Written by Septembre Anderson
This week, Australian mother and university grad Jacci Sharkey skyrocketed to Internet fame when a picture of her breastfeeding her 11-month-old son went viral. The mother of two, who graduated with a Bachelor of Business in Human Resource Management from the University of the Sunshine Coast, was praised for her “adorable” photo and for nailing the work-life balance.
“To me the picture represents mums being able to have it all, a career and a family,” says Sharkey. “They don’t have to give up the career for kids, and don’t have to give up kids for the career.”
This June, a photo of another breastfeeding graduate went viral. Karlesha Thurman was photographed in her cap and gown while breastfeeding her child at her university graduation. Thurman was receiving her degree in accounting from California State University, Long Beach when her then three-month-old daughter became fussy. Thurman breastfed her daughter, a friend snapped a picture and Thurman posted the photo on the Black Women Do Breastfeed Facebook page.
However, Thurman received a very different response. Karlesha was flung into Internet ignominy for the image and widely criticized for the “inappropriate” picture.
There are many similarities between Sharkey and Thurman. They are both in their twenties, both mothers and both university graduates. However, there is one trait that they don’t share and this trait alters their life trajectory and how they are treated and perceived as mothers and women – race.
The attack of Thurman, who was eventually forced to take down the image because of the negative feedback, was originally framed as the public’s negative reaction to a woman breastfeeding in public but many Black people knew differently. The Sharkey image, and the positive responses to it, shows that there is more to this story.
When society looks at Sharkey, who is white, they see a dedicated, devoted mother. When they look at Thurman, they see a young, scandalous, ghetto girl (in tweets, Thurman was regularly described as ‘ratchet’ and ‘ghetto’).
In society, Black women routinely find themselves hyper sexualized, defeminized and criminalized. When they are not being reduced to sex-crazed jezebels, the most minute of actions are read as illegal or immoral. Thurman was called a slew of names for doing the exact same thing that Sharkey was praised for.
“I’m just glad that people can see that race is always going to be a factor,” said Thurman. “Some people act like it’s over, it’s not.”
Motherhood. Every woman experiences it differently and, sadly, race plays a huge part in how it is experienced.