By Simone Dyer
Black Lives Matter. Black Maternal Health Matters. These realities are both so close to my heart, firstly as a black/mixed woman myself and secondly as a Doula.
Take a deep breath.
After the horrifying murder of George Floyd in the US, the voices, the anguish and the exhaustion of the black community have echoed loudly across the world and cannot be ignored. What has been encouraging to see is that many non-black people have also used their voices and platforms in support. Growth is, of course, to be celebrated but I want to also be clear that we have barely scratched the surface. This is not a sprint, it is a MARATHON! Now you may be wondering how this is relevant to birth work. I’ll do my best to briefly explain.
Racism within the medical world is prevalent and therefore has a very direct effect on birth work. There has been much research (please refer to MBRRACE UK Reports) to show that maternal death rates are higher in black women. Black women are in fact 5 TIMES MORE AT RISK of death during pregnancy, childbirth or in the early postpartum period in the UK than white women, in the US the numbers are even greater. I don’t know about you but that weighs so heavy on my heart.
Whilst there may be little evidence on paper by way of reports from official bodies as to the exact reasons why, there is, vast evidence in front of our eyes, in the way black mothers and birthing people are treated and listened to throughout pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum. As a black community, for hundreds of years, we have carried, birthed and nurtured babies through such deep trauma, abuse and oppression and that resides in our DNA, whether we are even conscious of it or not. Whilst we are a beautiful people of great strength and determination, this means that black birthing people are still more vulnerable, physiologically, mentally and emotionally. We are hearing harrowing stories of racism, microaggressions, incorrect diagnosis, wrong doses of medication being administered, discrimination and black birthing people being put at risk during pregnancy and postpartum and sadly, the list goes on. We are far too regularly witnessing and hearing of them receiving substandard care in comparison to their white counterparts.
Culturally, for many years, there has been an idea and label of ‘the strong black woman’ and YES we are strong, we have had to be to survive, even when we didn’t feel that way, however, NEWSFLASH!! We are also soft. We cry. We need nurture just the same because we DO feel pain and our blood bleeds red too. This is a label that is a struggle to rise beyond within our community, one that is also made considerably harder as it is continuously perpetuated and reinforced in society and in particular, by some medical professionals. This has to change. The white woman’s body and experience should no longer be centered as the “Normal”. We cannot keep being traumatised and dying because we were not listened to. It may sound harsh to some but it is nothing but raw truth. This is the reality that the black community faces every day all over the world. When a black birthing person is dead it’s too late, families are affected forever and the trauma runs deeper. How long we will stand by and watch basic human rights be neglected and disregarded because of skin colour and cultural differences. Who does that make us? Who do we really want to be as people that have chosen to support black birthing people and families?
Take a moment. Take a deep breath. Take it all in…
I really want to highlight that pity and sympathy are not what is needed here, those expressions are not progressive for change or upliftment, however, active listening, understanding and compassion are expressions that will better support the black community. The most important thing we can do is take ACTION in whichever ways we can, big or small, the measure is not what is important here but it is the heart and intentions that fuel our efforts and actions that count.
Below are a few offerings on some possibilities of ACTION. Please, of course, do your own research and feel into what feels right and authentic to you, I do not have all the answers but I do want to encourage us towards more regular self-inquiry, honest observation and free-thinking. Not everybody is called to be an activist shouting from the rooftops and marching in protest and that is ok. The conversations and micro-actions we can have in our day to day worlds are so valuable too and will all feed into the macro, the bigger picture of the transformation and journey to racial equality and freedom that is long overdue. We can sew and scatter seeds of love and life in so many ways.
Self Enquiry & Awareness ~ Make a conscious effort to really see what is happening in the world around you and take an even closer look at the world your in as a birth worker. Take time to reflect on experiences you’ve had, seen and heard about with black families. Consider ways you may have even contributed to racism or discrimination in and outside of the birth world. Observe, practise self-awareness and offer yourself forgiveness and make choices to do better going forward. This is not about guilt in any way, we all have flaws and imperfections, our power lies in our ability to be honest with self so that we can move forward with more conscious intention and awareness.
Educate ~ Make the time to educate yourself on black history as well as what is currently going on in and outside of the birth world. It’s not about knowing it all but having some understanding will only better support us in supporting black families and watching out for the signs of discrimination and substandard care.
Here are some great resources as a place to start
Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts
Birthing Justice by Julia Chinyere Oparah
Women of Color by Jennifer Nelson
Birth Work as Care Work by Alana Apfel
Call it out ~ Do not be afraid to speak up and call out racism, discrimination, microaggressions and anything else that is oppressive and/or harmful to the black community, again in and outside of the birth world. If we speak up on the outside of the birth world and call it as we see it, it will become more and more natural to call it out as a birth worker. The more we live in truth and make each other accountable, leading with love, the greater chance we have at seeing a new future where the black community are seen and treated equally to that of non-black communities.
In my opinion, there is so much space for us to use our common sense as we hold space for black mothers & birthing people. As recently highlighted in a Nurturing Birth newsletter, listening and building rapport is a vital part of the doula-mother connection. So here is my invitation to us all, from my heart ~
Please do your part in whatever way you can, especially to all NON-black birth workers, please take the time to research and educate yourselves about the history of the black community so that you are better equipped to hold space. Get even more present. Listen to your clients and families with a new ear and with clearer vision. Listen from your heart with a new understanding from the education you have taken time to seek for yourself because you care. It takes putting aside excuses, ignorance and egos. It is the coming together of each of us, doing our part that makes for a greater future where black people are seen, heard, felt and treated as a human with rights. A future where black lives really do matter and no longer has to be just a hashtag…
Breathe in Love, Breathe out Love…
In loving service,
Simone is a Nurturing Birth doula.