Dear White Lactivists

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.

Please, read about white privilege (we have it), the definition of racism (we are all guilty of it), and the state of anti-racist activism since Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
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29 Responses to Dear White Lactivists

  1. Thank you. I truly hope fellow white lactivists take note and we start doing better.

  2. Thank you. I need the kick in the pants. And thank you for the links. I’ve been reading and thinking and resolving to do better on so many fronts.

  3. The parallels between what some white lactivists are doing is similar to what was happening during the second wave of feminism. Women can’t seem to understand that we are all in this together and that we can’t isolate someone from the lactivist movement because their skin color is different, nor can we drawl parallels between the lactivist movement and the civil rights movement and bigotry. They are two completely different issues.

  4. Thank you for this. I blog about breastfeeding and race and this does come up on my Twitter feed as well, and honestly I mostly do not have the stomach for this conversation. I have tried explaining to people why there is no such thing as reverse racism and got called….a racist. It’s not my job to educate white people on racism and race relations, but when I try it’s like talking to a brick wall for the most part.

    In the realm of blogging, I have felt this as well. When people talk about the great sense of “community” they get from blogging, I am left wondering what the hell they’re talking about. I have been tempted to quit this shit so many times, mostly because of the issues you’ve brought up in this post. I stick around because there are some women who read my blog and follow me on Twitter who literally have no one in their real life to tell them what an amazing job they are doing by breastfeeding but me. There are so many women who make this worthwhile, but I’ll be honest and say I could do without the majority in this movement and that makes me really fucking sad.

  5. Nicely articulated. Nuance and clarity are too often casualties in our struggles for social causes, for many reasons, often understandable, us being human and fallible and all. But in the long run, clarity about nuances is necessary for getting where we want to be. You wend your way well through the landmarks and pitfalls, illuminating them along the way, your care and concern for all parties evident as you go.

  6. Great work! I’ll repost.

  7. Thank you for bringing this up. I don’t think I’ve heard/seen this before (the comparison of anti-breastfeeding discrimination to racism). Will make sure not to fall into that trap.

    One big problem is that the meaning of the word “racism” has different levels of generality to different people/groups of people. For many, racism and discrimination/prejudice are interchangeable, which leads to all sorts of misunderstandings when we try to have these conversations. Just last night we watched an episode of The Daily Show (from a couple weeks ago) where Jon Stewart and Wyatt Cynac used the term “racism” to mean general prejudice of one race against another (eg blacks can be racist against whites just as whites can be racist against blacks). It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve come across the definition of racism as SPECIFICALLY whites against non-whites. So there’s a lot of further education that needs to happen here… (and I say this as someone who has stuck my foot in my mouth many times, and is constantly trying to reframe these words to make sure I use them the correct way).

    • Marcy — you’re right, there is the “academic” definition of racism (prejudice plus power) and the colloquial definition (any discrimination or prejudice based on race or skin color). The problem is that the colloquial definition, the one that is repeated and reinforced in the public sphere, is a highly racist definition. It allows (and I would argue encourages) white privilege and white supremacist thinking because it stops us from being able to talk about the historic and institutional ways in which whites have oppressed and continue to oppress nonwhites/people of color. The racist definition of racism says that we can’t talk about those wrongs because that’s “making an issue out of race”, and so we are not able to change the culture of discrimination.

      Whiteness loves this definition, and white people, with our distaste for talking about race at all much less the ways in which we benefit from and perpetuate it, embrace it and insist that it be “the” popular/acceptable definition. And because we have the institutional power, we are able to have our desires made fact. And so nothing changes.

      Which is why it is so very important to challenge that definition, to declare “racism = prejudice + power” as often as we can, so that well meaning but clueless white people — like I was, just a few short years ago — can have a chance to get it. We don’t have to beat ourselves up, but we do have to recognize the ways in which we are unfairly privileged by the current system, and we have to work to change it. Not because we deserve to be treated poorly, or deserve to have a turn getting shat on, but because everyone else deserves to be treated better.

  8. I think you’ve missed the mark a bit on this one. Your intentions are good, but telling white lactivists not to compare with racism is not really hitting the heart of the matter. You simply create a hierarchy of suffering where women’s experiences become less important and valid than the suffering of people of colour. I mean what about the experiences of breastfeeding mothers of colour? What about the fact that the formula companies make a disproportionate share of their profits worldwide from people of colour?

    Although breastfeeding may be an act, performed for only a period in one’s life (if you have many children, you could be breastfeeding for ten or more years,so it’s not necessarily a small period in one’s life) discrimination against it flows directly from sexism and really from all hierarchical discrimination. Being anti-breastfeeding IS being anti-woman and IS being anti-child. All this hatred and disdain flows from the same root as racism. So “comparing” racism and breastfeeding discrimination may be off base, but not because anti-bfing disc. is less important or less demeaning than racism, to suggest so shows a lack of understanding of one’s class privilege in addition to one’s race privilege.

    Why do you suppose that poor women and women of colour breastfeed less? Because those of us bearing the greater weight of intersected discrimination suffer more consequences. Why do you suppose that slurs against breastfeeding women so often include classist and racist slurs? (ie. “damn, some greasy mexican is breastfeeding right next to me!” or “you know it’s a trashy neighbourhood when some bitch whips her tit out to feed her little bastard. Have some CLASS for fuck’s sake!”) Because breastfeeding is considered to be disgusting proof of woman’s inferiority and also of the lower class’s and “other”‘s inferiority. Let’s face it, in many cases, anti-bfing disc. IS racism because it’s seen as something only done by the “poor dark people”.

    Why do you suppose Liberal Feminists, notorious for entrenching rather than questioning their privilege, hate breastfeeding so much and see formula as a tool of “Feminist” liberation? Because breastfeeding makes you a “mammy”, less than human right? Racism and anti-bfing discrimination are not “exactly the same” because they aren’t separate! We will not be rid of ANY of this discrimination until we are rid of ALL of it.

    So what we, as white lactivists, whether poor like me or economically advantaged as most are, NEED to do, is not to stop comparing anti-bfing disc. to racism, but rather do MORE of it. But where we need to do it, is in our hearts. It is unquestioned and unconscious assumptions based on internalised hatred, even towards ourselves, that allows any of us to discriminate in any way, including against breastfeeding mothers. People do not say “cover that shit up” out of love. And when we hate something we really need to stop and think about why. And when someone censures a breastfeeding mother it is because of hatred, the same kind of distaste that says “there’s a place for “that” and it’s not here” whenever confronted by someone the speaker deems their inferior. That kind of better than/worse than thinking is what needs to go. in ALL it’s expressions! But unfortunately, so many of us that have experienced and suffered from only one aspect of that thinking, fail to recognise it when we see it in another guise. Some of us who have recognition of that fact will try to build empathy in others by pointing out that they too have suffered from inferiority thinking and it is the same thing regardless of who it’s aimed at. We who have been beaten have a similar experience, regardless of who beat us AND we have a responsibility to recognise when WE have become the beater! To suggest that people of colour are incapable of themselves taking the “beater” position is in itself an expression of belief that they are inferior. This doesn’t mean that there is any such thing as reverse racism. Of course not. Racism is an act of discrimination, of deeming inferior to you, someone who is darker than you AND who has less power than you. Racism only exists with the power to dominate and enforce that idea of inferiority. But just as a man of colour is capable of exerting power over a woman of colour because of inferiority thinking, any person can exert power, if only the power of shaming, against someone that they have been given license to demean as inferior. Thus, when someone calls a breastfeeding mother “indecent” they are using inferiority thinking. They are deeming that mother to be “less than”. And they are deeming themselves to be “more than” and in charge of determining the criteria by which she can be deemed acceptable, whether that be by covering herself in some way, moving or removing herself, staying home, using a bottle, or stopping breastfeeding after a set age of child. It is the inferiority thinking that is the problem. The specific criteria used to determine inferiority is NOT the problem. And to put the criteria on their own hierarchy where some are considered “more serious, more important, less damaging” is just engaging in MORE inferiority thinking!! (insidious fucker ain’t it!)

    We all engage in this on some level, we look at the world and people around us and say “I’m better than her, but worse than him, better than him, but worse than her” and we disparage ourselves in comparison. We also do it to other people, as individuals, as groups, as individuals as representatives of groups that we have placed on our internal hierarchy. And we express and enforce these hierarchies in our lives. People feel that it’s fair game nowadays to express disdain at a breastfeeding mother, so they will engage in shaming behaviour towards her/us because they figure they get a free pass. It feels good to shame and disdain others especially when you have experienced so much shame and disdain yourself. This may be why the shit rolls downhill gathering strength and size and force as it grows. Everyone looks up the hill to watch out for the shit thrown down towards them and then they take that shit, roll it up in some of their own and throw it further down the hill.

    A breastfeeding mother can inhabit any spot on this hill except the top. White, rich, able-bodied, western men sit up there,heaping shit upon all our heads. Whenever we turn and throw shit on others, we are reinforcing their inferiority thinking by joining in their game. Because, guess what? You can’t throw shit uphill! Unfortunately, you have engaged in a bit of this yourself today with this post and it’s fallen back down to hit you face rather than flying up. Everytime you try to throw shit on someone, you’re saying that you believe they are your inferior. YOU are engaging in inferiority thinking! You’ve attempted to heap shit on the heads of “White Lactivists” who don’t behave the way that you’ve decided is okay. You want them to avoid comparing racism to anti-bfing discrimination. But that is what they need to be doing most! They are starting to see inferiority thinking! maybe they aren’t aware of EVERY piece of shit that gets thrown downhill, maybe they aren’t aware of all that THEY are throwing, but they’ve become aware that IT IS ALL SHIT!

    Maybe rather than engaging in a pronouncement about what you decree to be the acceptable method of consciousness raising, it would make sense to take a harder look at your position on the hill and notice that you’ve decided to call yourself “more than” the group of lactivists you decided to slam. Take a hard look and see, all shit is shit. None is less shitty or more shitty. It ALL makes EVERYONE sick. And those of us who are trying so hard to find all the ways that we ourselves are throwing it need to be very careful that we don’t create a “hierarchy of acceptable activism” where we call others “less than” and “more than” because we aren’t nice enough or aware enough or are too angry or not angry enough or not angry in a way that we understand.

    • Cassaundra — I am curious where you got the idea that I was creating a hierarchy of oppressions in this post, because I very deliberately did not say that racism or anti-breastfeeding discrimination were any less important. As you say, they interact quite strongly, with anti-breastfeeding discrimination often being racialized or classed in a way which reinforces racism and classism. While I did not address classism in this letter (because that’s another, although related, issue), I did very specifically mention that breastfeeding and racial discrimination often intersect in very damaging ways.

      When you say “So what we, as white lactivists… NEED to do, is not to stop comparing anti-bfing disc. to racism, but rather do MORE of it”, however, I disagree. What you seem to be referring to is exploring the ways that racism and anti-breastfeeding discrimination intersect, which I do agree with, but that is not the same as the co-opting (and simultaneous erasing) of racism that this letter refers to. There is a lot that can be learned from comparing forms of discrimination, especially in the places where they intersect but also the ways in which they differ, but it needs to be done very cautiously, with an eye on our privilege and all the ways that might trip us up — and that is not what white lactivists routinely do when we bring up racism. Using racism as a rhetorical prop (“separate nursing rooms are like apartheid!”) is not a respectful comparison of marginalizations, and it is not ok. Saying that it is not ok is not forming a “hierarchy of acceptable activism”, it is saying that I will not accept racism in my lactivist communities, because stepping on others (throwing shit on others, as you say) while trying to climb out of the pit we’ve been shoved in is not ok, and is not going to create the change that society needs.

      You seem to have a fairly strong grip on intersectionality, which is great, and thus I suspect we agree more than you think we do.

    • You seem to be beyond the 101 level of anti-oppression, but that still doesn’t give you the right to appropriate my lived experience as a woman of color.

      It’s one thing to examine the intersections of various oppressions, and it’s another thing entirely to use your privilege to co-opt an oppression that you do not share for your own uses, which is the behavior that Arwyn seems to be (quite clearly, imo) addressing in this post.

  9. Rowdy applause from my corner!

    First? YES! I breastfed my babies. I WAS a person who breastfed. Important as that fact is, that part of my life is finished. People do not “finish” with the part of their lives that is their race or ethnicity.

    And I see this come up often in the advocacy areas in which I am more involved. We all want a metaphor; racial discrimination is handy so people grab it. It’s never accurate; racial discrimination is racial discrimination and is not the same as the discrimination against people who breastfeed, or people who have disabilities, or elderly people, or people who are fat, or people who are/have/live with [fill in the blank].

    We all need to pay close attention to the metaphors we choose. Very close attention. Co-opting is always ugly, dismissive, presumptuous, and most of the time people don’t mean it that way. That doesn’t make it not so. Kudos to you for informing and educating.

    • Oh, yeah. If I never hear the phrase “reverse racism” again? I’d be a very happy woman. Putrid, hateful expression based all in fear and ignorance.

  10. Amen, and thanks for saying it.

    Lily, aka Witch Mom

  11. Your posts always make me think and your blog (and a few others) are some of the shining spots on the internet that I feel actually make me smarter — and a better person. Unlike, say, Perez Hilton. So thanks once again for writing something I wish I could’ve written.

  12. Goodness gracious YES. And “prop” is the perfect way to describe how social justice comparisons are used in a tone-deaf way that doesn’t address how the issues intersect and intertwine and build on one another, and instead only hope to piggyback in a ME TOO! sort of way.

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  18. I’m here from Womanist Musings and thank you for this post. Thank you, thank you.

  19. I am having trouble connecting this to an experience I have had. Can you explain what caused you to post this? did something specific happen to make you think of breastfeeding being compared to racism? Because I haven’t read of this happening….so any links to it would be appreciated! :)

  20. I haven’t read a more eloquently stated explaination of the insult associated with this practice. Thank you for helping me put words around the ‘dismissed’ feeling I would get when ‘racism’ is used inappropriately. Brilliant!

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  24. I was looking around the internet for some articles to share with anti-racism breastfeeding committee I am on and came across this post. I frequently write about racism and whiteness and breastfeeding — in fact, I just wrote a post about ‘reverse-racism’. I would like to re-blog this, and expand on it!

    • Acquanda — you’re more than welcome to repost an excerpt with a link back to the full piece here. If you’d like to distribute it offline, you can email me to discuss it. Thanks.

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