Tag Archives: activism/social movements

The Paradox of Women’s Sexuality in Breast Feeding Advocacy and Breast Cancer Campaigns

My sister-in-law Charlotte was recently loudly admonished by a flight attendant on an international flight for allowing her “breast to fall out” after she fell asleep while nursing her baby. A strong advocate for breastfeeding, Charlotte has shared with me her own discomfort with public breastfeeding because it is considered gross, matronly, and “unsexy.”

I heard this over and over again from women I have interviewed for my research:  Women who breastfed often feel they have to cover and hide while breastfeeding at family functions. As one mom noted, “Family members might be uncomfortable so I leave room to nurse—but miss out on socializing.”  This brings on feelings of isolation and alienation. Because of the “dirty looks” and clear discomfort by others, women reported not wanting to breastfeed in any situation that could be considered “public.”

Meanwhile, I flip through the June 2012 issue of Vanity Fair and see this ad:

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We capitalize on the sexualization of the breast to raise awareness about breast cancer. Yet, we cringe at the idea of a woman nursing her child on an overnight flight.

What’s happening here? These campaigns send contradictory messages to women about their breasts and the way women should use them, but they have something in common as well: both breastfeeding advocacy and breast cancer awareness-raising campaigns tend to reduce women to body parts that reflect the social construction of gender and sexuality.

Breast cancer awareness campaigns explicitly adopt a sexual stance, focusing on men’s desire for breasts and women’s desire to have breasts to make them attractive to men. Breast milk advocates focus on the breast as essential for good motherhood. Breastfeeding mothers sit at the crossroads: Their breasts are both sexualized and essential for their babies, so they can either breastfeed and invoke disgust, or feed their child formula and attract the stigma of being a bad mother.

Both breastfeeding advocacy programs and breast cancer awareness-raising campaigns demonstrate how socially constructed notions of ownership and power converge with the sexualization and objectification of women’s breasts. And, indeed, whether breast feeding or suffering breast cancer, women report feeling helpless and not in control of their bodies. As Jazmine Walker has written, efforts to “help” women actually “[pit] women against their own bodies.”

Instead, we need to shift away from a breast-centered approach to a women-centered approach for both types of campaigns. We need to, as Jazmine Walker advocates, “teach women and girls how to navigate and control their experiences with health care professionals,” instead of pushing pink garb and products and sexualizing attempts to raise awareness like “save the ta-tas.”  Likewise, we need to support women’s efforts to breastfeed, if they choose to, instead of labeling “bad moms” if they do not or cannot. Equipped with information and bolstered by real sources of support, women will be best able to empower themselves.

Jennifer Rothchild, PhD is in the sociology and gender, women, & sexuality studies departments at the University of Minnesota, Morris. She is the author of Gender Trouble Makers: Education and Empowerment in Nepal and is currently doing research on the politics of breastfeeding.

James Baldwin: “I Can’t Afford Despair”

The interviewer asks: “Are you still in despair about the world?” James Baldwin replies:

I never have been in despair about the world. I’ve been enraged by it. I don’t think I’m in despair. I can’t afford despair. I can’t tell my nephew, my niece. You can’t tell the children there’s no hope.

Stokely Carmichael: “The U.S. Taught Us Very Well How to Be Violent”

Stokely Carmichael, later Kwame Ture, was an activist and Civil Rights leader, rising to prominence in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party, and the All-African Peoples Revolutionary Party.

He popularized the phrase “black power,” which he defined simply as “black people coming together to form a political force and either electing representatives or forcing their representatives to speak their needs.” 

Ture believed in the value of nonviolence as a tactic, but did not identify as a pacifist. Violence was a tactic he believed in, too, when it was necessary. And it has, in fact, been a successful tool in the activist toolkit. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes at The Atlantic:

“Property damage and looting” — perhaps more than nonviolence — has also been a significant tool in black “social progress.” … [It's] a fairly accurate description of the emancipation of black people in 1865, who only five years earlier constituted some $4 billion in property. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 is inseparable from the threat of riots. The housing bill of 1968 — the most proactive civil-rights legislation on the books — is a direct response to the riots that swept American cities after King was killed. Violence, lingering on the outside, often backed nonviolence during the civil-rights movement.

What cannot be said is that America does not really believe in nonviolence… so much as it believes in order.

Black people may have to disrupt that order and return violence with violence, yet again. As Stokely Carmichael explains in the video below:

Existentialist philosophers talk about the executioner-victim relationship… The victims begin to fight and agitate for their liberation. They use all types of means to get their liberation… fighting for a position of equality.

After [the victim] tries a number of means and they do not work, he then begins to imitate the means by which his executioner has kept him down. That is usually through force and violence… breaking the one taboo that they’ve never been able to break: hitting back against the executioners.

So that you ought not to be upset if we are violent. The Unites States taught us very well how to be violent.

Watch him here:

Malcolm X: “We’re Nonviolent With People Who Are Nonviolent With Us”

In the 5min speech below, Malcolm X makes an argument in favor of violence when violence is called for.

Excerpts:

We are peaceful people, we are loving people. We love everybody who loves us. But we don’t love anybody who doesn’t love us. We’re nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us. But we are not nonviolent with anyone who is violent with us.

Whatever kind of action program can be devised to get us the thing that are ours by right, then I’m for that action no matter what the action is.

I don’t think when a man is being criminally treated, that some criminal has the right to tell that man what tactics to use to get the criminal off his back. When a criminal starts misusing me, I’m going to use whatever necessary to get that criminal off my back.

And the injustice that has been inflicted on Negros in this country by Uncle Sam is criminal…

Watch:

Angela Davis: “No Idea What Black People Have Gone Through”

From the great documentary, Black Power Mix Tape, Angela Davis puts violence in perspective. She’s being interviewed about the tactics of the Black Panthers. The interviewer asks: “How do you get there? Do you get there by confrontation, violence?” She responds:

Oh, is that the question you were asking?

She smiles to herself.

Because of the way this society’s organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere. You have to expect that there are going to be such explosions. You have to expect things like that as reactions. If you… if a black person lives in the black community all your life and walks out on the street everyday seeing white policemen surrounding you…

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Some very good friends of mine were killed by bombs, bombs that were planted by racists. I remember from the time I was very small, I remember the sounds of bombs exploding across the street, our house shaking. I remember my father having to have guns at his disposal at all times because of the fact that at any moment someone… we might expect to be attacked.

The… man who was at that time in complete control of the city government… would often get on the radio and make statements like: “Niggers have moved into a white neighborhood. We better expect some bloodshed tonight.” And, sure enough, there would be bloodshed.

In fact, when the bombing occurred one of the mothers of one of the young girls called my mother and said, “Can you take me down to the church to pick up Carol. We heard about the bombing and I don’t have my car.” And they went down and what did they find? They found limbs and heads strewn all over the place.

And then after that, in my neighborhood all of the men organized themselves into an armed patrol. They had to take their guns and patrol our community every night because they did not want that to happen again.

I mean, that’s why when someone asks me about violence, I just…. I just find it incredible. Because what it means is that the person asking that question has no idea what black people have gone through… what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.

She’s no longer smiling.

The interchange begins at 1min 40sec:

A SocImages Collection: Police, Black Americans, and U.S. Society

In lieu of a monthly update post, please consider this collection of SocImages posts related to the relationship between police, black Americans, and this country.  See, also, the Ferguson syllabus put together by Sociologists for Justice and this summary of the facts by Nicki Lisa Cole.

Race and policing:

Perceptions of black men and boys as inherently criminal:

Proof that Americans have less empathy for black people:

Evidence of the consistent maltreatment, misrepresentation, and oppression of black people in every part of American society:

The situation now:

W.E.B. DuBois (1934):

The colored people of America are coming to face the fact quite calmly that most white Americans do not like them, and are planning neither for their survival, nor for their definite future if it involves free, self-assertive modern manhood. This does not mean all Americans. A saving few are worried about the Negro problem; a still larger group are not ill-disposed, but they fear prevailing public opinion. The great mass of Americans are, however, merely representatives of average humanity. They muddle along with their own affairs and scarcely can be expected to take seriously the affairs of strangers or people whom they partly fear and partly despise.

For many years it was the theory of most Negro leaders that this attitude was the insensibility of ignorance and inexperience, that white America did not know of or realize the continuing plight of the Negro.  Accordingly, for the last two decades, we have striven by book and periodical, by speech and appeal, by various dramatic methods of agitation, to put the essential facts before the American people.  Today there can be no doubt that Americans know the facts; and yet they remain for the most part indifferent and unmoved.

- From A Negro Nation Within a Nation

Jay Smooth: “How Much Do You Think People Can Take?”

There was violence and unrest following the news that Darren Wilson would not be indicted. Some argued that this was proof that the people involved were bad people. Jay Smooth responds with a question: “How much do you think people can take?”

Here is a partial transcript of his 5min discussion, embedded below:

Riots are things that human beings do because human beings have limits.

We don’t all have the same limits. For some of us, our human limit is when our favorite team loses a game. For some of us, it’s when our favorite team wins a game.

The people of Ferguson had a different limit than that. For the people of Ferguson, a lifetime of neglect and defacto segregation and incompetence and mistreatment by every level of government was not their limit.

When that malign neglect set the stage for one of their children to be shot down and left in the street like a piece of trash… that was not their limit.

For the people of Ferguson, spending one hundred days almost entirely peacefully protesting for some measure of justice for that child  and having their desire for justice treated like a joke by every local authority… was not their limit.

And then after those 100 days, when the so-called prosecutor waited till the dead of night to twist that knife one last time. When he came out and confirmed once and for all that Michael Brown’s life didn’t matter…

Only then did the people of Ferguson reach their limit.

So when you look at what happened Monday night, the question you should be asking is how did these human beings last that long before they reached their human limit? How do black people in America retain such a deep well of humanity that they can be pushed so far again and again without reaching their human limit?

Riots? Violence? Unrest?

That is what happens when you treat human beings that way.

Watch to the whole thing:

U.S. Schools Teach Children That Native Americans Are History

“They were coming to college believing that all Indians are dead,” said education professor Sarah Shear of her experience in the classroom.

Her students’ seeming ignorance to the fact that American Indians are a part of the contemporary U.S., not just the historical one, led her to take a closer look at what they were learning. She examined the academic standards for elementary and secondary school education in all 50 states, these are the guidelines that educators use to plan curricula and write textbooks. The results are summarized at Indian Country.

Shear found that the vast majority of references to American Indians — 87 percent — portrayed them as a population that existed only prior to 1900.  There was “nothing,” she said, about contemporary issues for American Indian populations or the ongoing conflicts over land and water rights or sovereignty. Only one state, New Mexico, even mentions the name of a single member of the American Indian Movement.

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Meanwhile, the genocidal war against American Indians is portrayed as an inevitable conflict that colonizers handled reasonably.  “All of the states are teaching that there were civil ways to end problems,” she said, “and that the Indian problem was dealt with nicely.”  Only one state, Washington, uses the word genocide. Only four states mention Indian boarding schools, institutions that represent the removal of children from their families and forced re-socialization into a Euro-American way of life.

The fact that so many people absorb the idea that Native Americans are a thing of the past — and a thing that we don’t have to feel too badly about — may help explain why they feel so comfortable dressing up like them on Halloween, throwing “Conquistabros and Navahos” parties, persisting in using Indian mascots, leaving their reservations off of Google maps, and failing to include them in our media. It might also explain why we expect Indian-themed art to always feature a pre-modern world.

Curricular choices matter. So long as young people learn to think of Indians no differently than they do Vikings and Ancient Romans, they will overwhelmingly fail to notice or care about ongoing interpersonal and institutional discrimination against American Indians who are here now.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.