I Did Not Attend the Breastfeeding & Feminism conference
Let me start by saying I am writing this as an informational post and a caution to others. I do not want to disparage the BF& Fem conference, which is an important convening, but its organizers need to continue their work on creating safe spaces for women of color. This will not be a permanent post on my blog.
However, every year there seems to be drama at the BF & Fem conference, most of it leaving black women and other women of color harmed. So, I will try to explain this tragedy in 3 Acts.
The Scene:Erica Morrell, a visiting Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Middlebury College, Sociology/Women’s Studies, is a danger and a threat to black women and their research, in my opinion. The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine issued a correction for her article upon my insistence after she summarized my concepts and work, directly mentioning the cities where I worked, and findings from my research without proper citation or attribution. She misrepresented my ideas as her own. Even worse, I did not even receive a professional courtesy call –since she had been emailing me and calling for two years prior. Erica pursued me and my work, at times, offering to help me but in the end she only wanted to further her own book and academic interests. (You can read the full story in The Prequel section below.)
Act 1: Because of my experience with Erica, I was deeply concerned to see her on the Breastfeeding & Feminism agenda doing a panel entitled Circulating Black Feminist Thought Across the Color Line to Dismantle Breastfeeding Barriers, along with three black women academics. I was deeply concerned that Erica might do to them what she had already done to me. As I looked at her website and other work, it was clear that attaching herself to black women was her modus operandi. I immediately emailed the organizers and planning committee about my concern and I also clearly stated that Erica would not be allowed to be in the room during my presentation because I only share ideas in trusted spaces and she has proved herself untrustworthy.
To be fair, planning committee members, particularly Catherine Sullivan and Tina Sherman were immediately responsive and apologetic and sought to make immediate contact with the panelists and Morrell. I also reached out the black women on the panel. I felt huge regret that I had not publicly shared Erica Morell’s name as a warning to my community. These amazing young black women academics and researchers hold so much promise for our community and our work and were perhaps, trustingly, as I was, engaging with Morrell. I was concerned. And on the phone with one panelist from London at 2 am.
Act 2: After having several conversations with the panelists there were several abject failures: Erica Morrell needed to be removed from that panel. Period. Full stop. Instead, Erica was allowed to be an equal decision maker in the future of the panel and chose to center herself in the process saying, in effect, “I will leave, if you want me to.” This assumes power parity, when there is none, and put the black women in a very uncomfortable position. That was not their burden to carry–the organizers should have removed Erica from the process completely. Instead, when the black women did not feel empowered to tell Erica to kick rocks as I would have done, the whole panel was cancelled. Epic fail!
So the very important conversation of black feminist thought is derailed at at the only conference focused on breastfeeding and feminism because one white woman with a history of harmful behavior toward black women and their work was allowed to be a decision maker. Where was the support for my sisters? Where was the commitment to maintain the equity of the conference content by ensuring this important topic went on and was bigger than the one white woman? By the time I returned to the States and heard that the panel was cancelled (confirmed by Erica’s own smug email to me) I was fuming!!
Act 3: Another evening call with the panelists. I had to convince them that they had support in their decision. I had to reassure them that they were the most important voices in that panel and I would do everything in my power to make sure their voices were still heard. I listened to how the panel developed and heard multiple red flags about Erica’s tactics in attaching herself to black women to legitimize herself and then centering herself in decision making. The fact that I had to play this role is another failure of the conference organizers. Let me be clear, my young sisters have so much respect for me and the work I do –they hold me in high regard and that means the world to me. I am happy to always support them anyway that I can. However, by the time I got to the women, who were, in heart, ready to proceed with the panel with me promising to support them and be the go-between with the conference organizers (Why me??), one of the key members had already dismantled the arrangements she made to attend. She was unable to put them back together.
Act 4: On another note, I had already reached out to some white allies I respect and offered to have a facilitated conversation with Erica at BF & Fem to resolve this issue and help her see how she has caused harm. (I am always trying, always hopeful). However, apparently after others spoke with Erica about the panel issue, I was told that Erica was clearly not “ready” for that type of conversation (still not taking any accountability) and that engaging with her at this point would only cause me more harm. Wow!! I so appreciated that. But wondered if your conversations indicated that Erica could still cause harm, then why not actively protect my sisters who were directly involved with her. Why not buffer and protect them –knowing what you did about Erica’s resistance.
This is too much. Every year, this conference is disrespectful to black women in some way. Last year, there was an issue. And every year, I feel like I have to prove myself as a legitimate speaker and thought leader when my book is the only recent book directly and explicitly talking about breastfeeding and feminism!! It’s literally in the title!! (However, decades old writers on the subject, who are white women, are always invited and prominently supported!)
I will not show up where my sisters have been silenced. The three women are the reasons I did not attend the conference. I will not continue to step into spaces that don’t respect my work or protect black women when faced with white women behaving badly. I do not need to leave my house or my children to be triggered.
I apologize to those who were looking forward to hearing me speak. I will make it up to you. Also, I am working on giving the three black women–our rising, shining academic stars–a platform to share their thoughts because that platform was theirs and should have never been taken away from them. Please stay tuned and I hope you will support them.
The Prequel/Origin Story: For several years, Erica pursued me to learn about my “first food desert” work, my First Food Friendly Community Initiative in Detroit and my other projects. At one point, she suggested a joint paper and I shared unpublished documents about my projects that had only been shared with the funder. At another time, I wrote a recommendation letter for her for one of her projects as I thought we were developing a relationship. After a year of me being too busy to connect, she flew all the way to NYC just to meet with me for a few hours, where I shared many concepts and ideas about my past, present and future work. Later, she apparently spoke of my concepts and work and then turned that speech into a paper that was published in the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, without full and proper attribution. After years of emails and constant calls, Erica never notified me that she was writing about my work in this journal nor did she contact me to confirm what was publicly citable, she did not ask if she could share details that had only been shared with the project funder. And I only learned of the article because a program officer at the funder saw it and called me expressing concern that the article was talking about me and my work without proper credit.
When I called Erica immediately after the journal article was published, she immediately began crying telling me how much respect she has for me and she would never hurt me. Classic. I tried to talk to her about intent vs. impact but this is a concept she still struggles with.
After much back and forth with the journal editors and resistance from Erica, a correction was published. (The title itself, is the name of my Detroit presentation and event that I led and was my thesis theme for my time as an IATP Food and Community Fellow.)
I also filed an ethics complaint with Middlebury College. I had not heard from Erica since but it is clear that she still has work to do. Proceed with caution.
Every October we’re inundated with pink. We are told to buy pink, wear pink, eat pink and donate pink–all in the name of breast cancer awareness. But with all the talk about breast cancer every October, there’s very little conversation about how breastfeeding actually helps lower the risk of breast cancer. Female breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and a leading cause of death from cancer among U.S. women. Yet the body of evidence connecting breastfeeding with a reduced risk of breast cancer is growing and increasingly irrefutable.
Breastfeeding mothers reduce their relative risk of breast cancer by 4.3 percent for every 12 months they breastfeed. Another study found that breastfeeding could prevent an extra 20,000 deaths from breast cancer every year.
This connection is even more critical for groups of women with high rates of breast cancer mortality and low rates of breastfeeding–such as black women. Black women in the U.S. have lower rates of breastfeeding and nearly twice the rates of triple-negative breast cancer (the most aggressive type) compared with white women. Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in African-American women, who are 41% more likely than white women to die of the disease.
Meanwhile, the literature linking breastfeeding to reduced breast cancer risk is growing. A 2002 landmark study that pooled approximately 50,000 breast cancer cases from 47 epidemiologic studies in 30 countries found that the relative risk for breast cancer in parous women is reduced by 4.3% for every 12 months a woman breastfeeds and is reduced by 7% for each birth independently.
Yet, a new study published in Breastfeeding Medicine found that 16 percent–or fewer than one in five women surveyed–said their doctors had told them breastfeeding has health benefits to mothers and babies. (Read the NY Times article on the study)
According to the survey, while 60 percent of white women surveyed knew breastfeeding could reduce their breast cancer risk, only 47 percent of African American women knew.
So why aren’t we talking more about breastfeeding during breast cancer awareness month? The problem is rooted in the framing of breastfeeding in the U.S. When breastfeeding is framed as a “choice” it prevents us from talking about what is really is–preventative medicine for babies and mothers. Breastfeeding has proven health benefits for mothers, including a reduced risk for endometrial and ovarian cancers and reduced risk for chronic conditions that are also risk factors for cancer, such as hypertension and diabetes. The health benefits to infants include reduced incidences of diarrhea, ear infections and lower respiratory infections and a lower risk of sudden infant death, diabetes, asthma and childhood obesity.
But when we are caught up in a “choice” dialogue, as if breastfeeding is a lifestyle option akin to going vegan or using cloth diapers, then we miss the critical conversation about how these “choices” impact our health outcomes. The framing of choice silences us, because anything personal should not be discussed. It leads us into emotional places about so-called “guilt” and “shame” instead of having productive, fact-based conversations on the known health benefits and risks. Telling me the facts about smoking or health risks of not wearing a seat belt is not to make me feel guilty, it is to make me aware. Nobody should be made to feel guilty about not breastfeeding, especially when it is so damn hard to do for any meaningful period in this country, but the discourse has deteriorated to the level where anytime someone mentions the very real health benefits of breastfeeding versus formula feeding they are blindly accused of shaming.
This literally has life or death consequences for some women–particularly black women. And serious health implications for all women.
Perhaps the breast cancer folks are aware of the emotional quagmire of breastfeeding and prefer to avoid it all together, opting to push for mammograms and self-exams instead. Even worse, much of “buy pink” product promotion comes from the dairy industry, which has a vested financial interest in formula sales.
In our country, there are various medical specialties for a diseased breast– we are in the middle of a national awareness month to prevent and cure the diseased breast–but physicians are woefully under educated about a functioning healthy breast. There is no physician dedicated to the functioning of a healthy breast. Physicians receive very little training in lactation management in medical school. How ironic, that the thing that could help women prevent future disease in their breasts is one of the least taught fields of medicine.
So to breast cancer researchers and advocates, if you really care about breast cancer PREVENTION, not just marketing promotion and attracting research dollars, then you must talk about breastfeeding. Often. And loud for the people in the back. And directly and explicitly to the black community.(Also, I’ll be reaching out for your support for Black Breastfeeding Week too!)
To do anything less in the face of the scientific evidence is unethical and unconscionable.
WARNING: The following is a brief sampling of the growing body of research concerning breastfeeding reducing the risk of breast cancer. If you confuse Fact-ing with Shaming, then please do not trigger yourself by continuing to read. Thank you.
“Breastfeeding is of particular interest for breast cancer prevention because it is a modifiable risk factor. Breastfeeding not only reduces breast cancer risk but also confers other health benefits to the mother including reduced risk for endometrial and ovarian cancers8 and reduced risk for chronic conditions that are also risk factors for cancer, such as hypertension and diabetes.9,10 Additionally, breastfeeding provides many benefits to the infant, including fewer episodes of diarrhea, ear infections, and lower respiratory infections and a lower risk of sudden infant death, diabetes, asthma, and childhood obesity” —Breastfeeding and Breast Cancer Risk Reduction: Implications for Black Mothers, Am J Prev Med. 2017 Sep; 53(3 Suppl 1): S40–S46.
“Similarly, a 2013 review of 32 studies concluded that the risk of having breast cancer was 14% lower among parous women who had ever breastfed compared with parous women who never breastfed. The protective effect of breastfeeding persisted regardless of the number of births and was even greater for women who had cumulatively breastfed for 12 months or longer; they had a 28% lower risk of breast cancer.13 Victora and colleagues14estimated that existing global breastfeeding rates prevent almost 20,000 annual deaths from breast cancer and that an additional 20,000 could be prevented by increasing breastfeeding duration to 12 months per child in high-income countries such as the U.S. and to 2 years per child in low- and middle-income countries.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6069526/
In 2014, a study led by Christine Ambrosone, PhD, Senior Vice President of Population Sciences at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, revealed a way to lower the higher mortality rates among African-American women, who are more likely to be diagnosed with a more aggressive form of breast cancer.Now she and her colleagues are working to get the word out to African-American women who are expecting: Protect yourself by breastfeeding your babies.
There are different types of breast cancer, according to whether or not they express the estrogen receptor (ER). In ER-positive breast cancer, estrogen — a hormone — encourages the cancer cells to grow. Having children tends to lower the risk of ER-positive breast cancer — the type that’s more common in white women. But having children also increases the risk of ER-negative breast cancer — the more aggressive type that more often found in black women.
However, reviewing their own research, as well as research from other institutions, Ambrosone and her team discovered something astonishing: African-American women who breastfed their babies did not have an increased risk of ER-negative breast cancer.
“I was amazed by those findings,” says Dr. Ambrosone. “I thought, Why isn’t this on the front page? This is so important. If the risk of aggressive breast cancer increases a lot by having kids but goes away if you breastfeed, everybody needs to know that.” Read the full article.
10/14/18– The past several weeks have sparked an unprecedented conversation about women’s collective fury in this #MeToo, #WhyIDidntReport and post-Kavanaugh hearings era. Three recent books and a flurry of op-eds, essays and social media energy has everyone talking about rage in a brand new way.
This is good news for women. But what’s been blatantly missing from mainstream dialogue is a nuanced understanding of how rage is perceived by and received from black women ― and whether this alleged new moment in the ongoing liberation of women will actually be an equitable one.
Black women have been furious for decades, and our collective rage hasn’t exactly led to any revolutionary change in our lived experience. Quite the opposite: The “angry black woman” trope is a powerful tool that’s been used to dehumanize and silence black women for decades.
The dangerous stereotype of the black female as an angry, finger-snapping, emasculating, neck-moving, “oh no you didn’t”-spewing being has done deep harm. Our anger has never been viewed as legitimate or warranted due to unfair treatment; instead, it’s been twisted into a pathology. Read more at HuffPost Opinion.