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An Uncomfortable Encounter With Racism

I wish I could say that I’m well versed in racial justice and that I’m totally enlightened and am ready to pave the way toward genuine racial equality in birth work. But I’m not. The uncomfortable encounter I’m having with racism is my own…

Oh, I’m not out burning crosses or wearing hoods, I confront people straight out if they make comments that are overtly racist in nature (no one in my family will use the N word around me or will talk about ‘dot heads’ because they know they’ll hear about it). I don’t laugh at racist jokes, I intentionally include pictures of people from all races and ethnicities when creating print materials and have never been surprised to find that a person of color is smart, educated, capable and powerful. I have black ‘family members’ (dear family friends), I’ve worked happily in ‘black’ churches, had black bosses I respected immensely, have black friends that are dear to me, had a black house-mate once (he and my husband and I would eat soup and watch ‘Lost’ together) and cared for black foster-children all very comfortably, without giving it much thought. To me, color doesn’t matter much.

But I can’t escape my privilege. Have you ever heard of white privilege? It’s not about overt personal racism, it’s about benefits that one unintentionally reaps because of living in a society that is geared toward white people. The very fact that I don’t think much about the color of people around me- and how their color (or mine) may be affecting their lives- is a sign of my privilege. I don’t *have* to think about it, because my color doesn’t cause me pain in this society. And it’s near impossible to ‘see’ my own privilege- like trying to look at my own nose. It’s by the testimony of others, by using my sense of touch, even, that I know it’s there. I’ve recently begun thinking of white privilege as a pitch I can’t quite hear (but others can) or a scent I can’t quite catch (but others can).

In some ways, it’s funny that I have white privilege- I’m the first generation daughter of Cuban refugees who fled during the early part of Castro’s regime. My grandmother speaks only spanish, my father is bi-lingual and I *think* may still have illegal status in this country. I do remember talks about green cards when I was younger. I distinctly remember an encounter with a man when I was working in a clothing store while in high school. This man- older than I, in his 30s- glared at me and mumbled something about  ‘dirty Mexicans’ under his breath. Then he grabbed his bag away from me as I handed his purchase to him. It completely confused me. And when I was in college I was sent a bunch of information for ‘students of color’, I suppose, because of my distinctly hispanic last name.

And yet, I was raised by my white Italian-Irish mother who can’t remember how long ago her family came to these shores.

I’ve recently read (and I’m kicking myself that I can’t find the article or blog I read this in) that the closest a white person will ever know how it feels to be called an ‘N-word’ is when someone calls them a racist. The defensive, sickly shame that fills one gut when either word is uttered should tell us that there’s something going on. Pain is a signal to us that movement is needed.

Together

Together

And that brings me to why I’m posting this in a blog about bellies, birth, breastfeeding & birth workers- the discussion about white privilege is alive and well in the birth community. It started long ago, but I first became aware of these issues about a year ago when the entire ‘Midwives of Color’ section stepped down from the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA). There has been (I think) good movement in MANA since that time. More recently, Jan Tritten of Midwifery Today wrote an e-newsletter likening childbirth advocates to abolitionists and childbearing women to slaves which caused a very strong reaction among people who (rightly) feel the affects of slavery were *way* more harmful and difficult to change than birthing trends. (FYI: Jan is a lovely woman. She has retracted her statements, apologized, and is trying to find a way to give a voice to those who wrote to her to object to the article.)

Many birth workers continue to be concerned about the lack of diversity among midwives, doulas, birth centers and lactation specialists. And black mothers and babies continue to suffer harm at higher rates than white mothers and babies do. White privilege exists. Racism is alive and well and it’s impacting families- it affects us all.

So what can be done? Well, Mia McKenzie over at Black Girl Dangerous has some suggestions about what white people can do to begin to untangle these issues. This blog post is partly in response to her suggestions (thanks, Mia- I hope you discover this and feel good that your words have impact). Also, I personally, have begun thinking about ways in which I can positively impact privilege- but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.

I encourage you to get involved with some of the organizations linked to above. I encourage you to be curious about this, to ask questions and to allow any unsettled feelings to be as they are without trying to ignore them or make them go away. In the places you feel pain, you know that movement is needed. Be brave- it’s the only way that things will change, that we can be better.

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(content below this line is not Hearthside generated. Please disregard.)

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One comment on “An Uncomfortable Encounter With Racism

  1. Pingback: Voices for the underserved; speaking up about unuttered breastfeeding barriers | Our Milky Way

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This entry was posted on March 9, 2013 by in Justice Issues and tagged , , .
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