Thursday, September 30, 2010

Are scholarships for non-white midwifery students anti-white racism?

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


  1. Some afterthoughts:

    One, I'm aware that there are people that have put a lot more energy and thought into these questions than I have, and I welcome their feedback and criticisms.

    The other, I'm still annoyed that this even needed to be talked about. I was thinking this morning about how I've never heard the same criticisms about scholarships for: single parents, people who have had a long gap in their educations, women, first generation immigrants. etc. (All scholarships I've personally applied for.) Why isn't that so contentious? Why aren't people sending angry letters to the Ford Family Foundation accusing them of all sorts of heinousness for rewarding people who have a gap in their educations or had children out of wedlock?

  2. Thank you so much for posting about this, Tatiana. I agree with you wholeheartedly!

  3. Tatiana,

    Thank you for contributing to this discussion here on Becoming Midwives. I too read the MANA Student Group discussion with avid interest and growing dismay and then panic.

    I think the hardest thing for me was just how many people on the list had never ever thought about racism, really at all. And I'm not even talking about how racism might affect them personally or midwifery more broadly. How we couldn't have a coherent conversation because at the most basic level, we weren't even speaking the same language. And how painful it was to watch these midwifery students, some of them well-meaning, have no idea how excruciating and upsetting their conversation was to many silent voices on the list - women of color, white women with partners of color, active anti-racists who chose not to fuel the fire, etc.

    For me, it was also in part frustrating and infuriating because I've been lying to myself about how this newer generation of midwives could get it right - how we could avoid the racism of the most recent midwifery movement and make things better. I think maybe we can, but it's going to take a LOT more work than I naively thought before.

    But I guess we have to start somewhere. Tatiana? Monica? Everyone else? How do we start this movement?

  4. Yes, I totally relate. My naivete about my entire generation suffered a major blow with that whole incident, and I thought I already had a pretty sour view of where we are with race, ethnicity, and privilege. So it goes.

    I've actually been thinking a lot about this question since you posed it, bloodyshow, of what it would take to start a movement. I think it's a worthy conversation, but is a comment thread the place for it? Meh, why not for starters? So..

    I've identified for myself some practical things I can do to keep my (future) practice in line with my values. The main one is that I need to insist - to myself - upon keeping with the vision I have now of serving an ACCURATE cross section of the women in my community. This means, brushing up on my spanish, choosing my midwifery partners wisely (if a potential partner just wants to serve the "easy" midwifery consumers, that has to be a deal breaker,) and being willing to go to great lengths to reach into marginalized communities.

    So what would a wider-scale application of practical steps to close these gaps look like? Would it be something like the mother-baby friendly hospital initiative? Creating an identifier that midwives can have if they meet a certain standard of providing for the full spectrum of their communities equally? (Not the passive, "Sure, I'll serve anyone who finds me" but an active imperative to meet a quota that represents the demographics of their community?) Or something like the "Big Push" but for birth workers of color? Something a little like the Sistah Care link you posted? Could it be, getting midwives to give talks to diverse youth clubs or setting up a mentoring network for women of color interested in birth work to be supported by existing midwives and doulas? What are your thoughts?

  5. I wrote a piece awhile ago (Anti-Oppression Work and Midwifery) that was also published in the first Outlaw Midwives Zine. You can find some of my thoughts there. I think one of the MOST important things we can do is help train more women of color as midwives. I truly think it will bring a big shift in demographics and radically change who our clients are and how we serve them.

    I don't know that it looks like a quota system. Honestly, it's hard for me to think of anything regarding serving women when I am stopped in my tracks by how deeply the racism and unacknowledged and unexamined privilege runs in the midwifery community itself. I think the first step is to figure out how to educate ourselves - and I feel really strongly that this movement needs to be spearheaded by white midwives. There's already so much tension that I don't know that it would work well unless white midwives are turning to each other and saying, "look, let's fix this." A bit of caucusing if you will. Helping folks to see why this is important to them as midwives, whether or not they ever thought about it before.

    And then perhaps it looks like good conversations amongst midwives who are also on board and engaged in anti-oppression work. I like the start of your list regarding how you will practice. For me, a deal-breaker has to do with where I live and/or where my office is located. Location can have a huge affect on the clientele you serve - and don't serve. Mai'a has written in the past about how although there were many midwives in the Twin Cities, there weren't any in her neighborhood, serving women like her. Another midwife I've talked to says she serves the most diverse clientele of any midwife in town because her office is located in (shock!) the most diverse part of town. These are small things I can do to help make a bigger difference. Being a true community midwife in the community I serve is also important.

  6. Do you mean to say that making yourself accessible to a diverse clientele influences your clientele? Huh. So yes, being mindful about who we serve as midwives is only a small piece of the puzzle. (But it is relevant, I think. An awful lot of midwives start out on the path because of their experience birthing.)

    Going with this caucusing notion, an obvious place to start is in professional midwifery organizations where we are. And I'm aware of a few things worthy of being conscious about. One is, blumbling into the middle of a bunch of midwives with a powerful agenda like this is not likely to produce desirable results. Based on some unpleasant past experience I can see that I, for one, probably need some.. mm, Disparity Ignorance Competency Training, if you will. The question I have to ask is, what really WORKS when you're trying to introduce diversity issues to people who are not aware of it to begin with?

    Also important is learning the local history. Maybe this has been raised before. Maybe it's raised every few years. Maybe there's even a volatile and colorful past to be aware of. It's valuable to know how it was received, how it was handled, and where people fell on the spectrum of response.

    Also seems smart to hook up with other people, especially as a new whipper snapper on the scene. I know of a (very small) number of midwives in my state who have made it clear that diversity is a priority for them. I'd like to poke them and see if they're up for a little collaboration.

    Obviously confronting people is often ineffective, it sparks our human defensiveness and closes the door for real discourse and subsequent change. How can we reach people without doing that, without creating that shitstorm we saw on the MANA list serv? An opening I know of offhand is that the quarterly meetings of the OMC (Oregon Midwifery Council) are often preceded by a class offering affordable CEUs. Lots of midwives take the chance to get more done when they're setting time aside to attend these state meetings. Arranging for some classes about diversity, cultural competency, domestic health disparities could be a neutral way to reach directly into the white midwife community. (I've definitely seen education blow people open about previously unidentified discrimination.)

    Also, we already have some organizations out there doing this work on the national scale or in related fields. Looking to them for guidance about what some proven effective approaches are when one wants to bring diversity to the forefront in their professional environment is likely to produce some directly applicable guidance. Certainly we're not the first people to see the need for action about this, and there's no sense ignoring the vast body of experience that has already been put to the test.

    So, basic starting steps:

    - Learn history of local midwives with respect to racism, identify what has been tried and how it was received.

    - Look to established organizations for advice on how to effectively bring diversity up.

    - Talk with the people at hand who have already demonstrated interest in this issue.

    Skimping on working out a contextually appropriate approach before taking strong action can be the difference between generating change and creating a lot of noise.

    So, what else?