Condescending Baby-Feeding Advice

I read this article about negative breast-feeding myths among African Americans in The Root and sat upright when I saw this bit of social class cluelessness:

“…myths persist because of a lack of education among African Americans.”

The myths about the dangers of breast feeding described in Jamila Bey’s article exist because two generations ago white scientists from corporations and then well-meaning white social workers said the same thing about formula and shook their fingers at poor uneducated women who were breast feeding their babies. Some social worker somewhere probably said “…myths persist about formula because of a lack of education among poor people, black and white.”

These advices about child rearing provide ample opportunity for the well-educated, of all races, to feel superior, to act like they know better than poor, uneducated people, all in service to social class hierarchy. When white educated people could be better informed than African Americans about formula, it was in service to corporate profits. Now the oppressive system sustains itself without money, and pays only in prestige.

In a February 7th New Yorker article that uncovered how wrong doctors have been about whether and when to let your babies eat foods that induce allergies like peanuts, author Jerome Groopman describes research into why food allergies are nearly non-existant in developing countries and increasing exponentially in developed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.

One theory is that in those developing countries, baby food has never existed, so they do what our ancestors did for millennia: introduce solid food to their babies by chewing it for them. Researchers think the mother’s saliva provides a buffer to the food proteins that cause allergic reactions.

I can see the New York Times articles now about how educated New Yorkers are masticating food for their babies because it’s better for them. I can hear my middle class friends lamenting the lack of education for poor and working class people and wondering why they won’t chew food for their babies. I can imagine the social workers demonstrating to new mothers in poor neighborhoods how to chew solid food properly and well enough for a baby’s digestion.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing efforts to spread the practice of breast-feeding but instead want us to do so in a way that exposes classism. How about instead of talking about a group having a “lack of education” as a reason for myths about breastfeeding, writing about the social class structure that is an integral part of racism and white privilege so we might all advance in our understanding of racism and classism together?

2 Responses

  1. Courtney

    The publications that I’ve read that allude to a lack of education in the African American community appeared to be about the lack of breastfeeding education. In other words – a lack of programs, lactation consultants, etc. That also appeared to be the case in this article, as well. BUT I don’t think that lack of breastfeeding education or the perpetuation of breastfeeding myths is limited to working class mothers or African American mothers. There are an awful lot of myths perpetuated in magazines aimed at upper-middle class mothers, as well.

    This is an interesting discussion.

    1. Heather

      As a (white) momma who chose not to breast feed, it was not a lack of education (I am an advanced registered nurse practitioner), but a choice. I have had patients who have schizophrenia told by their social workers that they have to breast feed and that they have to be on their medications, which is highly not recommended.

      The myths, in my view, are that a child is only going to do well if breast fed. My “snowflake” is just fine having been fed formula. Likewise, I am educated about prior practices of formula producers, and am not an advocate of the formula companies, but recognize that formula also keeps babies alive.

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