Nursing is normal? Questioning colorblind slogans in the breastfeeding movement
Posted May 7, 2012on:
Back in December, Little A and I took part in the Target Nurse-In. It was exhilarating to join together with thousands of mamas around the country and take a stand against breastfeeding discrimination. There was some debate early on on the Target Nurse-In Facebook page about what our message would be. What did this mothering movement want to communicate to Target and to the world? The mamas ultimately settled on “Nursing is normal.”
This phrase was appealing because it affirmed that the breastfeeding is the natural thing to do and challenged our breast-phobic society to think differently about what breasts are for. At the time, I embraced that slogan, and have even used it in blog posts.
But the writings of legal scholar Angela Harris have caused me to question “Nursing is normal,” and with it, all other breastfeeding slogans that make normative statements about breastfeeding, mothering, and women.
The problem with “Nursing is normal” is that, for many mamas, it’s just not true. Breastfeeding might be biologically normal, but many mamas in the United States do not experience breastfeeding as normal. When we say “Nursing is Normal,” we privilege biology over experience, and in so doing, erase what is most important to many women.
In particular, for African Americans, nursing is not normal for historical reasons that are inextricably intertwined with race. As I wrote in a recent paper for my jurisprudence class:
Blacks have been exploited by the formula industry in ways that whites have not. White employers have imposed mother-baby separation on black domestics, paying them to wet-nurse white babies while leaving their own babies undernourished. Black women and babies suffer from health complications in pregnancy and birth at drastically higher rates than white women and babies, presenting major hurdles to breastfeeding. Black women often do not receive the same kind of breastfeeding support as white women because of the uneven distribution of lactation consultants across various hospitals, or because hospital staff may assume that black women will not breastfeed.
Breastfeeding slogans that privilege biological norms over historical and experiential realities force black women who want to identify with the breastfeeding movement to choose a particular biological construction of gender over the historical construction of race. The problem is that, according to Harris, many black women see themselves as having “multiple consciousnesses,” possessing inseparable gendered, racial and other identities. Under this theory, forcing black women to identify as women, but not as black, diminishes their personhood by suppressing their other identities.
Even the way we talking about breastfeeding in history usually speaks exclusively white mamas’ experiences. The standard story (at least the story that I usually tell) about why breastfeeding is such a struggle for so many American mamas goes like this: In the middle of the 20th century, an entire generation was told that formula feeding was as good or better for their babies than breastfeeding. Mamas formula fed their babies, and in so doing, a whole generation of breastfeeding knowledge was lost, leading us to where we are today.
What’s wrong with this story? It utterly fails to capture the experience of black women, other women of color, and a whole host of immigrants. It’s not the story of why American women struggle to breastfeed. It’s the story of why white American women struggle to breastfeed.
Sometimes I will add in the experiences of women of color as an addendum to my standard narrative. But by doing so I set up the experiences of women of color as exceptions to the white norm. Many breastfeeding slogans do the same thing. They establish the experience of white women as the standard against which other experiences are measured, thereby excluding women of color from the breastfeeding movement.
If standard breastfeeding narratives and slogans fail to unite the breastfeeding movement, what can? Can’t we still say that all mamas have suffered at the hands of the formula industry, a male-dominated work environment, and widespread misinformation? Harris offers this critique: To do so would be to once again establish the white experience as the standard. By saying that breastfeeding discrimination unites us, we would essentially say that black mamas are like white mamas only more so (because they are more oppressed), while simultaneously discounting the critical role that race plays in African American breastfeeding history and experience.
Perhaps it would be best for the breastfeeding movement to abandon simplistic breastfeeding slogans to the greatest extent possible, and focus instead on mamas’ particular experiences. In one sense, this should be easy for the breastfeeding movement. Many breastfeeding support persons are already trained to focus on each mama’s particular experience. Perhaps we need to approach lactivism the same way we approach mother-to-mother support: by focusing on each mama’s particular goals and challenges. Instead of signs and t-shirts that say “Nursing is Normal,” why not carry photos of specific mamas with dialogue boxes saying, “I had to choose between my breastfeeding and my livelihood,” or “No IBCLC for me at ____ hospital”?
I’m still wrestling with the implications of Harris’ work for the breastfeeding movement. I don’t know whether my suggestion is an adequate or appropriate solution. But I know that I am eager to reimagine the movement in ways that are increasingly sensitive to the diverse struggles that mamas face, especially women of color.