The authors of this piece recognise their own fallibility and ingrained bias as white people. We will continue to decolonise our work, continuously strengthen our own anti-racist practice and listen to and act upon criticism.
A young George Floyd in the arms of his mother
It’s one of the first words babies learn to say. And it was one of the last words uttered by George Floyd as he lay dying. In his final moments—handcuffed and face-down on the pavement with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee pressed into his neck—it was his mother he called for, desperately seeking some sort of comfort in his memory of her.
Mothers everywhere dread to think of their own child crying out for them in this way. But for Black mothers, seeing a man like George Floyd die at the hands of a white police officer is a stark reminder of the burden they carry to protect their children from the dangers that exist because of the colour of their skin. And that’s because racism is an ever-present threat to their entire experience of Black motherhood—a threat that starts in pregnancy and lasts a lifetime.
At Amma, we primarily work with refugee and asylum-seeking women, many of whom are Black (amongst several other ethnicities). It’s an incredible honour to be part of these women’s journeys to becoming a mother—to care for them during pregnancy and to hold their hand as they bring their babies into the world. But it’s not all baby cuddles and oxytocin-filled moments.
Every day, we get an insider’s view into the stark reality of Black mothers’ experiences of pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood. And with that comes great responsibility: to listen, observe and learn from these women so that we can play an active role in dismantling the systemic racism they face.
“It’s racism, not race that puts Black women at risk” —Dr. Joia Crear Perry, National Birth Equity Initiative
Maternal care: What we know
The MBRRACE UK report released in 2018 showed that Black women in the UK are five times more likely to die from complications during pregnancy, childbirth or as a result of postpartum complications in comparison to white women. The report also shows that, from 2015-17, Black women made up just 4% of the birthing population, but 18% of the women that died. What’s more, Black babies have a 121% increased risk for stillbirth and a 50% increased risk for neonatal death (i.e. dying within 28 days after birth) compared to white babies.
Whilst the MBRRACE report attributes the rate of death to other factors, like age or socioeconomic status, the overarching question remains: why are we seeing Black mothers die at such a disproportionate rate?
Campaigns like #FiveXMore highlight the fact that many Black women are exposed to implicit bias and systemic racism within maternal care that puts them at greater risk than white women.
And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that centuries-old disbelief in physiological differences amongst races has made it commonplace to blame one’s race for poorer health outcomes. For example, in the 1800’s, James Sims performed experimental gynaecological surgeries on Black enslaved women without any form of anaesthesia, based on a misguided belief that Black people didn’t experience pain in the same way that white people did. The belief that Black people somehow have a higher pain threshold than white people is one that still exists amongst modern-day healthcare professionals.
“When asked [as part of a 2016 survey] to imagine how much pain white or black patients experienced in hypothetical situations, the [white] medical students and residents insisted that black people felt less pain. This made the providers less likely to recommend appropriate treatment. A third of these doctors also still believed the lie that Thomas Hamilton tortured John Brown to prove nearly two centuries ago: that black skin is thicker than white skin.
This disconnect allows scientists, doctors and other medical providers—and those training to fill their positions in the future—to ignore their own complicity in health care inequality and gloss over the internalized racism and both conscious and unconscious bias that drive them to go against their very oath to do no harm.”
Racial stereotypes in healthcare
Here in the UK, our societal structures and systems were created through the lens of white privilege. And as uncomfortable as it might be for white people to acknowledge, we must not ignore the fact that racial stereotypes and biases exist across every facet of society—which includes our healthcare system. And these stereotypes have the power to affect the quality of maternal care Black women receive.
Birth activist and doula, Mars Lord, has spoken about the stereotype of the ‘angry Black woman’ or the ‘strong Black woman’, which can lead some medical professionals to dismiss Black women’s struggles. Take the example of the disgraced ‘mumfluencer’ and NHS midwife, Clemmie Hooper (aka Mother of Daughters). Clemmie, a white mother of four who, at one time, had hundreds of thousands of online followers, used a fake Tattle.life profile to troll Black influencers like Candice Brathwaite—a woman Clemmie had previously invited onto her podcast to share how poor maternal care nearly killed her.
Under the guise of AliceInWanderlust, Clemmie called Candice ‘aggressive’ and stated she “weaponises race”. When it was revealed that Clemmie was the person behind the trolling, the fallout was huge. But not huge enough to call her career as a midwife into question. No action was taken by the Nursing and Midwifery Council and, today, Clemmie still works as an NHS midwife despite her role in perpetuating the ‘angry Black woman’ stereotype and seeking to invalidate the experience of Black motherhood.
There are, of course, many midwives and other healthcare professionals working hard to ensure the equitable provision of maternal care:
Here in Glasgow, the Special Needs in Pregnancy (SNIPS) team supports asylum seekers. refugees and survivors of trafficking—many of whom are from BAME communities—to achieve the best possible pregnancy and birth outcomes. We’ve also worked alongside many midwives at both the Princess Royal Hospital and Queen Elizabeth Hospital, who have provided exceptional care to the women supported by Amma.
Glasgow-based GP, Dr. Punam Krishan (@drpunamkrishan), has spoken candidly about her experience as a BAME doctor.
Obstetric gynaecologist, Dr. R Clarke (@thedoctormummy), and A&E doctor, Dr. Amile Inusa (@amileya), are two examples of healthcare professionals using their platform to call out learned racial biases and hold their peers to account.
But affecting systemic change takes more than a few strong voices. There is power in numbers—which is where we, and you, come in. It is especially important for white people to sit in our collective discomfort and confront how we can break down a system built on inequality to make long lasting change.
“Racism is not a black people problem, it is a white culture issue. Sexism is not a female problem, it is an issue with male dominated culture. Classism is not a poor people problem, it is a capitalism issue. Homophobia and transphobia aren't queer people problems, they are issues with cis straight post-colonial society. In order to push forward, we need to shift the perspective of oppression being the problem of those who experience it. We need to acknowledge that privilege exists as a spectrum and is an indicator for where the work needs to take place. Expecting marginalized folk to be the ones to deconstruct their own oppression is as good as saying "not my problem" and letting it happen, as it doesn't acknowledge where the problem is coming from. The definition of privilege is thinking that something isn't a problem because it isn't your problem."
How to take action
Image source: ABC News, Niall Leinhan
We would like to thank the many Black activists who have been sharing invaluable information online and working to ensure the links below were available.
Petitions are a quick, easy way to make your voice heard on a matter. Below are a few links for just some of the most active current petitions for those who have lost their lives at the hands of systemic racism and injustice, as well as petitions to change the system that makes such violence possible.
If you are living outside of the US and you cannot sign some petitions without US postal codes, here are some zip codes that you can use:
90015 - Los Angeles, California
10001 - New York City, New York
75001 - Dallas, Texas
The Problem with ‘All Lives Matter’ (YouTube)
13th (Netflix documentary on the criminalisation of African-Americans)
This is not an exhaustive list, but simply some recommendations for places to start. We encourage that visitors to this blog continue to search for transformative reads and commit themselves to a journey of learning and growth.
Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts (A Black scholar and activist, Dorothy writes about reproductive justice and the systematic abuse of Black women’s bodies)
I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite (A Black British woman who writes about her experience of Black motherhood)
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge (UK based journalist writing about her experiences of racism and white feminism in Britain)
White Supremacy and Me by Layla Saad (A workbook to help the reader understand the ways in which they, consciously or not, uphold white supremacy and how to do better)
White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo (An irrefutable exposure of the reactions white people have when their assumptions are challenged, and how these reactions sustain inequality)
Women, Race & Class by Angela Davis (Black activist and Marxist Angela Davis speaks about the US’s history of race and gender inequality)
Please note: Some of the below are educators and activists, but some are representing their personal lived experience. If you're engaging with these spaces, it's important to respect boundaries and not demand discussion, answers or labour, especially at this time of acute stress, grief and rage.
Black Lives Matter @blklivesmatter
Black Mamas Matter @blackmammasmatter
Make Motherhood Diverse @makemotherhooddiverse
Dr. R Clarke @thedoctormummy
Five X More Campaign @fivexmore_
Dr Amile Inusa @amileya
Rachel Cargle @rachel.cargle Mona Chalabi @monachalabi Layla F Saad @laylafsaad Ibram X. Kendi @ibramxk Ijeoma Oluo @ijeomaoluo Tamika Mallory @tamikadmallory Mikaela Loach @mikaelaloach Brittany Packnett Cunningham @mspackyetti Munroe Bergdorf @munroebergdorf Andrea Ranae @andrearanaej Nova Reid @novareidofficial Erika Hart M. Ed @ihartericka Kuchenga Shenje @kuchenga Color of Change - @colorofchange Colorlinenews - @colorlinesnews Equal Justice Initiative - @eji_org Families Belong Together - @fams2gether NAACP - @naacp Gal-dem Zine - @galdemzine Domestic Workers Alliance - @domesticworkers RAICES - @raicestexas United We Dream - @unitedwedream Black Womens' Blueprint - @blackwomensblueprint We The Urban - @wetheurban Ravideep Kaur, Anti-racism Consultant - @ravideepkaur
This is part of a series of posts written in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and focused on Black women’s experiences of motherhood, from maternal care through to raising school-aged children. By sharing facts and personal accounts of lived experiences, our aim is to bring awareness to black maternal health inequalities and provide a platform for the Black women we work with to share their stories.
In our next post, we will hear from one mother about her experience of giving birth in Glasgow as a Black aslyum-seeker.