Posted by Tatiana
I can't for the life of me figure out where to start, or where to stop. So much seems obvious to me, and I assumed it was obvious to other people. But that assumption crumbled when that discussion exploded on the MANA discussion group a few weeks ago. It seemed a minor item, I didn't blink when I glanced through the email when it came through the first time. Scholarships for women of color to attend midwifery school. Uh huh, sure, woulda thought that was already happening. Next..
Then the torrent of response. You guessed it. "This is divisive, this is perpetuating racism, why shouldn't I have access to those scholarships, I don't see what I'm getting that women of color aren't getting..."
So here's the deal, we're talking about scholarships for midwifery students. We all have it tough, right? Midwifery is never going to pay well, the education is long and often unfunded by grants or scholarships, depending the route you go. You have to work for free for years to gain the experience you need. It sucks. And then, when you finally call yourself a midwife, you're treated like scum in the medical field and people are constantly lobbying to eliminate the profession. It's not a comfy road for any of us, so why should these "women of color" receive this freebie money when all of us are struggling? And isn't it racist to suggest that they need this special help?
I say yes, it is absolutely a difficult path for anyone who embarks on it. I don't suggest that we should, say, remove a limb from all white aspiring midwives to make it more difficult, or deny them enrollment in schools, or steal their books in the night. There's no threat to white folks here. (Why is that the way it is received?)
What I say is that white people have already been given scholarships the whole way through in the form of privilege. Maybe the word privilege throws people off. Maybe it sounds like affluence or power. I can imagine reading that, looking at my myriad of struggles and saying, "Ain't feeling the privilege here, folks!" I can see how that would be misleading, but it's worth taking a closer look. Scrap the word privilege for a moment, and take a fairly neutral example from another setting:
"In one community, for example, there has been an effort to get jobs in school districts for more people of color. Superintendents were encouraged to assure equal access to employment by distributing job postings more widely in the community of color. In the past, jobs that became available were quickly known to the people working within the system, who were predominately white and tended to mostly socialize with other white people. Therefore, the job openings inadvertently were known about faster and easier in the white community. There was no intended racism, but this example shows that a form of historic racism in modem institutions continues to exist. To change these systemic and institutional forms of racism, temporary public policies to bring these subtleties to light are needed, as well as an approach to help individuals become aware of the daily harmful effects of their unconscious attitudes and actions."
(From Diversity & Equity by Kathy Castania)
And now let's bring the word back with a less neutral example:
"White privilege is when you can claim that being mayor of a town smaller than most medium-sized colleges, and then Governor of a state with about the same number of people as the lower fifth of the island of Manhattan, makes you ready to potentially be president, and people don’t all piss on themselves with laughter, while being a black U.S. Senator, two-term state Senator, and constitutional law scholar, means you’re 'untested.'"
(From This is Your Nation on White Privilege by Tim Wise)
We may not feel it, but us white folks have gotten that extra bonus all our lives. The "scholarship" that just says, "No matter what, you're the color of smart people who make important contributions, are trustworthy, fill history books and political offices and white coats, are virtuous, are beautiful, are capable. I mean, you're basically the color of people." That kind of scholarship may not look like an installment for tuition from MANA, but it sure has made everything a hell of a lot easier for me. It doesn't mean I have a secret well of money under my house to fund my education, hire a nanny, and pay for expensive internships in faraway places. It just means that I don't have to work against a societal structure that assumes I'm not quite human, or am up to no good, or am just a little less smart or reliable.
What's useful to me about thinking of white privilege as a scholarship is that it calls up some of the responses one has to a monetary scholarship. (Because the point isn't to recognize privilege and then cower in shame.) So as I might with a scholarship, I can ask myself: Am I using it well? Am I leveraging this advantage in a way that will benefit people without this privilege? Am I idealistic now about serving marginalized people in my area, but when I actually get around to being a midwife am I just going to do what's comfortable?
The worst part about this is that it isn't like a scholarship "buys away" racism. It goes a very small distance towards alleviating a tremendous body of counter forces that I've not done much justice to describe. A small, pitiful distance. I suspect that a small, pitiful distance is as far as we'll ever get.
For more about why we need more midwives of color in this country in the first place:
Very Low Birthweight in African American Infants: The Role of Maternal Exposure to Interpersonal Racial Discrimination
Crisis in the Crib – Black Infant Mortality in the US
The Cost of Being Born at Home