I want to acknowledge and give credit to the Black leaders, Black midwives, Black doulas, and Black activists who organized around this issue and who devoted an exhausting amount of time in the numerous threads against persistent, white-centering backlash.
Special thanks to Samsarah Morgan for reviewing this article for sensitivity.
Over the weekend, renowned midwife and homebirth pioneer, Ina May Gaskin, during a Q&A at Texas Birth Network Conference, addressed racial disparities in birth outcomes. Even though growing evidence points to racism as the major causal factor for poor birth outcomes and maternal and infant mortality disparities among people of color – and especially Black People of Color – Gaskin’s comments conflated the issues of poverty and race and centered the behaviors of Black women as major contributing factors of poor outcomes. She went as far as to suggest that the decline in prayer and church-going might also be contributing factors.
When Black birth workers created a petition, naming the problem and calling for steps to address anti-blackness in the birth community, what resulted was predictable: white birth workers demonstrated their alliance with their white guru, while tone policing and chastising the efforts and work of the Black women harmed by Gaskin’s words. The “all-we-need-is-NVC-and-love” shut down was only just the beginning, though.
When Gaskin did post a public apology, the comments section underneath became a stinking heap of racist garbage, with white people weighing in with accolades for Ina May and acceptances of an apology that wasn’t ours to receive.
Even worse, though were the talking over and around and down to Black folks, and numerous chants of “reverse racism” that ensued over being asked to take a seat a listen. One person, after being told that white women should shut up and listen, likened being told to be quiet to being sent to the back of the bus.
** This should be obvious, but to be clear – Black people and POC can not be racist toward white people. There is no such thing as “reverse racism.” Racism is not just prejudice, but also a system of power that grants benefits to a group of people. Black people and POC do not have the social power necessary to be racist. **
Ina May’s comments were almost benign in comparison to the birth worker tantrums that were let loose when she was called out. Countless Black women did HEAPS upon HEAPS of emotional labor in multiple threads in an attempt to educate white people. Work, that frankly, should not be the burden of Black birth workers to shoulder.
Keep in mind how exhausting it is to live with the experiences and burdens of racism, and then to also be expected to educate people doling out racism, while those folks simultaneously criticize you, your response, and your tactics.
Reminder: If you are curious about racism, disparities, privilege, bias… any of it, Google it before you ask a Black birth worker to do the work for you. If you still can’t find the information, ask another white person who may be further along in their understanding to help you.
So, come on over here. Let’s learn about this – as white people – together.
Here are some ways that white birth workers’ responses to Black birth workers’ concerns and criticisms contributed to and demonstrated the existing anti-blackness in the birth community. (Note: while it is also possible for non-black people of color to exhibit anti-blackness, as a white person, it is not my place to address NBPOC in this post.)
Where possible, I’ve linked out to work by marginalized writers / artists if you’d like to do further reading (encouraged!).
It Reinforced White-Centering
Instead of focusing on the hurt and actual harms experienced by Black women from IMG’s comments, gobs of white people centered their empathy on Ina May – what she has done for the birth world, that she didn’t really mean anything by it, how she must be feeling. In a nutshell, ‘poor old Ina May.’
But come on.
Poor, old Ina May has been on a natural birth platform for decades. A huge amount of responsibility comes with being that mouthpiece. No public figure is exempt from speaking and acting responsibly – especially when it comes to issues of race. Ina May is not exempt.
2 years ago, I wrote a critical piece about call-out culture in activism that was hugely centered in my white feelings and fragility. I was swiftly schooled by a woman of color about how my words as a white woman served to shame and silence the voices of WOC.
She was right. I’m reminded of that interaction as I’ve been naming the problems in white folks’ reactions to Ina May over the past couple of days.
Part of our work is calling out. Part of our work is being called out. Part of our work is responding appropriately to those call-outs. Much of our work is listening. So much of our work is doing better.
Centering Ina May’s discomfort over the harm her words brought to Black people is a literal line in the sand. In an us vs. them situation, white birth workers demonstrated that they side with whiteness. We need to do better. We need to stop centering whiteness – as a rule.
The best way to decenter whiteness is to stop reacting in defensiveness when Black birth workers say something is a problem.
Stop reacting and just listen.
It Silenced Black Voices
Tone policing is a derailing technique wherein someone deflects from the topic to focus attention to how another person is communicating “badly.” Think gaslighting. Think “Angry Black Woman.”
Shutting down the experiences and feelings of Black women is anti-black behavior. It doesn’t matter if that’s your intention, that is the impact.
There was a lot of white birth worker-led discussion about the tactic of calling Ina May out, publicly. Many likened the calls to action a “public shaming.” But, let’s be clear. Naming problematic behavior with accompanying calls to action is not a public shaming. It’s good activism.
Being called out is uncomfortable. Trust me, I know. I’ve been publicly called out for my own problematic behavior. Sometimes I was totally caught up in my own feelings and didn’t respond well. Other times, I’ve done better. It’s a part of growing, a part of learning. In the moment, it’s embarrassing and it totally sucks.
We need to be prepared to be called out, we need to be prepared for when our white colleagues and the white people we admire get called out. None of us are exempt from missteps. None of us are above being held to account.
Instead of being defensive when we are called out, we can instead learn how to respond in a better way. Responses that can bring about change and reconciliation include listening to the person’s concerns, thanking the person for bringing the problem to our attention, apologizing for our mistake, and committing to doing better in the future.
It Demonstrated a Skewed Understanding of What Racism Is
We need to re-evaluate our understanding of racism if we are ever going to move forward in productive dialogue around racism and anti-blackness in this work and in this community.
White people are all racist. Say it with me – white people are all racist.
That means me, that means you, that even means Ina May.
Racism is not confined to the confederate flag-waving, Nazi-saluting skinhead at the KKK rally. Racism exists inside all of us. It presents in the ingrained biases we hold, in the way we talk over and around and down to people of color about their experiences, in the ways that we center ourselves and our feelings and whiteness over the lived experiences and pain of POC.
We don’t have to get defensive about this. We don’t have to claim, “I’m not racist!” – because that’s just not true. No white person can claim to have subverted the culture they are submersed in and have benefited from. Not one person.
We are either working with or against that racism. Once we can get cozy with that, we can let the defensiveness go and just get to work.
Anti-black racism is a very persistent form of racism that the birth world, in particular, needs to address. Anti-blackness in birth work is especially important to dismantle if we are truly committed to justice in the birth world. The biggest and most atrocious injustice happening in birth is that Black mothers and babies are dying at such astounding and disparate rates.
One of the best ways to begin addressing our own racism is to evaluate our own biases and privileges. When you feel an urge to react, sit in that for a minute and evaluate where that is coming from. What defensiveness is rising up? How can you challenge that?
And then pause. Pause, sit in your discomfort. And listen.
It Revealed White Birth Workers’ White Feminist Lens
It wasn’t that long ago that I didn’t really understand what White Feminism was. I thought it just meant I was white and feminist and someone was bashing my whiteness and feminism in the same breath.
White Feminism is actually a feminist philosophy that centers whiteness and erases Black experiences. It has a lengthy, racist history. When someone points out White Feminism, what they are referring to is a lens that chooses to solely see the white experience as the default, the norm, and the most important. It is a feminism that tells Black women to stand back, to wait their turn, to insist that white people pave the way and let the benefits trickle down.
The birth community has been clinging to a white feminist understanding of justice in birth. The responses from white birth workers to the backlash of Ina May’s comments brought that White Feminism into the spotlight.
White birth workers’ inability to understand or even listen to Black birth workers’ experiences and feelings around this issue revealed a gaping divide that was centered in a singularly white view of this work and of the world at large.
Intersectional feminism is a lens that understands and commits to including the various layers of oppression that can intersect with and impact the work of feminism – things like race and gender and poverty and disability.
Birth workers need to embrace intersectionality in their work in order to begin dismantling racism in the birth world.
In order to do this, we must begin to amplify and center the voices of Black leaders in our field. That means many of us are going to have to get more comfortable sitting down and being quiet.
It Showed an Unwillingness to Relinquish Power
Whiteness comes with a lot of benefits. It’s why, for white people, racism is hard to work against. It’s not necessarily easy to push back against a system that offers us so many perks.
White people and white birth workers are used to having the floor. We’re used to taking up space. We’re used to being deferred to, to being authorities, to having our voices centered. Whiteness affords us these default benefits.
Tasha Portley, the woman who asked Ina May the question about racial disparities in birth, made a video shortly after that interaction, wherein, she detailed the micro-aggressions she experienced being a Black person at a mostly white conference.
It’s important for us to listen when people talk about what that experience is like. It’s important for us to consider the ways in which we may be tokenizing Black birth workers on panels and in the ways we reference our “intersectionality” by pulling out our Black birth worker colleagues to prove how non-racist we are.
How much do we value the work and experiences and authority of Black birth workers? We often say that a pregnant person is best positioned to be the authority on their body and their pregnancy.
Likewise, Black birth workers are best positioned to be authorities on issues of race and racism and disparities in birth.
We need to listen.
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