Mothers Are Being Pushed to Breastfeed