By Kimberly Seals Allers
Every year when Black Breastfeeding Week occurs there is some sort of kerfuffle related to the act of black leaders determining what is best for their community. This year, a disappointing chatter began among those who strictly monitor the WHO Code– very important work with critical historical context. BBW received no monetary contributions, but two pump companies, Medela and Evenflo, donated pumps as giveaways for community events.
The messages I received and conversations I had centered around if some white organizations would be able to support BBW this year because of those donated items. I was questioned as to whether having the donations was worth the “risk”– risk to whom?
Let’s be clear. Black Breastfeeding Week was not created for the approval of white organizations nor for the structures and systems created by predominantly white organizations that have not always had our community’s contextual landscape in mind. We serve and respond to the community. Point blank, period.
And I don’t need to remind anyone, that BBW only exists exactly because those organizations and systems, including its many monitoring mechanisms, have not fully supported our communities, closed the 40-year racial disparity, or adequately protected our infants who are still dying before their first birthday at rates comparable to developing countries.
It is not for white organizations or its members to attempt to police, chastise or otherwise engage in back-channel chatter questioning the decisions of black-led efforts. That kind of paternalistic approach does not serve the movement well.
It is also interesting to note that one of the organizations where members engaged in this conversation has a history of being completely disconnected from communities of color. In our 5 year history, organizational leaders have not sought to make a monetary contribution, buy a pump to donate, offer the gift of free lactation support or any other gesture. In all the prior years of BBW we have not received an email, snail mail or pigeon note expressing a desire to support or otherwise be involved in BBW. That speaks volumes.
People who show up to criticize but have never put one square millimeter of skin in the game, on the ground, or in the conversation should check themselves first before doing so. In fact, just don’t.
Please be clear. The WHO Code is critically important especially as it relates to egregious infant formula marketing, which I have outspokenly exposed and will continue to do so. But pumps, and the necessary byproducts of pumps such as bottles and teats are not so black and white in a country where women are returning to work 2-3 weeks after giving birth. In many low- income communities, some return even sooner. Black women, who have the highest rates of pre-term and low-birthweight babies, are more likely to have infants with infant feeding challenges. For those families, information about bottles and teats is an important part of their breastfeeding plan.
Those nuances are lost with a global mandate that does not take into account the unique racist history, policy gaps and socio-economic landscape of the U.S.
Many so-called advocates are more focused on a 36-year old Code, unknown to many moms and dads of all colors, than the actual lived experience of women, especially black and brown ones.
In Detroit, where I often work, mom and pop retailers have taken to opening up packages of single serve infant formula powder packets and selling them like “loosies” for $2.50 each. You do the math. And then feel free to ask my comrade Kiddada Green about how this exploitative practice breeds desperation and cripples families. While you are in a Facebook group about the WHO Code, we are battling the Street Code, a more pernicious, financially debilitating force among low income communities that the WHO Code does not address. We’d love your help on that.
Because what every mother, every where really needs is a WHO Code 2.0. A twenty-first century version that considers all experiences and realities in its mission.
Which brings me to my most important point, I find it very odd that those focused on WHO Code violations are relatively mute on the biggest WHO code violator in the US– the WIC program. WIC is the largest purchaser and marketer of infant formula in the U.S. The program is literally financially dependent on the rebates received from the infant formula companies, who fight royally for a lucrative state contract, knowing what that means in on-the-comeback sales. While many state WIC programs are making great improvements supporting breastfeeding, the fact remains that WIC is the infant formula companies’ greatest distribution system, specifically targeting low-income people. It is therefore its de facto marketing arm– and with 60% of U.S babies being born WIC eligible, this is a really big deal. Talk about The Big Letdown. Nor does WIC have a national policy to prevent the street level predatory marketing by independent retailers as seen in Detroit (read my 2014 piece about previous street advertising by WIC retailers in Detroit; they changed this policy following the post).
Those who want to be “armchair activists”– doing their bidding via Facebook messaging, online groups but don’t show up for the heavy lift, really need to rethink their objectives.
It seems real easy and quite frankly disgusting to attempt to undermine a volunteer effort by three community advocates instead of chasing the real culprits and working to make the WHO Code more relevant to all–that is, if you actually care about misleading marketing to communities of color.
If you think a pump donation to a community event merits discussion or consideration for non-support, when you have not seen or fought against aggressive infant formula marketing in low income communities, then that is absolutely your call. BBW will go on.
This year, we reached new milestones with over 70 self-organized community events all over the country. In Detroit, I spearheaded an effort to open Detroit’s first community lactation lounge and mother’s empowerment hub–a place to truly support moms meet their mom goals and their breastfeeding goals (check out the pictures!) BBW online events featured a groundbreaking conversation with black men (over 4,000 views) an honest dialogue on same-gender couples and Breastfeeding (over 6,000 views), a salute to unsung heroes, and tonight we wrap up BBW with the phenomenal story of a mother who has breastfed twins, quintuplets and triplets. This is what we do.
We do not have time for those who, in Biblical terms, want to “strain out the gnat but swallow the camel.” In the desert-like environments where I work, camels matter.
Kimberly Seals Allers