Black breasts, white milk? Ways of constructing breastfeeding and race in Australia


Bartlett, Alison. 2004. "Black breasts, white milk? Ways of constructing breastfeeding and race in Australia ." Australian Feminist Studies. 19 (45), pp. 341-356.
Article Title

Black breasts, white milk? Ways of constructing breastfeeding and race in Australia

ERA Journal ID32757
Article CategoryArticle
AuthorBartlett, Alison
Journal TitleAustralian Feminist Studies
Journal Citation19 (45), pp. 341-356
Place of PublicationLondon, United Kingdom
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
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This article forms part of a larger project I have been writing, and that is to read breastfeeding as a cultural practice, rather than as something natural, innate, or even
gendered. As a cultural practice, breastfeeding underwent major changes during the twentieth century, and its frequent presence in contemporary media debates can be read
as marking a critical cultural moment in the contestation and renegotiation of social values. In this article I foreground race as another cultural construct which is infused with the negotiation of meanings around breastfeeding and its practice in contemporary
Australia. While Patricia Hill Collins argues that feminist theorising about motherhood has often ignored the impact of race and class, which merit special consideration, this project can be fraught for a white academic who either analyses (and thus continues the
privileging of) whiteness, or else critiques (and thus perpetuates the otherness of) blackness. I have chosen to take up Jane Haggis and Susanne Schech’s challenge,
however, to risk being ‘“bad” feminists whose global manners are always revealed for contestation’. In this article, I recognise the problems with using the term race, which has been used historically to cluster together a disparate range of people under the illusion that they share biological traits which affect their physical and cultural attributes. Race is now understood to be neither biological nor genetic but a social construction, an
imaginary concept which is often mobilised as an index of power to bolster white superiority. While the concept of race is metaphorical rather than actual, the history of
racism has meant that Indigenous populations have undergone massive deprivation and discrimination. As a white Australian, my knowledge of Indigenous maternal practices can only ever be partial, and in this research I have drawn solely on textual sources which themselves are limited. These sources, however, form the cultural material which represents breastfeeding through particular narratives, and this is what I want to draw
attention to in order to trouble some of the dominant discourses around race, Western medicine and breastfeeding practice. I also acknowledge the disparate histories, practices and people that constitute Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders over the continent of Australia. The representations I mobilise are in many ways arbitrary, but function strategically to upset prevailing hierarchies of meaning. As a result, they operate as maverick narratives, or coyote discourses as Haraway calls for, in order to shift our vision (or maybe that should be dingo discourses). The article, then, performs a strategic
movement of placing representations of Indigenous breastfeeding practices at its centre, inverting the usual direction of knowledge, bodies, maternity, and meanings of breast-feeding which characterise the dominant discourses used by public health and medical professionals. Firstly, however, I briefly trace some of the connections between maternity and nationhood since 1901 as both a colonial and a modernist project.

Keywordsbreastfeeding; cultural; culture
ANZSRC Field of Research 2020440599. Gender studies not elsewhere classified
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Byline AffiliationsSchool of Humanities and Communication
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