This response to K. Heron’s graduation speech by one of her fellow students (previous post) testifies to how powerfully transformative the presence of anti-racist peers can be.
There are a lot of growing pains happening in the midwifery world right now. The MOC chair and inner council resignation from MANA is really the sort of outward symptom of a larger sickness that has been plaguing midwifery in the U.S. for quite a while now. But these are clearly actions that need to be taken, because they raise important questions that need to be asked. We need to ask ourselves why are African American women 4 times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than Caucasian women? Why is it that 9/1,000 Native American babies are dying, versus 5/1,000 white babies? Why is it that so many more white women seem to have access to midwifery care? Why is it so hard for people of color to get the education needed to become a midwife? And the deeper, more meaningful question—why is it that these types of disparities have persisted, and even increased, over time while our health care system has made so many advances in maternal care?
These questions point to an insidious kind of racism that persists in the U.S. It’s not just something that affects midwifery and maternal/infant health care, but it can be easily identified there. This is the sort of thing that is much harder to get at and combat because it isn’t one thing that you can point at and say “that, that’s what needs to be fixed”. Combating racism is kind of like pealing the layers of an onion—when you take off one layer, another one is there underneath to make the sting that much deeper.
So what do we do? How do we, as midwives and midwifery students, change something so intangible and huge? How do we shift an entire culture? The answer is we start with ourselves.
My friend K. Heron of the blog Bloody Show pointed this out in her wonderful graduation speech that she gave in June. Luckily, she posted the speech on her blog, so that we all have the privilege of reading it.
I know that I have had to do a lot of work over the last couple of years to really look at my own ideas and how I have unconsciously perpetuated a system that oppresses many while giving advantages to only a few. Before I got into midwifery school, I had only vaguely thought about these issues. Being a white woman from a fairly upper-middle class background, I had only limited experience with poverty and racism. I, like many, thought that simply not being outwardly racist or demeaning was enough. I didn’t think about the privilege and responsibility that comes with the color of my skin in our culture. It never occurred to me that I didn’t live a world where skin color didn’t matter. That there were millions of people out there struggling while I had (and still have) so much.
But that changed dramatically when I met K at midwifery school. She started talking about things I had never thought about, and really opening my eyes to the world as it is. A world in which my friends that are a different race than me have a much harder time becoming midwives, receive worse care in the hospital, and actually know babies and mothers that have died from pregnancy-related complications. And what was worse—the realization that I was unwittingly participating in this cultural racism, idly standing by.
As with any large, culture wide problem, the impossibility of it seemed like almost too much. What can I, one lowly midwifery student, do? How much impact can I actually have? And how do I start making changes, when I don’t even know where to begin?
Luckily, K has some great ideas about that, too. I love folks that are solution oriented! She makes some great suggestions in her bullet pointed list—things like “Take a good anti-racism or anti-oppression training in your area” and “Seek out allies to start having conversations about race with” and “Advertise and do outreach to women of color in your community” and just generally “Get involved”. These are practical things that I can do, right now, to help change the face of midwifery and midwifery care in my own community. That feels pretty effing good.
And I like this attitude of solution. So often I see people throw up their hands and say that they can’t think of anything. I have come to understand that this is tantamount to perpetuating racism—that doing nothing has an impact. But there are so many ways to do something. This list is by no means exhaustive of all the options or possibilities. Get creative! Who can you talk to that may have new ideas? After I shared K. Heron’s post on Facebook, a woman whose birth I attended contacted me to have a conversation about this very topic of racism/discrimination in midwifery care. What a great idea! I had been having all these conversations with midwives and midwifery students about institutionalized racism, now it’s time to hear from midwifery consumers!
The upshot of all of this is really to get us to look deeper at ourselves. To ask the internal questions that are hard to ask, but must be revealed. It is in this way that we can begin to truly offer the kind of care that every pregnant person deserves—because K. Heron said it best “Maternal Health is a Human Right”.
Sky Connelly is a midwifery student currently enrolled at Birthwise Midwifery School, and apprenticing with North Star Midwifery in St.Paul, MN. She writes the blog Mana Midwifery. She spends most of her free time riding her bike, walking her dog, swimming in the lake, and reading Harry Potter. You can follow her on Twitter @ManaMidwifery.