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Guest Post: We Need a Movement

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Guest post by Mai’a Williams


so this is how it happens.  about once or twice a year or so, one of the bigger birth advocate/midwifery blogs will do a post on race/racism and birth.  i used to get excited when i would see a post like this.  thinking in my head, yes, finally we are going to have a real conversation about women who are often the most vulnerable to violence in birth.  the kind of conversations that in my opinion we need to be having.  

i stopped getting excited.

now when i see that post on birth and racism, i groan.  out loud.  cause i know how it is going to go.  post will go up.  there will be the typical responses.  

the ‘i don’t know what to do about all this racism stuff.’ response.  
the ‘it is really about class/gender/some other oppression’ response.  
the ‘those women just need to be more educated/get pre natal care/believe in birth’ response.  
the ‘well if they just changed their lifestyle and stopped spending all their money on bling then they could afford decent healthcare’ response.  
the ‘i’m not going to feel guilty for being white’ response.  
the ‘i’m a woman of color and i don’t feel oppressed’ response.  
the ‘let me tell you my birth/midwifery story that has nothing to do with racism, but i refuse to converse without making myself the center of the universe’ response. 
the ‘i don’t know what to say cause i’m not a woman of color’ response.  
the ‘people who talk about racism are the real racists’ response.
the ‘birth shouldn’t be political’
and so on.

there may even be a couple of intrepid souls who try to deconstruct/respond to these variations of denial and privilege, but they are usually overwhelmed, shouted down, conflict-avoidant, not used to conversations about race so are pretty much in shock by the racism that shows up.  

i stopped getting excited not only because the conversation was typically predictable and unhelpful and energy draining, but because i came to understand that the effect of the blog post was to reify racism, not challenge white supremacy in the natural birth community.  these one-off posts allowed for white folks to feel like they were ‘learning’ and ‘doing something’ about the rampant white supremacy in their world, without having to build any real relationships with those who are being hurt and killed daily by white supremacy.   the conversations centered around how to be an ‘informed’ good white person, rather than how to stop the harm that is done to people of color.   

no matter what, most white folks,  in conversations about racism, insist on speaking for people of color, about people color, at people of color.  insist on being the experts on people of color experiences. and if they cant be the expert, then they refuse to engage in the conversation at all.  

for a lot of birthy white folks, writing a post about racism is the ‘i voted for obama’ card.  it is what they can point to, to prove that they aren’t really racist.   it is their way of not engaging critique and challenge to their white identity.  

truth?  i really don’t give a damn if you are an ‘informed about racism’ white person.  i care about maternal and infant mortality rates for black folks in the states.  about palestinian women being denied the right to adequate health care during the childbearing year.  about the 80 percent c section rate in chiapas and oaxaca, mexico.  about imprisoned folks giving birth while being strapped down.  about forced sterilization for maquiladora workers.   

how do we stop these atrocities, these genocides that are happening to those with the least amount of access and resources? 

and we aren’t going to have these type of necessary conversations in a one-off post every few months or so.  these one-off posts for the most part make racism in the natural birth movement worse, not better.  those blog posts don’t de-center whiteness, they just act as a false replacement for real discussions, real education, real action in the face of racism and genocide and the ways that we in the birth world support these atrocities.  

a few weeks ago, on facebook, i commented on a very well respected midwife’s post about the possibilities of exoticism and racism inside her ‘well meaning’ statement.  her response was well, our magazine already did an issue on ethnicity.  so we already covered that and don’t need to talk about it anymore.  a week later, i saw an announcement that her magazine was doing their umpteenth issue on…waterbirth.  she has her priorities.  i have mine.  

if we are going to really stop this racism, this abuse, we are going to do so by having conversations continuously, repeatedly, with dedication.  we are not going to treat race, ethnicity, war, nationalism and birth as one more ’ blog topic’ on par with when is the appropriate time to cord clamp and how safe is unassisted birth.  we are going to have to realize that race and ethnicity, the effects of colonialism and globalization are experiences that always flow through the conversations that we have about childbearing.  and that if you don’t see that reality, then that is a reflection of how privilege has distorted your vision of the world and of birth.  

honestly, we don’t need another blog post about racism, childbearing and midwifery.  we need a movement that says these mamas, these babies of color matter.  they deserve to live.  and we will do everything in our power to make sure that they do.  not out of white guilt,  not out of the image of being the ‘informed white person about race’ but out of deep radical abiding love.   

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Reader Comments (35)

Thanks, Mai'a. I just want to get a civil comment in before this comment section gets moving. I hope it doesn't blow up, but it most likely will.

I am one of those concerned white bloggers who throws up a post every now and then. But, soon I will be an ob/gyn, probably in one of the biggest public hospitals in one of the poorest cities in the country. This hospital serves a large black population, and delivers (and shackles) pregnant prisoners.

I hope I will be part of the movement and not just part of the noise, soon. And, thanks for taking the time and emotional energy to write this post and face the response.

September 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMomTFH

Thanks for this, mai'a. I am clueless enough to not know, exactly, what the next step is, but I agree that racism and issues around race should stop being treated as specialty topics, but as central to the conversation. Not sure how best to make room and change how we approach things, but I'm listening.

September 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteremjaybee

Misguided doesn't always been poor intentions.

Sometimes we need to know their is someone to have the dialog with, perhaps someone like yourself, who can help us build on our own thoughts.

I would love to "talk" more about this, especially being in a community where those who serve pregnant women are primarily white men, yet a good portion of the population is not white.

Thank you for such a thought provoking blog about something lingering in my mind. I too am guilty of not knowing exactly what to do, but understand something ought to be done.

September 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteralisa b

*sorry should read MEAN not seen. :-)

September 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteralisa b

this is great. i relate deeply, and i really want to be involved. is there a more direct way we can all communicate? what kinds of plans can "we" make? what's realistic? what's not?

September 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermegan livingston

I'm with you. I love the work of Tonya Jones and the UN Development Goals. I'm supportive of the efforts, I want to be involved. Most of all I need to know HOW.

What would this movement look like? How will it happen? Who needs to do what? These are the questions that matter and please, commenters, let's have the conversation go that way instead of to the dominant themes that Mai'a listed.

September 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJenne

Thank you, Ma'ia! Like MomTFH, I have been guilty of throwing up that post every once in a while. For what it's worth, your bog often re-centers/reminds me re: where these issues belong.

Jumping from some of the later comments on the last post, in which people were talking about wanting to know what they could do about infant mortality disparities, I wondered if it might be appropriate here for people to contribute suggestions (general or to a specific location) for how they can begin to address some of these issues in their birth work and in their volunteer work. A few of mine to start:

- Investigate whether there is a Centering Pregnancy group locally and whether they need help - this could be from finding donations for healthy snacks for the groups, to grand writing, to helping facilitate

- Volunteer with or start a program providing free doula services to women who would not have access to them (like the "sister friend" program Kathy discussed in the last post). Programs that can help connect you with women who would likely not have access to doula services otherwise: Healthy Start case management, teen pregnancy/parenting programs, halfway houses for women transitioning out of prison, programs for women in drug treatment, community health center clients.

- Find out how to get involved with your local/regional infant mortality task force/working group/coalition - many areas have something like this, often composed of public health, medical, and community-based people who are working on these issues. It may take some asking around to find them.

- If you are involved with a local birth umbrella organization, ensure that it isn't just the usual suspects of the independent childbirth educators, doulas, homebirth midwives, etc. Reach out to the programs suggested above for doula services, as well as the infant mortality group, and ask them to come to your meetings, discuss what they do, hear what you do, and find out how you can collaborate. Schedule meetings at a time that they are able to attend, and make sure that the meetings are worth their time and effort.

My last suggestion for volunteers is to be humble, be patient, and be persistent. Many of the people who work on these issues are crazily overworked and underpaid. As a birth worker I am often cautioned to step back and if someone 'really wants help" they will ask/take action from their end, but many organizations could use the help but don't have time to organize or use it. It seems counterintuitive that you have to work hard to give your time away, but that's the nature of the beast - don't give up just because "they didn't call me back" - keep working to find a way to contribute productively.

September 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Oh lord. Blog, not bog. Sorry, I worked last night.

September 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I want to paste something that Mai'a wrote on a post here back in December 2009.

h before i leave this post i wanted to leave some suggestions/ideas/brainstorm about what can be done in terms of centering marginalized persons in birth advocacy, midwifery, etc.

here are some things that i do:
1. connect with and support organizations and persons who *do* focus on pregnancy and birth and folks who are marginalized by class, race, nationality, sexuality, etc.
for example:
doulas of color ning
napw -- national advocates for pregnant women
ictc -- black midwives

2. realize that birth advocacy is done by women of color but a lot of what i have seen and the woc i have worked with -- are connected through the reproductive justice movements and the anti violence movements--
for example-- incite!
sister song
radical doula blog

3. know the material and psycho-social realities of being a person who is marginalized in your communities. how does protective child services, welfare, medicaid, and other governemnet assitance work? what are the non profit organizations that work in your community? what are the childbirthing cultures in your community? what are the organizations of color in the community? what do they see as the primary issues to be focused on? what do you know about stereotype threat? about the countries of origin of the immigrant communities?

4. support women of color entering into birth work. support woc leadership. birth work and activism work primarily through relativiely informal networks. look at the networks that you are a part of. how many people of color are there? how many people of color are in your communities? what (other than the good intentions of white folks) would allow a poc to feel comfortable in your networks? and if woc wouldnt feel comfortable in your networks and communities, then why are you a part of them? look at your blog rolls, list serves, google reader, the books on your shelf, magazines...

5. i worked as an anti racism trainer/consultant for a few years. and one of the exercises that we did with organizations was for them to imagine a 'what if'...
'what if you wanted to create a movement that was predominantly white and middle class. what would you do?'
start brainstorming. make a list. really go with it.
for starters: only advertise/promote in predominantly white and middle class communities.
see movements centered around women of color as not being relevant.
not research/talk about/advocate around issues that are central to woc communities

okay now. imagine doing the opposite. like:
promote in woc and working class com's
see movements centered around woc as being very relevant
research/talk about advocte around issues that are central to woc communities.

the first list is what is actually going on at the moment in the natural birth movement. the second list is a beginning of how a movement could be accountable to *all* women.

6. recognize that racism and classism and structural oppression are the status quo. if you are going to create movements that are focused on empowering all women in their reproductive choices, then you are making a decision to go against the status quo. frankly, that means a lot of discomfort, conflicts, losses, betrayals, and sleepless nights. but it also means, a stronger movement, seeing differences as a strength and not a weakness, solidarity, comraderie, and reproductive justice. and discovering again and again how amazing women are.
i just thought that people might read this thread sooner or later. and i didnt want them to leave with the: oh, but what can *i* do about that? helplessness that seems to infect conversations about race.

look at this way. white middle class women have been the ones who have set the agenda for the natural birth movement for decades. and that agenda may not be (and isn't) the same for women who are marginalized. i can't separate the physiological aspects of birth from teh sociological and racially structural aspects of birth. so when i think of an optimal birth, one of the first things that come to mind are issues around stress and identity and how these interconnect with the body. for instance, breastfeeding. i dont know if i 'breast is best'. i know it was best for me. but i also know mothers who are survivors, who were triggered by breastfeeding and felt that breastfeeding disrupted the bonding process and caused a rush of stress hormones that seeped into the breastmilk and affected the babe. i trust those mothers. and can see how even on a physiological level -- breast was not best for that dyad.
one of the things i have loved about working in the anti violence reproductive justice movement is that (informed) consent is primary.
if a man convinces a woman that unless she has sex with him, she is going to die. even if she at the time felt that she was making the best choice available, if later she finds out that he was lying. and she says that he raped her, because of the manipulation of information. then it was rape.
and the same thing goes for birth.
i do feel that he reproductive justice movement diminishes the birth experiences in its work in general.
and the alternative birth movement diminishes the necessity of reproductive justice.

September 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterJill

This is the line that I want to be seen: "i just thought that people might read this thread sooner or later. and i didnt want them to leave with the: oh, but what can *i* do about that? helplessness that seems to infect conversations about race."

September 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterJill
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