the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards us

December 18, 2009 § 17 Comments

pink paper background, two green prints of placentas, their umbilical cords intertwinedsource link: here

1. i have to admit that i put little energy into working to ‘change the system from the inside’.  that isn’t my work.  a lot of organizations, most organizations, that i see in the world–their identity is built on the idea of ‘we are not THAT’.  and often times THAT includes people whom i love.  and when i say ‘built on’, i mean that for a lot of organizations, collectives, networks, movements and other formal and informal social groupings–the foundation of their identity is building on marginalizing and excluding people whom i love.

and trying to change the foundations of an identity means changing the very identity of the movement.

2. for example. the natural birth movement.  a lot of the convos that i see around the question: where are all the woc and poor women in the natural birth movement?  why arent we hearing/seeing/reading more from them?  what is keeping them away from *us*?

well, i dont think that is really the question that needs to be asked.

the question that needs to be asked is–what is keeping us away from them?

maybe it is because the natural birth movement does not want to be associated with woc and poor women.

3. i remember when i was first trimester preggers and a friend gave me some back issues of mothering magazine.  and el compa and i had good laugh over trying to spot a brown face.  cuz, yeah, there weren’t that many… nearly everyone in that magazine looked white and middle class.  the interior shots of homes looked middle class.  the stuff advertised was way out of my financial league.

now, yes, i know that is normal for a glossy magazine.  glossy magazines normally portray white middle class and upper class images and values.

and it is to the benefit of the natural birth movement to portray itself as white and middle class.  because white and middle class women have a lot of social power.  and when people with social power join your movement, the movement itself gains social power, access to the mainstream, and social legitimacy.

we understand this almost instinctively.

making one’s movement predominantly white and middle class makes it more likely that one’s movement will succeed.

now, i believe that this is a paltry success.   it is a success without justice.

4. what if the images of the natural birth movement were primarily of poor and colored women?  what chances would the movement have of success?

and would that be a movement that the white middle class natural mommies would want to be a part of?

i doubt it.  i dont see a lot of white folks running to join other movements centerd around marginalized women.

5. natural childbirth is presented as an issue of consumer choice.  well, what if the movement’s social power did not rest in the hands of those who had the cash to consume products, classes, services?

would we be sending more time. energy, words on discussing the intricacies of breech birth, than on racial and economic disparities in birth outcomes?  in maternal and infant mortality rates?

would we define high risk differently?  is our definition of a ‘high-risk client’ based on the birth outcomes of white, middle class women?  on the bodies and physiogonomy of the most privileged women in the world?

i am not stating that birth outcomes are based in the genetics of different women’s races.  no, race is a social and historical construct with no biological basis.  i am though saying that racism and socio economic class deeply impact the way the body functions.   and that if we centered women who are marginalized, our understanding of how the racial and economic structural and historical forces impact a woman’s physiology and psychology in terms of the childbearing year, this knowledge, would be considered central to educating midwives and not simply periphery, auxilary, or a ‘special topic’.

6. right now in the natural childbirth world, the structural and historical oppressive forces that impact white, middle class women are considered central.  the focus is on: deconstructing the authority of the ob/gyn (here are the facts and figures you need to argue with doctors–but rarely acknowledging the women who cannot afford to contradict their doctor), educating women about their consumer choices in childbirth (hospital, birthing center, home birth? herbs? pre natal yoga? birthing balls? doula? etc.–assuming a certain level of discretionary income, and that that income would or should be spent in post-back-to-nature-movement/industry), and legitimizing alternative birth choices in the eyes of the public, the medical establishment, and the law (certifications, diplomas, lobbying, insurance, etc.–as if the primary obstacle to legitmacy is lack of across-the-board standards, rather than the public perception of women who look like you as welfare queen, video ho, breeder, dirty, abusive, etc.).

in other words, the natural birth movement assumes that the primary obstacles that white middle class women face in terms of  structural violence are the same obstacles that woc and poor women face.

would these be the same foci of a birth movement that centered itself around the voices and leadership of marginalized women?  such as woc, 3rd world women, working poor women, survivors, queer women?  women whose very bodies are the intersections of structural violence?

7. what does it say that many black n. american women i know balk at the idea of giving birth at home because it would make them look irresponsible?  dirty?  unfit as a mother?  i read a lot of talk about how in black and latina communities women aren’t educated about birth.  and that there is a lot of misinformation and myths and stereotypes about birth in our communities.  but there is a lot of wisdom in our communities as well.  wisdom that has been punished and silenced by structural violence for centuries.  and still survives.  maybe its time for some intergenerational healing and storytelling within our communities.  maybe its time that the energy of the movement focus on supporting marginalized birth workers and mothers, rather than fighting with the medical establishment over protocol and acceptance.

8. when has the ‘trickle down theory’ ever worked in creating substantive social change for *all* women?

them that’s got shall get/them that’s not shall lose –billie

history and contemporary social/economic analysis shows us time and time again-that when the rich get richer, the divide between the rich and the poor grows wider, not narrower.

9. empowered change  in marginalized women’s lives are  made possible by those movements and organizations that center the voices and bodies of third world and poor women.  not by those movements that leave the most vulnerable on the margins of their analysis and work.

and in the same way, that by making sure that the most vulnerable of us has health care, we are improving the health outcomes of everyone in society.  centering poor women and woc in the birth movement leads to all women’s voices and bodies being more respected, empowered, and free.

but that would mean transforming the very core identity of the natural birth movement.  changing the idea of who the movement is, and what their primary needs are, and what are effective ways to go about creating social change.

9. me, i work on the margins, to support the women whose bodies and voice are the intersections of violence.  and i work to resist the systems and people who say and/or act as if we are not fully human. even though i am implicated in those systems of violence and violation.

because i know that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards us.

§ 17 Responses to the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards us

  • Ash says:

    I think the biggest action that white midwives should take right now is to use their knowledge and power to train midwives who are WOC. Scholarships at midwifery schools need to be created. White midwives need to take on WOC as apprentices. When there are many powerful black and latina midwives, black and latina women will not be as marginalized in the natural birth community.

    I may be wrong, but I think this is what should be first priority for midwives whowant to change the status quo. What do you think Maia?

  • Ash says:

    Oh and I love that quote. It’s funny how some days the arc seems oh so very much longer than other days.

  • NaksibendiMuslimah says:

    ugg… Ash… i assume that you are coming from a very sincere place, but…

    i think the LAST thing we need is for white midwives to train WOC midwives. think about that for a minute. the implication right there is that white midwives are good, acceptable, educated midwives… and that WOC are not. that white midwives have something to teach WOC, but not the other way around. that white midwives have any business at all being “over” WOC in that way, in the seat of power, training/teaching/instructing/correcting/legitimizing WOC as midwives. it implies from the get go that WOC midwives are not legitimate, good enough, acceptable, unless and until white midwives give them the nod of approval.

    the last thing that marginalized women need is a woman that looks like them but has been taught to treat them the same way that any white midwife would treat them. part of the problem is that WOC midwives need to exist and need WOC need to know that there are WOC midwives to go to, but it would be oversimplifying to say that is all it takes to change the status quo.

    Frankly, i think the first priority should be a grassroots effort to listen to what WOC and marginalized women WANT from their pregnancy and birth experiences, encouraging them that they have the right to want and demand whatever works for them and that they aren’t chained to one “right” way, that their voices are the ONLY ones that matter in their pregnancy.

  • Ash says:

    I apologize NaksibendiMuslimah, and I regret the way I phrased my comment. You are right, it is white midwives who have much to learn from WOC.

    As you have suggested, I will listen. Do you have any suggestions for actions beyond listening white midwives (and white midwives in training, like me) could do right now beyond listening to help remedy this?

  • NaksibendiMuslimah says:

    Well, you’ve been reading this blog, and i pretty much agree with what Mai’a says and suggests. i’m not a midwife myself, just a WOC who wishes she’d had access to a midwife when pregnant. Listening though needs to come with not making judgments too. See, i know WOC who have had really negative experiences with white midwives who acted like they were listening, but then threw up barriers to everything the woman wanted or needed. In fact, i’ve known several women of color who were WILLING to utilize a white midwife but the white midwives refused to work with them at all, and it wasn’t always about “how are we being paid” at all. The other thing, which Mai’a has already talked about a lot, is stop pressing for certifications and “professional” requirements that by their very nature exclude WOC being able to be true to their own cultural knowledge. That’s why i support “outlaw” midwives to do their thing, because professional midwives are just entrenched in the same systemic crap that they claim to be an alternative to.

    • Ash says:

      Thank you for engaging in this discussion with me. I know I’m part of a long tradition of well meaning but essentially clueless radical white women. I’m trying my best, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a big part of the problem. I don’t want to sound cheesy, but I believe that because of the laws of the soul and the universe, that I will experience all of the violence I have done to other beings. In this lifetime or another. So believe me when I say I have the deepest gratitude to anyone willing to teach me how to be less violent.

      I want to clarify that when I suggest that white midwives could help train midwives of color, I did not mean to suggest that white midwives need to approve of or give their ok to women of color. Just that…

      A) there are a lot of white midwives,
      B) becoming of midwife usually requires that somebody go to the trouble to teach you
      C) that it would be good if there were more WOC who were midwives
      D)and that white midwives could possibly help by teaching some women

      There is actually a specific reason I got the idea it would be good for white midwives to assist WOC, namely, a discussion on this message board where several women suggested it might be a good idea for a white midwife to help train WOC to become midwives:

      You are right, we must support outlaw midwives. Every woman has the right to give birth with whomever she chooses, certifications be damned. It’s abhorrent that white midwives refused to work with your friends.

      • mama says:

        ok. i am really grateful to see this conversation happening here. i have learned a lot from it. so part of my response to the convo is at my recent post: crazy kids r us. other responses will probably come in the next few days’ posts, because i have posts backed up that actually speak to this subject about teaching and training. in part because i worked as a trainer/instructor for npo’s and have some thoughts on pedagogy and marginalization.
        now, for any woman, especially woc and other women on the margins, barriers to accreditation and licensing ought to be knocked down. personally, the lil part of me that still believes in incremental positive progress in society, cannot believe that it is 2009 and the alternative birth community has barely begun to deal with how racist and classist the movement is. but, then lets be honest most of my critiques come out of rwoc 1970s and 80s critique of white feminism. and the inability of white feminists to deal with intersectional analysis. im not saying anything new.
        ok onto some specifics:
        1. i am really surprised by the number of hb midwives who do not have an apprentice. really? isnt that like one of the basic requirements of being a midwife? to hold the space as a woman gives birth? and to teach others to do so? i am not saying that white midwives ought to fly out in droves to the communities of color and start teaching. i am saying that i have known woc student midwives who were looking for an apprenticeship and were turned down at every available midwifery center/hb office, because the midwives didnt feel comfortable teaching yet. ok. i understand that everyone can only do as much as they can do. and i am sort of surprised that after three or more years of training to be a midwife, and then opening a midwifery business and running it for more than a year, most midwives are still not able to take on apprenticeships. maybe its because i come from a family of teachers and healers, where everyone teaches everyone, which for the most part means observe, observe, observe, that i dont get how hard it is to pass on what you know.
        but when i hear a working midwife say: im not ready to take on apprentices. it sounds like hearing a midwife say: oh im not ready to deal with supporting breastfeeding moms. ok. that may be true. but then maybe you should have looked at a different profession. ok. that sounds harsh. so i dont say it. but honestly, i think it…
        2. a vision i had just had on sthg aaminah said: when a doctor tells a white middle class woman that what she is doing is ‘irresponsible’ for her or her babe. she sees her gender and her lack of medical credentials as her vulnerabilities. its like the doctor in one sentence, managed to fire off two bullets: a sexist one, and a medical elite one. and so she fights back with anti sexism and medical research (and these are the weapons that the natural birth movement focus on…). when a doctors says the same thing to a working class third world woman: he just fired off not just the two bullets, but also, one at her race, one at her nationality, one at her socio economic class, etc. so even if we do have all the solid medical research and anti sexism, we are still going to get wounded and killed. end vision.
        3. what if rather than putting energy into certifications and licensing and legalizing, we put our energy into de criminalizing birth. and trust mothers to choose who they want to be with them during the childbearing year? what are certified midwives so scared of? that someone who is ‘unqualified’ will misrepresent themselves to a mother? well, there are already legal avenues to addressing false advertising. this is what i dont get. why are there are so many cpm’s fighting to make sure that their qualifications are the only pathway to being a midwife?
        i have some more thoughts but i will leave it at that for now…

  • Br00ke says:

    professional midwives are just entrenched in the same systemic crap that they claim to be an alternative to.–so true, absolutely the case here in the bubble.

  • Aaminah says:

    Ash… okay, i know you mean well, it’s very clear that you mean well. but you just don’t get it. because those four points that you are reiterating? that’s EXACTLY what i just told you are not ok. those four points continue to hinge on “white midwives know more than WOC”/”white midwives are the authentic/acceptable midwives”, and still doesn’t change the fact that if WOC learn from white midwives they will only learn how to be all the things we hate about white midwives. Let me put this in VERY SIMPLE language for you: THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF WOC MIDWIVES. There is no shortage of women of color for women of color who would like to be midwives to learn from. Just two generations ago, midwives were still in larger use by women of color. So all we have to do is go talk to our grannies and they can teach us. All we have to do is talk to pregnant women and really really listen to what their “dream” birth experience would be. We have the skills in our collective consciousness because our foremothers have been midwives for many many centuries, and there are still WOC midwives out there doing their thing. The main reason that women of color don’t tend to use midwives is because we are unfairly criminalized if we attempt to do so, and cannot afford the white midwives. i mean, i PERSONALLY know women who come from a long line of midwives who have been threatened with all of their children being taken if they didn’t go to an “appropriate” OB/Gyn and if they attempted to give birth at home. i personally know a woman who had a Child Protective Services case against her because – gasp – she didn’t want to have an ultrasound done when it wasn’t necessary, and that despite the fact that her mother and sister who live with her are both midwives who had delivered many babies back in their home countries. She was forced to give birth in the hospital, against her wishes, because the very idea of women – and especially women of color – taking care of their own needs and making their own decisions was abhorrant to the medical system. And yet, at the same time, yes, i know several white women who have refused to ever visit an OB/Gyn and have had planned home births with certified midwives, and no one thought to question their right to make that decision or whether they were doing the best thing for their baby.

    Very simply, white professional midwives don’t have ANYTHING we want. There are plenty of WOC midwives, but they are outlaw midwives. And if women of color knew who they are and weren’t terrified of going to jail, having their children taken away, etc., they’d probably use them. Then, when they had natural and good experiences, more of them would consider becoming outlaw midwives themselves.

  • Ash says:

    Thank you NaksibendiMuslimah, and I definitely will continue to read.

  • NaksibendiMuslimah says:

    mama: “we put our energy into de criminalizing birth. and trust mothers to choose who they want to be with them during the childbearing year?”

    that right there is everything i meant to say, summed up so succinctly, and i think, clearly. 🙂

    • Ash says:

      “what if rather than putting energy into certifications and licensing and legalizing, we put our energy into de criminalizing birth. and trust mothers to choose who they want to be with them during the childbearing year?”

      I think this is right too, and I think it is the highest goal. In fact, for women in the usa, I would think that the freedom of association (which was specifically enumerated in NAACP v. Alabama) should hopefully guarantee this if it is tested in a Supreme Court case.

      One question though. Even if every woman had the right to give birth anywhere with whom she chose (and it’s ridiculous women don’t), there’s the question of paying the midwife.

      I’m really lucky to have husband who will hopefully make enough in his job once he finishes his education to be enough income for both of us, so getting paid a certain amount for the stuff I do as a birth worker hopefully won’t be a matter of survival for me. But for lots of birth workers, it is. Most midwives do not attend birth for free, though thankfully a lot of them do accept trade and barter work.

      In 2013, if the Senate bill becomes law, every woman in a America by law must buy junk insurance from america’s protected monopoly of private insurers, or she could end up in jail for defaulting to the IRS. oh and that insurance will still not be mandated to cover everyone’s needs

      This means a lot of poor young women of every color are going to be even poorer than before they were insured, and even more dependent on the govt/insurance to pay the bills.

      I know it’s cynical, but I do not see the government nor private insurers paying the fees for the services of birth worker who don’t have any licenses or letters after their name. I hope I’m wrong.

      I guess what I am saying (and now I come to it, it was probably something you have known all along) is that outlaw midwives will have to help create a new economy and a fair way to exchange their services. Hopefully we as a people in general will do this more and more. As the economic situation in the usa spirals down even further, I hope it will be a return to more trade and barter work everywhere, more farmer’s markets with ones that reach POC too, more buying of stuff from local merchants and artisans, the use of american currency less. Indeed, with the coming corporate sponsored oil and water crises, small scale local economies like this are the only people will survive.

      • Ash says:

        Oh I and should be clear, I do not know to what extent POC have these sorts of “new economies” already in place, so my comments are not directed towards them necessarily, but more towards outlaw midwives who will be serving poor white folks, who I can speak to the experience of.

      • Ash says:

        Oh and I also want to be clear that I am not faulting poor young women for being “dependent on govt/insurance to pay the bills.” I believe single payer is the only solution and should be a right.

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