White women celebrate breastfeeding — where are all the Black women?

A Black woman breastfeeds her child
A Black woman breastfeeding her child. (Photo: Getty Images)

With August being National Breastfeeding Month, celebrities took to social media to commemorate the occasion.

Mandy Moore shared a black and white photo on Instagram with her husband and son Gus, writing that "breastfeeding is not always smooth sailing ... but nursing this baby boy for the past nearly 6 months has been a beautiful, messy and an oh so rewarding experience I will treasure forever."

Iskra Lawrence got similarly vulnerable, admitting that her 13-month breastfeeding journey was "challenging" but she "cherished every second of it."

Other celebrity moms have opened up as well, including Ashley Graham, Ashley Tisdale, Shawn Johnson and Coco Austin, who still breastfeeds 5-year-old Chanel Nicole.

While popular figures opening up about breastfeeding is admirable, making the topic less taboo and demystifying the practice, there's still missing something missing from the conversation — Black women.

So why are Black women not partaking in — or being left out of — the stigma-busting internet discourse? The answer isn't simple.

By the numbers

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black women have the lowest breastfeeding initiation rate of all racial groups at just under 70 percent, compared to 85 percent of white moms and 82 percent of women overall.

There's also the high Black maternal and infant mortality (which, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, was at 10.8 percent compared to 4.6 percent of white infants) rates in this country,

Dark history

Tracie Collins, CEO and founder of the National Black Doulas Association, which provides a national directory of Black doulas and resources, noted the dark history behind Black women and breastfeeding, which dates back to enslavement.

"We came into America [being told] 'you can't breastfeed your own baby, but you have to breastfeed ours.' So there's still that stigma that Black culture is facing," she explains. "Black babies [weren't] being breastfed because we were wet nurses. So our ancestors, they were like 'no, we don't do that. We don't breastfeed our babies' and then formula became the way to go. And this is what you do. And it became more sought after or glamorized in a sense."

Hypersexualization of Black women's bodies similarly dates back to enslavement, which has deepened stigma and discourages the initiation of breastfeeding.

Other challenges Black mothers have faced when it comes to breastfeeding have included lack of access to the support and resources they need.

"I was very excited about breastfeeding," Kimberly Seales Allers, co-founder of Black Breastfeeding Week, which is observed Aug. 25-31, recalls of becoming a mom. "But I had a lot of challenges. At the hospital, they gave my baby formula against my wishes. I remember having to travel far to find a breastfeeding support group because there was none in my area and my own family, who were typically my biggest cheerleaders through life and even grad school, said things like, 'breastfeeding is for poor people.' So I didn’t have a lot of support in my own family and social network."

What can be done to increase destigmatize breastfeeding among Black women?

Seales Allers, while recognizing that fed is best, is proud of pushing through adversity because breastfeeding has shaped her journey as a mother. However, she believes there's a lot that needs to happen to make sure others can have similar experiences.

"We need a federal paid leave policy that is meaningful," Seales Allers asserts. "We live in the only industrialized nation that does not have a federal paid leave policy that would actually value mothering as important work, worthy of paid time off, which would also allow time to establish breastfeeding. Studies show that 25 percent of mothers in the U.S. are returning to work 10 days after childbirth. This is disgusting and unacceptable!"

Collins agrees that resources are important and stresses doulas, which more Black women are turning to. "When it comes to breastfeeding, it's more so about letting them know their options, where resources are available to them," she says. "It's important that they're paired with people who look like them and can understand their cultures. That way they can feel more relaxed because we understand representation matters. There's plenty of resources out there. ... but if resources aren't readily known and opportunity isn't there, then we're the last on the totem pole to be told anything, but always the first to be taken advantage of," Collins says.

Changing the conversation

For Black women to even consider posting to Instagram about breastfeeding, Seales Allers believes that breastfeeding conversations need to be normalized within the community first. She also suggests a change of perspective: "Stop hypersexualizing breasts so mamas can feel free to use them for their biological purpose. View breastfeeding as Black reclamation and liberation. They took something from us and we are taking it back!"