I was recently at a neighborhood party with a local police officer in my rural town, and we got to talking about being pulled over. I told the story of being stopped by police for an expired registration when I was five months pregnant. When the police officer explained why he had pulled me over, I looked down at my belly exaggeratedly and said, “I can’t believe I let that slide. Must be my baby brain.” He laughed kindly and said his wife was the same way. He let me go.
Next, the police officer told the story of pulling over a pregnant woman for speeding while her husband was in the backseat bleeding and groaning in pain. The 8 month-pregnant driver burst into tears leaving her husband to explain that his wife was taking him to the ER; the police officer let them go. After a few more stories with the same theme, I joked that there should be a pregnant woman placard that signals to police that leniency is required.
At the time of sharing these stories, I was not thinking about my whiteness or the whiteness of the crowd, but one week after I participated in this jokey conversation about how pregnant women should just get a pass, I read “The Violent Policing of Black Motherhood.” This excerpt from Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea J. Ritchie tells the stories of 9 pregnant women of color who have been pulled over for small violations such as speeding and then Tased with 50,000 volts of electricity, beaten, and/or denied medical help. In some instances these women miscarried.
These visibly pregnant women were not behaving violently in any way. In fact, when the seven-month pregnant Malaika Brooks was Tased three times in one minute by police officers, she was sitting in her car. Malaika was driving her 11-year-old son to school, and was pulled over for speeding; she refused to sign the ticket she received because she worried it was an admission of guilt–it was not. In response, police ordered her out of the car but she refused; they made the decision to Tase her in the thigh, the arm, and the neck. Once Tased, she fell out of the car and they “dragged her face-down, handcuffed her, and charged her with refusing to sign the ticket and resisting arrest.”
Over the past four years, I have spent some time reading, thinking, and teaching about white privilege, the unearned advantages I receive because of my white skin. Despite this and the fact that I have co-edited this website for two years, I have never considered how my whiteness affected my pregnancy or my delivery. As a pregnant white woman, I had the privilege to not worry about how my race would affect my pregnancy. Although I avidly researched pregnancy and delivery, the sites and books I read represented whiteness as the norm. My experiences, too, reinforced my beliefs about pregnancy and delivery.
In my experience, pregnant women are beloved. When I showed up at work with my baby bump, women who had never noticed me before were suddenly very concerned with my well being. I’ve never been smiled at so much in my life. I received the best course evaluations from my students in a decade of teaching. Now, when I am around pregnant women at work, I beam at them and feel nostalgic for those love vibes. While I was soaking up the love from my community and feeling like I earned it–I was building a human after all–I didn’t think for a minute that women of color might experience pregnancy differently.
Ritchie explains that the devaluation of the pregnant black woman emerges out of a “matrix of narratives rooted in slavery” These narratives originate in “the stereotype of Black women as promiscuous, which defined them as bad mothers; the devaluation of Black motherhood used to justify ripping Black children from their mothers’ arms to sell them away for profit; and the devaluation of Black children once they no longer represented property and members of an unpaid workforce.” That this devaluation of the black female body didn’t end when slavery did, is evidenced by the brutal treatment of black women documented by Ritchie. In each of these cases, the officers were entirely indifferent to the fact that the women were pregnant.
Like most women, I was scared of delivery, so scared that when my water broke, I wrote it off as peeing my pants, and when my contractions started, I convinced myself it was just gas. My fear was focused on the pain of delivery and my concern about being advanced maternal age. I was not worried that my skin color would affect my treatment or my child’s survival.
In “What It’s Like to Be Black and Pregnant When You Know How Dangerous That Can Be,” Dani McLean explains her justified fear of delivery: “Black women, after all, are almost four times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than our white counterparts, and black babies are twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday. I worry that I’ll have a baby that’s too small to thrive, or that I’ll be treated so negligently by the hospital staff during delivery that I will end up seriously injured, or dead.”
In 2016, the rate of preterm births (born before 37 weeks) for black women was 14% whereas for white women it was 9%. A recent study published this month by Paula Braveman, MD, Professor of Family and Community Medicine and Director of the Center on Social Disparities in Health at the University of California, San Francisco, asks if chronic stress suffered by black women could help explain this discrepancy. Though the study was not able to demonstrate definitive causation it suggests “racial discrimination may play an important role in Black-White disparities in PTB and may help explain the puzzling and repeatedly observed greater PTB disparities among more socioeconomically-advantaged women” and that further research is needed.
It doesn’t require a leap of the imagination to believe that persistent stress as a result of racism would affect a woman’s health and her pregnancy.
When I was struggling to make the decision about whether or not to have children, I was not worrying about being dehumanized or being the recipient of violence at the hands of people whose job it is to serve and protect. Even though I was advanced maternal age, I was not concerned about preterm birth. I didn’t need to fear being mistreated in my predominantly white hospital in my predominantly white and middle-class community.
White women didn’t ask for these privileges and white women are sometimes treated badly by police, white women have miscarriages, white women deliver babies early, and white women lose babies. That said, the fact that women of all races face risks in pregnancy does not negate the evident disparity in how women of color are treated. This disparity is further evidence for why we need the Black Lives Matter movement and why we need feminism to be intersectional, so that we can recognize that there is not a monolithic female experience in the United States. If we, white women, can see these inequities, then we can start to tackle them.
Some of us white women might wonder, are these our problems to tackle? We have our own problems, especially if we are single moms and/or are economically disadvantaged.
Still, we cannot leave it to people of color to take on these problems just as it should not be left solely to women to tackle the problems of sexism and misogyny. In “White Debt: Reckoning with What is Owed–and What Can Never be Repaid–for Racial Privilege,” Eula Biss draws from her correspondence with novelist Sherman Alexi who tells Biss that “white people have the political power to make change exactly because they are white.”
Awareness first, then action. Here’s an example: recently, I combed through our website to discover that 49 of the 50 interviews and essays published on MotherShould? are by white women. While we specifically call for essays where “Women whose racial/ethnic/religious/cultural background is in tension with their choice to or not to have children” and we have reached out to women of color who run websites, the statistics show we are complicit in feminism’s failure of women of color. We could place the blame on women of color for not submitting to our site; it is open to everyone after all, but this blame would be misplaced. If we want our website to be inclusive, we need to recruit women of color for interviews and to write for us. We need to make sure that going forward the content doesn’t reflect whiteness as a norm.
So, it is time for MotherShould? to take action: My first action, was to write this essay, examining and exposing how whiteness influenced my experience of being an expectant mother. After Trump was elected MotherShould? vowed not to allow the stories of marginalized individuals be erased. To this end, we will continue to interrogate how whiteness intersects with the question of whether or not to have children. We will also develop a plan to ensure that our site does not perpetuate the problem of representing the white woman’s experience as the norm.
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