Dear White Lactivists,
Racism is not our prop.
Racism is not dead, it is not gone, it is not a thing of the past, it is not almost eradicated, it is not someone else’s problem, and it is not something we are subject to (please eliminate the phrase “reverse racism” from your vocabulary posthaste).
Racism is not our prop. It is not ours to hold up to compare breastfeeding discrimination against. It is not ours to make analogies with (“getting kicked off a plane due to breastfeeding discrimination is just like how black people used to not be able to eat in the same restaurants as white people!”1). Here’s the thing: the very fact that we think racism is ours to appropriate, to pin down and treat as dead and gone and harmless now, is a sign of racism’s continued existence.
Yes, there has been anti-racist activism since 1968. Because believe it or not, racism didn’t end after a declaration of a dream or with the death of a dreamer.
If you take away nothing else from this letter, please, please remember that there are many lactivists of color, and we need them, and we need to center them in our mutual activism (because for decades we have been excluding them from our circles), and when we deny and erase and ignore and perpetuate the racism they face every damn day, we are driving them away, shoving them to the margins again, and saying “Your experiences don’t matter, your lived reality doesn’t matter, and if you care about breastfeeding then you should just shut up and sit down and take this degradation of your humanity.” Furthermore, we miss out on learning about — and thus lose the opportunity to dismantle! — all the ways that racism and breastfeeding discrimination interact and reinforce each other. Which means we are failing at lactivism.
Now, if we are extremely careful, and extremely respectful, it might, sometimes, be possible to draw parallels between anti-racism work and anti-breastfeeding-discrimination work. Because while specific oppressions differ, marginalization often functions the same (or similar) regardless of the topic — but again, it’s not as simple as saying “breastfeeding discrimination is just like racism!”, because that’s simply not true. Breastfeeding discrimination, like racism, is a social justice issue; it is a systemic oppression, with aspects both institutional and social; it needs to end; and everyone, breastfeeding or not, white or nonwhite, ought to care about these topics. But breastfeeding discrimination is limited to a specific time in a person’s life; one’s breastfeeding status is not visible in every moment, as it is for most (though not all) nonwhite people; and perhaps most fundamental, breastfeeding (or not) is an act, whereas race is an intrinsic, immutable part of who someone is2. To say breastfeeding discrimination and racism are the same is to display a bewildering ignorance of the nature of both.
So please, my fellow white lactivists, I am begging you: stop it. Find other ways to raise awareness of the importance of breastfeeding, of the problems with discrimination against breastfeeding. Find other ways to make the emotional impact you desire. It may take you a few moments of thought before speaking, a few weeks or months to retrain your thoughts until it’s not the first analogy you reach for, but trust me: when fewer women are driven away from lactivism, when more babies are breastfed, when our common humanity is recognized and honored, it will be so worth it.
A White Lactivist
- This and all else in quotation marks in this post are paraphrases; I am not quoting or linking to specific examples, because the meme is so widespread: to point to one or two instances would be to pretend that this doesn’t happen again and again and again and again in white lactivist circles. This is not a “them” problem, something that only some white lactivists do and therefore something only some white lactivists need to care about: no, this is very much an us problem, because even if we haven’t done it, we have allowed it to happen and to continue. ↩
- Being a person-who-breastfeeds might be a very important part of one’s identity, and I am not denying that; I am saying, though, that that identity is not created or solidified until one does the act of breastfeeding — whereas one’s race is more or less assigned at birth, through no will of one’s own. ↩