Charlottesville, White Supremacy and Racism in Maternal Health
As the Communications Administrator for the Oakland Better Birth Foundation, I have the honor of articulating our stance when current societal pathologies - including racism, white supremacy, and toxic power dynamics - impact our communities. Here was our response to the Charlottesville violence of August 2017.
When various factions of armed, torch-wielding White supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, VA this month, to protest the removal of a Confederate statue, they came prepared and anticipating a violence that has long defined their role in American society. As shocked as some may be, in truth it is no surprise that their protests, in which they chanted “Blood and Soil”, screamed racial slurs at onlookers and anti-fascist demonstrators, and symbolically destroyed Jewish imagery in the name of racial purity, resulted in the death of a young woman and many more injured. The young man who drove his car into a group of counter-demonstrators, and those who support him, have openly embraced this violence and show no remorse for the deaths of people who support an inclusive, equally accessible society.
Because it is built on a hierarchy of separateness, White supremacy inherently invites conflict and requires consistent demonstrations of stubborn force to maintain its structure, control dissidents, and inspire fear-based loyalty in its subscribers, lest they realize the risk of becoming a target should they themselves be deemed “impure” in belief or practice. This authoritative practice spills into White supremacy’s necessary pairing with male supremacy, as “bloodline purity” (a physiological myth) requires absolute reproductive control, and therefore the subjugation and objectification of women as (otherwise useless) vessels of the continuation of the bloodline.
Just as White supremacy is built on the notion that Black and Brown people are less than human - and just as this hateful concept has been practiced through the multigenerational enslavement of Black and Brown bodies as tools, objects, playthings, and resources to be extracted for profit – so too is the history of obstetrics built on the abuse and calculated dehumanization of the bodies of women – particularly of Black and Brown women, and particularly of enslaved or very poor women of color. It is a well-known historical fact among birthworkers that J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology”, regularly performed experimental surgeries, unmedicated, on Black enslaved (or very poor) women. He, and many others, believed they did not feel pain. Well-documented are the instances of forced sterilization, the purposeful infection of unknowing patients and study participants with disease, and other abuses of people of color within the reproductive spectrum – including millions of rapes, murdered families, kidnappings, forced childrearing, forced breastfeeding, and other horrors of the duplication of White supremacy and anti-Black/PoC oppression over the years.
These painful truths are terrible to read, but they must be spoken to - we clearly cannot view the incidents in Charlottesville as an isolated case. The pride with which White supremacy rears its ugly head this month has long been fermenting and propagating, and so while this month, we see it blatantly and undeniably, its presence is purposeful, planned, and has long infected our institutions, our systems of exchange, and our day-to-day interactions. Under current government, yes, it is true that racists and fascists of all kinds feel more emboldened than ever to strike out at those of us who would sustain a truly free, humane society, but their hate and fear has defined much of the lives – and deaths – of all citizens since before this country’s founding, when the least successful, rather spiritually marginalized, most desperate sons of Europe colonized indigenous peoples with disease, weapons, economic manipulation and an entire spectrum of physical traumas.
Today, we must acknowledge that Charlottesville is only one of many instances in which we, as a society, have allowed our fear, ignorance, guilt, self-loathing and cowardice to overwhelm our powers of courage, insight, compassion, and loving peace. Every day, in the world of birth, we see people stripped of their agency, assigned harmful stereotypes, verbally abused, and mistreated in their bodies and spirit based on factors of race, gender and class. Every day, we see women terrified of their own bodies – fearful of their very life force - imprinted with decades, if not centuries, of the expectation and belief that they are inherently broken…less than…dysfunctional. Every day, we see medical care providers alienate, dismiss and outright insult the very process of creation. Even well-meaning practitioners wield an often careless authoritative knowledge, based in an oppressive power dynamic born of brutal inhumanity at a time when some people were not considered people, and women and their babies are dying as a result. If you are enraged at the outright assault on life that is occurring in our cities, then also be enraged at the subtler but insidious forces that aim to dehumanize and belittle birth, streamline parenting into a mechanical consumer act, traumatize and retraumatize generations of people into a numb complacency, and subvert our natural capacity for wellness so as to make our entire population dependent on the profit-based workings of the industries that benefit from our collective suffering.
Be enraged, and, we ask, do something. It is the mission of the Oakland Better Birth Foundation to reduce infant and maternal mortality and to protect all families’ rights to birth where, and with whom, they choose, to raise their children in safe, consensual environments, and to be supported in their own unique healing and wellness practices. Our work means being present with women and other birthing people’s growing awareness that, to achieve this, they must become empowered agents of their own bodies and choices in the face of destructive forces. It means facilitating our collective awakening to the reality that we do not need to suffer at the hands of an imagined “other”, if we unite against the power of fear, disconnection, addiction, manipulative delusion and hate. It is in protecting the process of reproduction – with love and understanding for diverse situations and identities – that we can give our children a future in which they move through the world with a confidence that they are accepted, they belong, and they are loved, with no need to harm or subjugate others. When all children are valued, and all parents respected, people across diverse cultures and communities can come together in supporting practices that benefit worldwide health, create opportunities for sustainable resource systems, and heal the wounds that, if left unaddressed, threaten to destroy the shared valuing of Life that makes us human.
Note: Thanks to Jessalyn Ballerano for best being the author of this document on behalf of Oakland Better Birth Foundation . This statement speaks for me as well as the undersigned members of our advisory board .
Samsarah Morgan , DD ,CD (ICTC) LC, Founder and Executive Director
Tora R. Spigner, RN
Libertad Rivera, RN
Laura Cox, Lactation Educator
Xandrea J. Sanford
Asatu Musunama Hall-Allah CPM