A tale of two breastfeeding pictures

Two photos, two very different reactions.

Two photos, two very different reactions.

How can two almost identical photos be accompanied by two vastly different headlines?

Karlesha Thurman, a young black mother in California achieved internet infamy back in June when the Facebook group Black Women Do Breastfeed posted a picture of her in graduation cap and gown, with her baby daughter nursing at her left breast.

While Karlesha received many supportive comments, the backlash was so severe, she eventually deleted the photo.

Four months later, Caucasian Australian woman Jacci Sharkey sent a picture of herself, also with her baby at her left breast, to the University of the Sunshine Coast as a "thank you" for helping her graduate while juggling two children. The uni found the photo so "amazing", they posted it to their own Facebook page.


At the time of writing it has over 275,000 likes and has been shared more than 9000 times. But just as Karlesha had some supporters, Jacci also had more than a few detractors, proving that breastfeeding in public is (still!) a contentious issue for women of all races.

However, the contrast in headlines is so stark, it deserves to be examined. It is tempting to dismiss this as just two different reactions by two different media outlets on a controversial issue. But this is not the first time that black and white people engaging in the exact same activity have been received differently.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina these two (once again almost identical) photos also went viral:


Black people "loot" food.  White people "find" food.

The way the media reports events reflects societal attitudes. And unfortunately, the myth of the Dangerous Black Criminal persists despite evidence that blacks commit no more crimes than whites. It is this myth that is behind the regular shootings of innocent black men such as that of Trayvon Martin at the hands of neighbourhood watchman George Zimmerman in Florida tow years ago.

This presumption of black guilt includes sexuality. So many of America's notorious lynchings were conducted on the pretext of "protecting" white women from lustful black men. During the slavery era, their status as property meant that black women could not be legally raped, so their frequent sexual abuse by their white owners was passed off as licentious behaviour on their own part.

And so the hypersexualistion of the black woman was born.

Colonial Australia was no better. Because Indigenous sexual relations differed to that of whites, Indigenous women were all considered prostitutes and fair game for white men with a fetish for "black velvet." In a classic case of self-fulfilling prophecy, many Aboriginal women were forced into prostitution to survive. Even those in "respectable" employment such as domestic servants were expected to sexually satisfy their bosses and co-workers as part of the job requirements.

People still have a hard time accepting black innocence, be it criminal or sexual. This is evident in the higher incarceration rates for black people, who are put away for crimes that receive barely a slap on the wrists when committed by whites.

Still not convinced? Then take a look at this comparison of headlines where black shooting victims are treated with more suspicion by the media than actual white suspects of mass shootings. 

It can also be seen in the way even white pop stars hypersexualise black women in their videos (think: Miley Cyrus and Lily Allen), to capitalise on "ghetto" culture. Miley Cryus may twerk and Iggy Azalea adopt a black Southern drawl in an exaggerated imitation of black female sexuality, but their whiteness means this is something they can (and no doubt will) walk away from at any time.

As one tweeter put it, whites get "Everything But The Burden."

That's not to say white women are not sexualised. All women are. But our racist attitudes mean that only white women are able to overcome this sexualisation. For example, Professor Edward Rhymes points out that in films featuring the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (think: Pretty Woman and Mighty Aphrodite), the character is invariably played by a white woman:

"There has yet to be a critically-acclaimed or commercially successful film, where a central character was a Black prostitute. So even when the "textbook" requirements of what constitutes being promiscuous is met, her whiteness saves the day. Even at her most licentious, she is made to appear innocent, wholesome and strangely virginal."

And this is why, even though public breastfeeding is largely frowned upon, in two almost identical breastfeeding photos it is the one with the white woman that the media referred to as "adorable" and held up as proof that "women are the greatest." Because, as Rhymes puts it, "whiteness saves the day."

We can always find excuses to get around this uncomfortable truth. We can say the white Hurricane Katrina victims were observed "finding" as opposed to "looting" the food. But, after a disaster of that magnitude, is there really any difference? Black people simply trying to survive were automatically criminalised while whites were given the benefit of the doubt.

We can  (and indeed the jury did) say that George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in self-defence. But he had already decided Trayvon was a "thug" before he started stalking him. And black men continue to be killed by cops or vigilantes on an almost daily basis. Even when they are unarmed. Even when their hands are up. Even when they yell Don't Shoot!

We can say that colonialism is history and that Australia now treats all cultures and races equally. But only one community is denied innocence en masse in the form of an Intervention. Only one community forms just three percent of the general population but 25 percent of the prison population

And we can put this latest breastfeeding controversy down to a general antipathy towards breastfeeding by a public that doesn't like to be reminded of what breasts are actually for (indeed, even Angelina Jolie was not immune from criticism).

But the fact remains, when two photos were stacked side by side, only one of the women was able transcend the sexualisation of the act of breastfeeding. Only one woman was called "adorable" by the media and portrayed with girlish innocence, and it wasn't the black one. It never is.