Monday, August 10, 2015

Dear White People...

I don't know about you, but these blog posts get more and more difficult to write each time.  The more I travel and talk to people and observe and witness the more clearer it becomes, that those who claim ally-ship are often the same ones maintaining the status quo.  A few days ago I got a call  to inform me that another (white) person had misquoted something I said in one of my presentations.  Yes, I know.  That happens all the time.  You see, when I go and speak somewhere, I know that 75% of dominant culture people hearing my message will reject it. Immediately.  Another 20% will consider it, but decide later, that no, I was wrong after all.  But maybe, just maybe 5%  or so will hear it and receive it and it will change their lives; in gut wrenching, heart rending ways.  But they will be so much better on the other side.  They will begin the process of transformation.  They will see, hear, and understand for the first time ever.  They are the lucky 5%.  The other 95% will say I said things that I did not say.  They will call ME a racist.  They will say I don't like White people. They will say I don't think White people should talk to Black women about breasfeeding or birth.  They will say many things, all of them untrue.  I'm used to being misinterpreted.  I come to town for the Five Percenters.  The few who are ready to receive my message and allow it to change their perspective on how we deliver healthcare and health messages during the perinatal period.  I don't want to make folks angry, but that's the most likely outcome of my telling the truth when people aren't ready for the truth.
White people in this country are often misguided.  Why else would my 'allies' cause me so much grief, pain, and moral agony? They can't even begin to grasp the most simple truths or have the most basic conversations about race.  Rather than face the truth about their own racism, they contort themselves to continue their own delusions.  Nearly all White people do this. Don't believe me?  Find yourself in this list of ally act-ups from just the previous few weeks:
  • A group of white professional women closed rank on a woman of color, effectively locking her out of the profession, (since mentorship is a part of the entry into the profession).  They ignored and marginalized her, making it impossible for her to join their ranks, once they decided she was 'unworthy' yet if they sat in one of my seminars while I talked about diversifying this profession, they would NEVER recognize their own overtly racist act of purposely locking a woman of color out of the profession.  They would cheer my message smugly agreeing that yes, of course the profession needed more women of color without ever giving a thought to the woman they had ostracized. (This by the way, is one of the problems with mentorship- it breeds 'good ol' girl' networks.) It's also why I started a mentorship program because this happens to women of color ALL THE TIME and everyone always thinks they have a good NON RACIST reason for not mentoring this woman of color (but its still racism).
  • A preceptor once asked me if the reason a client gave for not having me at her birth was racism in disguise.  I answered, 'yes.'  It took the preceptor two weeks of mulling it over, to recognize the client's discrimination.  It took my own internal 'bullshit-o-meter' about 2 seconds to figure it out, but to be fair, I've had the lived experience of being Black in America to fine tune it.  Most white preceptors would have never figured it out.  Fortunately this preceptor and I discussed this topic openly and regularly but too many white preceptors NEVER have this conversation with their apprentices of color even when they witness clients abusing them.  Most of the time they think they should get a medal, just for HAVING an intern/mentee/apprentice/student of color.
  • A national organization rolls out a new logo.  They've gathered a 'representative' group of members to approve the new logo and when it is unveiled, it looks every bit as dominant culture as every other logo that preceded it.   There is NOTHING multicultural or representative about it. I do not see me represented in it-anywhere, as usual.
  • I have witnessed several chest thumping events by older white women wishing to be recognized as 'pioneers' 'groundbreakers' or some such thing because of the work they did across the span of their careers.  I am willing to allow for that.  But here is what I won't allow.  Don't say you did it for me, to open doors for me. You did it to open doors for other white women.  Let's be honest, you did not spend your career creating opportunities for women of color.  History just does not support that assertion.  BIPOCS live as oppressed classes in this society and the agents of that oppression are white people.  White women traditionally have responded in great numbers one of two ways, co-agents in that oppression or stunning silence.  Those are the two main responses I see to this day, with rare exception. Oh there's lots of lip service, plenty of sound bites.  But actual working to secure equity when it actually costs you something to do so- very little of that. The work white women have done to secure equality has been equality for themselves.  I have noted their annoyance when young women of color take the spotlight.  I've even seen them be publicly critical and turn the spotlight back on themselves.  They want to be known as mothers of the movement.  But this is a movement they can never claim motherhood to.
  • Please don't ask me to teach you how to "wrap your head", "do your hair that way" or other sacred traditions that I'd prefer not to share outside my intimate circles.
  • Had a client ask for a homebirth to 'escape' the system.  With good reason.  Her baby will probably be taken away and fed into the system that seems to exist to supply white families with Black and Brown babies.  These women and their babies don't stand a chance.  The system is not in place to help them but to further exploit them.  They are mere commodities for the state to dispense with as they see fit.  Woe unto them.
  • While traveling around I have encountered several White individuals who received a grant for starting breastfeeding support groups in the African-American community.  These individuals have little to no ties to the community they want to start a group in and often don't know any qualified African-Americans!  How do I know this?  These people walk right up to me and tell me!  I'm not blaming them for trying to seize an opportunity.  I'm blaming the funders for setting up their grant in a way that allows outsiders to come in impose themselves on communities of color instead of building on the strengths and human resources already at work in those communities.
  • I get calls weekly from folks all over the country.  White folks.  They want to do this or do that for my community.  They always get the same spiel from me.  Who are your partners in the community?  Of course there usually are none because as I'm told on a regular basis, 'there are no Black people doing this or that."  My next question is always the same.  HOW ARE YOU QUALIFIED TO KNOW THAT???  If you are a white person on the outside of the community looking in, how the hell do you know WHAT is going on inside?  You can't tell me there is no one for you to support or partner with because you are not even qualified to go find an answer.  You are just ASSUMING because no one presented themselves to you, that there is no one doing the work.  This is just more White arrogance and privilege at work.  You have NO IDEA was is going on in someone else's community.  Plain and simple.  You are an outsider.  That's WHY you need to partner with an insider.
  • Just came from another professional meeting where I met the newest staff member of the team of a local hospital; another White female, even though the population served is 80% women of color, and even though I spoke up and said that I hoped the position would be filled by a woman of color prior to it being filled.  But of course my saying that was offensive- because everyone they hire is qualified (and White). 
So there you have it.  Nothing changes.  The status quo lives.  Black people die.  White people take offense.  We must somehow manage the moral fortitude to speak the truth and do what is right, even in the face of systemic racism embedded in the healthcare system. We must speak truth to power even when we have very little power ourselves, we must take down Goliaths where ever we find them, whether it be by bringing legal action against unjust monopolies, creating our own organizations, or writing unpopular blogs we must do the thing we think we cannot. And then get up the next day.... and do it again. 
In solidarity

Dear Readers,
I have invited a guest post from someone I consider an ally.  I think it would be good for White people reading this blog to hear a White person's perspective.  This is written by someone I trust and respect and whom I believe understands the appropriate role of an ally.  Dear Reader, I give you the thoughtful musings of Diana Casser-Uhl. 

I met Sherry Payne for the first time in 2013, at the USLCA conference. I had submitted my thesis a week prior and had final exams still ahead of me before I was to graduate with my Master of Public Health in behavioral science and health promotion. I had given and was still to give presentations at several conferences that spring, and I was looking for a job. I had reasons to be exhausted, and didn’t attend many presentations at USLCA in favor of rest and preparation for my finals. Having studied about social determinants of health as a primary and recurring theme in my coursework, Sherry’s session, entitled “Chocolate Milk CafĂ©” caught my interest. I had just spent the last 2 years learning about health disparities and I wanted to hear about how I should help women of color improve breastfeeding rates in their communities.

What I got, though, couldn’t have been further from my expectations. I heard words like “my community doesn’t want you to come give us breastfeeding support.” Um, what? Is my IBCLC credential not enough for women who look like you? I had studied up on “cultural competence” so I was ready to be tolerant! I was totally okay with black people and I certainly wasn’t a racist. I knew all too well what racists were and I wasn’t that!

“If you’re working with a woman of color, and you want her to come to my breastfeeding support group, sure, give her a ride if she needs one. Then wait for her in the car. Don’t come in.” Again, I was shocked. Why shouldn’t I go in there? I had no problem with black people!

It didn’t even occur to me that maybe, black women had a problem with me, with my authoritative claims that I could help them be successful. “Black women don’t want your white hands and eyes on their breasts,” someone in the room said, and others – clearly others who knew something I didn’t – robustly agreed. But wait? Isn’t that racism? I shifted uncomfortably in my chair and let the more courageous, more erudite (older) white women in the audience carry the conversation. I knew in my gut that anything I might say would be … wrong.

“The black women I see at the clinic where I work don’t really want to breastfeed, anyway. “

Energies were high in that room, and every point being made seemed valid. We can’t make someone want to comply with our care plans, right? I knew enough to understand that there were determinants beyond the clinical setting that influenced the decision to breastfeed – family members, community organizations, workplaces, society in general makes it difficult to breastfeed. I also knew that, of those who managed to breastfeed anyway, most were white and Asian women.

            Sherry calmly but firmly fired question after question to the group. Her message was to advise us that we can’t possibly know what it’s like for these women, because our experiences were so foundationally different. How can a woman of color in a community that does not support breastfeeding possibly breastfeed for an entire year? When her mother, grandmother, and all of her aunties – all of whom live nearby and are very involved in the upbringing of the family babies – didn’t breastfeed and have no interest in re-learning how to take care of babies, when they already know very well thank you how to handle a bottle-fed baby?

            I wasn’t feeling it. I was the first woman in my family to successfully breastfeed in 3 generations. And by “successful,” I mean my babies got nothing but my milk for 6+ months, from my breasts even though I went back to work in an unsupportive (but thought they were supportive – the worst kind!) 10-12 weeks postpartum. I breastfed through two pregnancies, I tandem nursed. My babies refused bottles so I stayed up all night nursing them when they reverse cycled. I suffered discrimination in my workplace. My mother and grandmother didn’t understand why I breastfed, hasn’t I turned out just fine? Breastfeeding seemed so much harder, and I was bringing that on myself. I had no sisters, cousins, co-workers, or friends who valued breastfeeding and mothering at the breast the way I did. I had terrible healthcare. My partner questioned my choices, felt alienated from our families and our friends, and supported my breastfeeding under what felt to him like sheer duress, all that only because I wanted to leave our workplace and he was adamant about my staying in it. I wasn’t a stay-at-home wife of a wealthy man in Lactopia. And yet, I was a breastfeeding superstar against every barrier I knew of. I wasn’t buying that a mother could only be successful in an environment that fostered success, because I had been successful in what I thought was the very same environment Sherry was describing.

            Sherry shared about Uzazi Village, a community center in the urban core that provided perinatal health services and support to families in the neighborhood. She acknowledged that those of us in the room were obviously there because we wanted to be part of a solution, but kept driving home the point: we, ourselves – the white women in the room – were NOT the solution. I hadn’t learned yet about the white savior narrative, wherein learned white people descended upon a needy community of people of color to save and fix them – but this was what Sherry was teaching us about. Our job isn’t to go to Uzazi Village and provide breastfeeding support, it’s to take an active role in the development and mentorship of women of color so they can provide breastfeeding support in their communities. Our job isn’t to tell the story of the marginalized, it’s to get out of the way and let them tell their own story – and, when invited, to amplify their messages, to let women of color stand up on my shoulders.

            My shoulders.

            It was at that moment, over an hour into Sherry’s presentation, that the light bulb turned on. I thought some more about how similar my own breastfeeding experiences and efforts at early mothering had been to the circumstances Sherry described in the community she served. Why did I overcome? What was different about me? It wasn’t because I’m a better person, or a stronger person. It wasn’t because I was more motivated or because I wanted to work harder. It wasn’t because I loved my babies more than black women loved theirs.

            It was – and continues to be – because I was raised to question authority and to exercise my own. My own authority. At every turn – home, school, in jobs I held, in day-to-day interactions I had with people I knew and didn’t know – I was encouraged to believe in myself. That I could accomplish anything I set out to accomplish. The world was my oyster, carpe diem. I received this message loud and clear, unequivocally, every day.

            Mothers don’t pull their purses and their children closer when I approach from the opposite direction on the sidewalk. Drivers don’t lock their doors when they enter my neighborhood and see me on the corner, waiting to cross the street. I’ll tell you what else doesn’t happen to me. Just yesterday, I picked up my keys to the apartment where I will live while I’m in school and my family is at our home 250 miles away. There were several emails and posted signs in the leasing office stating that I’d have to show photo ID to receive my keys. My ID was never requested. The black couple receiving their keys were asked for theirs by not one, but two employees at the complex.

            I live in a different world because I am white. Someone recently commented on Facebook, about a political figure who has no concept of privilege, “he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” I didn’t earn the relative ease with which I pass through my life, I was born into it.

           I didn’t learn too much about how I could provide breastfeeding support to black women that day at USLCA, but I left Sherry’s session with an unrelenting discomfort. I donated to Uzazi Village that week, to support a cause I believed in with means I had. I was confused that the knowledge and skills I had acquired as an IBCLC and a public health professional weren’t worth what I thought they might be. I struggled for awhile with whether there was any place for me at all in the fight against racial and ethnic health disparities. It would be a few more months before I’d realize that the disparities are caused by systems, not individuals, and eliminating those disparities would take a systemic effort.

I’d love to tell you that from that moment on, I’ve been a perfect ally, a white woman who waves my Magic Wand of Privilege and makes things better for women of color every day while I scale tall buildings in a single bound and mother my three children and get a doctorate and … no. More often than not, I still feel helpless and lost about what I can do, what I should do. More often than not, I still feel ashamed and confused about the biases and prejudices I’ve permitted – and sometimes continue to permit in my own thinking and behavior. I get frustrated that certain ZIP Codes, even one less than 10 miles from my own, harbor awful, awful health disparities, but I raise my own family in the ZIP Code where we have a better shot, and I wonder if I an implicit or complicit supporter of the structures that created those disparities – the structures that make it possible for me and my white family to make a life in a town where black and brown families have to work twice as hard to get half as far. I listen to and do what I can to amplify the voices of my black and brown friends, peers, and colleagues. I listen carefully. I listen to every word and, when my knee-jerk reaction is to say “but that isn’t about race …” I stay quiet and I keep listening because it’s not my job to tell black people in America what their experience has been or how they should do things differently so they can be just like me. Their world is different from mine, and my job is to bear witness, to believe what they say, and, maybe by my words or maybe by my example, to challenge the systems that make our worlds so different.