White Wellness Culture & Why It’s So Complicated for People of Color

White women don’t own breastfeeding

breastfeeding white wellness culture

Photo: Pexels/ Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz

White women don’t own breastfeeding. I thought that was obvious and something that didn’t need to be explicitly stated. That was until I wrote an essay on the ways that white wellness culture has affected my parenting choices, and attributed my knowledge of things like breastfeeding and child nutrition to white women. People were up in arms, assuming I wasn’t aware that all cultures and societies started out breastfeeding their babies. What many of those critics failed to recognize is how complex the choice to breastfeed has been in the United States — particularly for women of color — for generations. And to a greater degree, the complexities of being a member of a very Americanized Latinx family.

Both of my parents were born in Puerto Rico and lived there for brief periods of their childhood but I was born and raised in an urban area in the Northeast United States.  In fact, my grandmother moved from Puerto Rico with my great-grandmother to that same urban area when she was just 12 years old. My family’s history in the United States goes all the way back to the early 1950s. We came as citizens, but our migration was undoubtedly a complex one that continues to present unique challenges for Puerto Rican individuals, families, and communities even today.

mother and daughter hiplatina

Photo: Shayne Rodriguez Thompson

My great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents were all told that yes, they were American, but if they wanted to be accepted as such, they had to talk, walk, eat, live, and act like Americans, whatever that means. Of course, that was a lie. We still haven’t been fully accepted whether it’s because of our names, our accents, our hair textures, or our complexions.

Being an Afro-Latina who could never really pass—not to mention one who grew up in a city that was about nearly 100 percent Black and Puerto Rican in the ’90s—things were complicated, and remain so today.  Neither of my parents graduated high school and we lived in a community that the government oppressed by making us feel dependent on them.

Women in the community I grew up in largely chose not to breastfeed. Perhaps for some, it was an attempt at ownership of their own bodies. But most of the women I knew during my childhood had to return to work too soon to establish a good nursing relationship, and for the most part, didn’t have the tools, resources, or support that a working moms needs to exclusively breastfeed. Living below the poverty line, most were eligible to receive free infant formula from the government’s WIC program so that was the norm. Yes, breastfeeding is a choice that all women have, but many do not have the information they need to choose it, and that has been the case in America for decades and decades.

I still remember a Puerto Rican neighbor and close family friend putting cabbage leaves in her bra in an attempt to dry up her milk as fast as she could so she could go back to work. Until shortly before I became a mom for the first time, that’s what my breastfeeding knowledge was limited to, and that was the norm in my community of origin.

I’m well aware that things like breastfeeding and homemade baby food were/are the norm in LATAM and also rooted in Indigenous practices throughout Latin America. For many women who were born and/or raised in those countries, or whose mothers were, formula feeding might seem an odd or uncommon choice. That’s not the case in the United States, where I and all of my living family members were raised and became parents.

mom breastfeeding hiplatina

Photo: Shayne Rodriguez Thompson

In fact, infant formula was considered “superior” in the United States as far back as the late 19th century. By the 1950s, when my grandmother moved to the U.S., only about 25 percent of women nursed their babies, and while there was a brief resurgence of popularity in the ’70s, formula feeding was still the preference for years after that, according to a 2001 study published in The Journal of Nutrition. That is, until mostly white women decided that “breast is best,” again somewhere at the end of the 20th century and into the beginning of the 21st century.

Breastfeeding is just one thing that modern white women have co-opted and claimed as their own, even though they were the first to abandon the natural, nurturing methods of parenting that humans all over the globe have lived by for thousands of years. When I say that “white wellness culture” has taught me things that are perceived as “right” or “healthier” for my children, what I really mean is that modern white wellness culture is what has made those things normal in American society again. It is therefore accessible to me as a parent with access to a good Internet connection and disposable income to buy books on certain topics related to parenting and wellness. The most common and popular ones you tend to find at bookstores and online are often written by white women.  Not to mention supplies and goods that allow me to engage in parenting practices like breastfeeding and buying organic food, along with quitting my full-time job to stay home with my kids.

breastfeeding mom hiplatina

Photo: Shayne Rodriguez Thompson

While some Latinx parents, women, and families may not ever have let go of those intuitive ways of parenting, some of us never had a choice. We never saw them growing up, and until very recently, many of us had no access to information about them. In fact, many of us have been encouraged to leave behind the “old way” of doing things, to do things “the American way,” because our grandparents and great-grandparents believed that’s what they needed to do to fit into the new society they found themselves in. Not to mention that many of our own parents — including mine — routinely worked twelve to fifteen-hour days leaving some of the options we have today completely off the table.

In an effort to understand why some found my words problematic and worthy of criticism, I reached out to parenting expert Leslie Priscilla of Latinx Parenting for her thoughts, and what she had to say largely echoed many of my own.

“I carry an awareness that has been built up over time and that I share often about there being primary and secondary cultural characteristics specific to the parenting and mental health/wellness space for brown and Black folks specifically. I do my best to look at family dynamics, values, and practices through the lens of these two cultural characteristics,” Priscilla says. “Primary cultural characteristics are that which existed in the culture prior to external interference, in this case, colonization by Europeans. Secondary cultural characteristics are adaptations into a culture that stem from those external interferences. I think if there was more recognition of this, there would be less association with some of the ‘newer’ practices you mentioned in your essay being associated with ‘white wellness culture.'”

When it comes to the collective experience of parenting, there are certain commonalities in our community from punishment (“la chancla”) to the value placed on home cooking (“hay comida en la casa”) to the lack of communication around mental health. While broadly speaking we can agree that these are generally experiences many of us have shared, the fact is there is no one way to parent even if you share the same culture. Mexican moms have different ways of doing things than Mexican American moms and Puerto Ricans on the island parent differently than Puerto Ricans born and raised in the U.S. and so on.

mother and son hiplatina

Photo: Shayne Rodriguez Thompson

“I actually hold a lot of resonance for your essay in that my first exposure to attachment parenting and holistic ways of living was through what, I learned later, was a co-opting of indigenous practices by white folks,” she shares. “The history of European parenting is actually quite oppressive and it’s unfortunate that there are assumptions that it’s ‘new’ to our culture when really what we are doing is reclaiming that which was initially villainized and eventually stolen from us.”

In light of that, I now realize it was my mistake was to assume that most people are aware of the “primary and secondary cultural characteristics,” Priscilla is referring to. That they wouldn’t think that I was under the impression that things like breastfeeding are “new” to Latinx parents. To be clear, my parenting experience has been heavily influenced by my family’s ancestral Puerto Rican culture, post-Colonial norms in Puerto Rico, as well as by my own experience as un underprivileged Puerto Rican youth. This does not represent the story of every Latinx mom, family, or community.

There is no way to cover the complexities of parenting and wellness in one essay but this is meant to share a truth about coming to terms with this new style of parenting I was not exposed to in my home. White wellness is not the ultimate or only source of parenting information nor is it in any way superior to the practices of our homelands, but it is the prevalent source of information — not just on social media but in books and media — for the majority of parents raising children in the U.S. This speaks to a bigger issue of accessibility that is more than I can get into in one essay but it’s part of the reason why it was MY source of information.

I would have loved to have seen my mom and tias breastfeeding their babies and grown up with that example. But the reality is, that didn’t happen. I distinctly remember my mother watching me breastfeed her first grandchild and telling me she wished she had known to do the same. I remember her and my tias telling me they were given medication to dry up their milk before they even left the hospital after delivering their babies.

So no, breastfeeding and gentle, natural parenting don’t belong to white women; But they’re the ones who abandoned it for decades and decades, relegating it below them, and then subsequently reclaiming it in the midst of a new age. In a time when parents across the country suddenly had anecdotal parenting advice at their fingertips every moment of every day.

Let me reiterate: I will keep feeding my kids tostones and arroz con habichuelas made with organic ingredients and letting them stay up past bedtime for family parties while also spiking their avena with flax seeds and chia seeds, and teaching them the benefits of yoga and meditation. I am Latina and I am American and my kids are too, and we will continue to live fully in those experiences, taking the best of both for our own. This is my experience and mine alone and it can never be anything else because it’s my truth, but parenting is an ever-evolving journey and one I will continue to chronicle as I grow and learn from my community as well as others because that’s the unique experience of being a Latina and a mom in the U.S. 

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