addressing racism and white supremacy in birth in our culture

In 2010, Pam England wrote a series of pieces about ways in which we can change birth in our culture. The Birthing From Within leadership and blog team has chosen some of these pieces as inspiration and jumping-off points to create a new 12-part series about changing birth in our culture that reflects current understandings within the birth world as well as our current approaches and offerings as an organization. We will be sharing one piece for each month of 2019, both on the blog and in our monthly newsletters. We hope you enjoy this wonderful material, both the archival treasure and the new, innovative insights!

*This post is intended as education for white birth professionals.

Our Ways to Change Birth in Our Culture series has ranged across a wide variety of ideas this year. Among other topics, we have considered how to talk about birth with our children, use inclusive language as birth professionals, change our understanding of fear, and use birth art when working with parents. There is just one thing left to talk about, and it is perhaps the most important thing, particularly for birth professionals and birthing people in the United States: the effects of racism and white supremacy on birth in our culture.

The situation is dire: Black birthing people in America are up to five times more likely to die of childbirth-related complications than their white counterparts – up to twelve times more in large urban centers – regardless of other social determinants. The reason is racism and white supremacy, both systemic and interpersonal. This crisis demands the attention of all Americans, but for obvious reasons, it is particularly morally imperative for birth professionals to understand the issues at hand, and to take action.

We hope that most birth workers are, by this time, familiar with the basic facts about this crisis. If you are not, these two articles will be helpful:

Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies are in a Life-or-Death Crisis (New York Times)

America is Failing Its Black Mothers (Harvard Public Health)

In order to develop a deeper understanding of the work that needs to be done and the work that is being done, we recommend that you follow Black birth professionals, organizations, and activists on Facebook, Instagram, and/or Twitter. (If you’re not sure how to proceed, try starting with Ancient Song Doula Services, Birthmark Doula Collective, Black Mamas Matter Alliance, and Village Birth International. You can expand from there by following the accounts linked to and mentioned by these organizations, as well as related accounts that the algorithms will begin suggesting to you.) Spend time reading their posts without commenting – it is your attention that is needed, not your opinions. Don’t forget to “like” and repost in order to amplify, and so that the algorithms will prioritize these accounts in your feed. In addition to attention and amplification, these individuals and organizations require your support. When you can afford to, donate! $5 here and $20 there from many supporters can make a real difference.

Birth workers often favor direct engagement – working for change with a (literally) hands-on approach. So your immediate instinct may be to seek ways to work directly with at-risk communities. Be aware, though, that culturally competent care is extremely important – in other words, birthing people in at-risk communities are generally best served by birth professionals from those communities. If you don’t have the required cultural competency, direct assistance may not be the best step for you at this moment, and could even cause harm.

Rather than thinking in terms of dramatically changing the scope of your current practice, you might think in terms of how you can acknowledge and address these issues within your current practice – and yourself. This is a heroic journey, and like all heroic journeys, it begins within. (In using the phrase “heroic journey,” we do not mean to imply that it is somehow heroic for a person with certain types of privilege to acknowledge and address gross injustice; rather, we mean to invoke the complex processes of internal change with which we, as birth professionals, are already familiar.)

As you look within to understand the roles that racism and white supremacy play in your life – and the ways in which you yourself may benefit from and practice them – it may be helpful to consider what we, in Birthing From Within, call the three ways of knowing:

 

Primordial, or Instinctual, Knowing

Our primordial intuition speaks to us, but we may end up doubting or dismissing it if it comes into conflict with status quo societal conditioning. What innate feelings do you hold for all humanity that social conditioning has complexified or suppressed? What do you innately understand to be true about all human beings? What would happen if you acted on these feelings and understandings without worrying about getting it right or making yourself or others uncomfortable? What might change in your own practices and behavior as a result of asking yourself these questions?

 

Modern Knowing

Do you have a good baseline understanding of how racism and white supremacy took hold in our culture and how they continue to operate? How about the most current ideas about how to recognize and combat racism and white supremacy in our own individual choices and actions? Modern book-and-classroom-learning has its place here, particularly because it allows you to hear voices that you might normally not come into contact with. So read up! There are lots of reading lists out there. Here’s one. Here’s another. This one is of literary classics. Don’t just work your way down a list on autopilot, though; spend some time Googling, browsing, and asking around. Choose just one or two books that seem like good starting places for you, and go from there! Perhaps you might also search for a workshop on antiracism and allyship in your area, or online. Our own BFW birth justice resource list includes books, podcasts, and online workshops. And here’s a glossary of terms related to equity and anti-racist work. What might change in your own practices and behavior as a result of this learning?

 

Personal Knowing, or Knowing Thyself

In Ancient Map for Modern Birth, Pam England writes that “personal knowing is about being intimately familiar with your habits, assumptions, and beliefs. This is necessary because the way you listen to, integrate, and act on both factual information and intuition is influenced by past experiences.” This is the hard part. We might not have a very hard time identifying our deepest feelings for humanity (primordial knowing). And research and reading (modern knowing) may take time and effort, but they are not particularly complex activities. Truly excavating our own selves, however, can be much more complicated – and sometimes painful. How is your conditioning – “habits, assumptions, and beliefs” – interacting with your other types of knowing, and how is it influencing your actions?

What might change in your practices and behavior as a result of honest, courageous, and compassionate self-inventory in regards to racism and systems of oppression?

These three ways of knowing give us a pathway into ourselves, a way to initiate the revolutions of internal understanding necessary to combat racist thinking and behavior, whether intentional, subconscious, or systemic. As our name suggests, we at Birthing From Within take internal transformation very seriously. The idea of looking within and changing from within is the reference for all of the work that we do as birth professionals – and this will remain true for us as birth professionals on a mission to become anti-racists. We will start, as always, from within, stepping into the work with humility, knowing that we will make mistakes, and knowing that our willingness to listen and learn and keep trying matters. There is only one thing that we know we must not do, and that is NOTHING. We must not stand by in ignorance and apathy. We must move, and we must move from within.

Let’s do this together.

About the Birthing from Within Team

Birthing From Within is blessed to have a team of bloggers that includes childbirth educators, doulas, and birth story listeners who, in addition to being deep thinkers and skilled writers, are dedicated to the amplification of the BFW mission and philosophy. Birthing From Within is a collective creation, always evolving to reflect the new layers of understanding and unique approaches to the childbirth experience. Our goal is to change the conversation about birth in our culture, and to uphold the possibility of growth and transformation for birth professionals and birthing people.

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