I recently wrote an article that I submitted to the doula organisation that I belong to. I spent time on it and was careful to step back and review it regularly. I asked another doula to write a companion piece. I then submitted them both.
The response to the article was not what I expected, but sadly didn’t shock me. I was told that I was unable to separate myself from the words as I was in the ‘eye of the storm’ that had the members of the organisation in a spin. I had removed myself several weeks before and hadn’t actually been enraged or involved other than to respond to comments made. I had no need to ‘fight any battles’ or lead any charges. Mine was, I felt, a voice of reason, whilst talking as a woman of colour. After recognising that a couple of voices were attempting to narrow and close the conversation, I withdrew.
I was asked to edit the article down. Having not been given a word count, I had just written. Now my word count was to reduced down to 800. I was asked to remove the second part of the article about the leadership of the doula organisation. ‘Housekeeping’ was to be kept from the magazine as the intent was to put the magazine out into the public domain, to midwives, into places pregnant women be.
So I had to take a decision, do I edit down the article to 800 words and do I take out the references to the organisation and the challenge to both membership and leadership? I had two conversations with the editor and sub editor. The first, apparently, was ‘heated’. The second came as I was deciding. And in talking, my decision came to me. I would be disappointed in myself if I edited it down and sanitised it and made it the ‘generic diversity in birth’ article they both wanted and expected.
So, I give you advance warning, the above is an introduction to the piece that I wrote. Alongside my piece is a complementary article written by a wonderful doula, Kath Harbisher. It follows the on at the end of my blog. The two pieces sit well together and should, I believe, be read together.
Hold onto your hats folks, this is a long blog.
A bit of a loaded word at the moment. A newly painful time for some, as they begin to recognise, understand and unpick white privilege. It’s a time for major denial as well. Not seeing that the very act of denial is down to white privilege. Of course, some find it hard to hear black lives matter, as they feel that saying that means that white lives don’t. Yet, that is the interpretation of the statement when one seeks to defend the status quo. This is a good time to mention that privilege is not about having money.
We are beginning to see midwives and doulas of colour standing tall against racism, for let’s not play with words, it is racism that we are talking about. With no racism, there is no need for diversity. All would already be diverse. So we need to look to ourselves and our practice and discover what it says about us.
One of the first things that happens when diversity is mentioned, is that a list is drawn up. And the longer this list gets, the further down race slips, because ‘It’s not just about race. It’s about everything’. And like that, race and ethnicity is dismissed and a broad brush is drawn across the page. Backs are patted and nothing changes. Just some words and, if we’re lucky, some images. Think. What is the first thing that you see when you look at someone? Try to be honest. There is nothing wrong with seeing difference, but how you treat them is important. Can a person of colour present as anything other than a person of colour (unless of course their skin tone is very pale). Think once more. Within all the other -isms, who else has been bought and sold, wholesale across the world? By another, a minority, race.
It is hard to talk about race and diversity when the vast majority of the white audience refuse to accept the truth of structural, systemic racism and the resultant symptoms. “I’m colourblind”, “I don’t see race”, “The world would be so much better if people didn’t see race and colour”, “I don’t do those things”. “Race is a social construct”. All of those responses turn the conversation away from the issues and on to the speaker, and seeks to make the person of colour change their comments so that they are more gentle and therefore easier for the white ear. The conversation is difficult because the power remains with white people. They are the ones who consider being white as neutral and normal. This is borne out on stage and screen, in the media, in conversations and in the history books and in the imagery and words of our very own birth world. There remains a power imbalance in all relationships.
Of course, another reason for the responses can also be because of the fear of being outside of the group. Being ostracised is not an easy thing, particularly in a circle as small as the birth world. What if you do speak out? How will that affect you, your work, your friendships? Will you be in? Or out? A very current example of why we need to look at the things that we do, answer the questions about cultural appropriation without throwing out defensive barbs etc, is Miley Cyrus. She has ditched her “black culture” side – black culture to her meant super promiscuous behaviour (perhaps you saw footage of her on stage with her fans with their hands up her vulva and vagina under her knickers), drinking, drug taking etc etc etc – you can’t always be in the group. And of course, when people talk about institutional racism, individuals take it as a personal attack. Within our own organisation, comments thrown about include ‘But we’re only volunteers’, ‘But the Leadership Team work really hard’, ‘You make me feel frightened to respond’, ‘You are speaking your truth, I am speaking mine’, ‘I’m removing myself from this conversation’. A person of colour cannot remove themselves from these conversations. Each of these and many other examples are ways of closing the conversation down. There is nowhere to go when someone posts to say ‘Your tone is aggressive. If others feel the same way as I do when they read your words, they won’t post and they’ll stay away’. Aggressive, up there in the top three of how to silence a black woman. Label her, or imply that she is being aggressive and threatening. Is it wrong to be angry? Or can angry only have ‘one tone’, the tone of a white woman. And where did this idea that black women are aggressive come from? Look around at our media, read the history books, look at the film and television representations. Think about how your blood pressure rises when you see birth portrayed as nothing but a dangerous event that women need to be saved from. Another way to close her down is to say ‘Not just black women. All women’. All lives matter people. Never forget that all lives matter.
Of course, when black women, women of colour, the women of colour who struggle with that term, begin to say that they feel excluded, or shut down, or discriminated against, they cannot be believed without examples. ‘I need to understand where and how this happens’. ‘I need you to explain to me what it is’. ‘That hasn’t been my experience’. Would it be reasonable for a rapist to question their victim and ask ‘When and how were you raped?’ ‘How do I stop raping you?’ ‘I don’t feel you were raped’. Is it for the oppressed to teach the oppressor how to stop oppressing? If your white privilege has been pointed out to you, is it up to people of colour to teach you how not to use micro aggressions?
So what can my doula organisation do? If it is truly a members organisation, made up by and for its members, then it starts individually. It’s time to do some research, talk to one another – though probably not a woman of colour, because we are tired of that conversation. It’s time to become personally accountable for your own place of privilege. What can the Leadership Team do? The same as the individual members. They are not above anyone else, though they are held to a higher standard, or at least should be.
It’s not about adding some images to the website, though that remains a good idea. It’s about proportional representation, at the very least. With that in place, we can start to clean up the ills like institutional racism. But before that can happen, this doula organisation need to find a way to re-engage with the doulas of colour who not only feel unsafe, but have distanced themselves. We are an organisation who pride ourselves on listening and being, unfortunately it is not an option given to the doulas of colour. Before they can be listened to, they need to be ‘believed’, challenged and the decision about whether or not they are speaking truth, is decided by the very people they have stepped away from. Being continually told that no one has brought the issues to the leadership, or that the issues can only be dealt with by the leadership is not true, merely obstructive. The issues have been brought, ideas suggested and ignored. Closing down and censoring opinion ‘because it is felt to be negative’ is never a good move. This subject has plenty of negativity about it. Doesn’t mean that we should paint it pretty and shy away from it. This is something that the entire membership needs to take ownership of, individually and collectively. By understanding white privilege and taking action, much can be achieved. If we continue to do as we have always done, if we continue to look to those we have always looked to, nothing will change and diversity will not prevail and racism, systemic, covert and overt, will continue. When we do not challenge it, even when the words come from those held up as the doula organisation’s icons, nothing will change. Doulas of colour are not asking to become white doulas. They wish to be part of a multi-culture, not a mono-culture.
Michael Jackson sang it.. “I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways”
Yes, You Are Racist
I have been pondering on my white privilege for some weeks now after it was drawn to my attention by a thread posted on Facebook.
One of the first things that occurred to me was why I hadn’t thought about this much before? After all, I’m not a racist, am I? I don’t treat people differently because of the colour of their skin, do I? I’ve been discriminated against myself so I would never do that to someone else, would I?
My immediate reaction was that I would shout a resounding ‘No!’ to all of those questions. The reality, found through deep reflection and introspection, is that actually I am a racist, I do treat people differently on the basis of the colour of their skin and I do discriminate. Of course, like the majority of well-meaning white people, I have never intentionally set out to cause harm to people of colour. But then I never stepped up to prevent harm being caused to people of colour either. I didn’t even turn a blind eye. The fact is that I was already made so blind by white privilege that I couldn’t even see how people of colour are treated differently every day. As the saying goes – “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good (wo)men do nothing”. If you shut your eyes and allow yourself to be blinded to the treatment of people of colour in our world then you allow evil to flourish. Is that who you are? What you aspire to be?
So, why hadn’t I thought about any of this? As a counsellor I often talk about the metaphorical cupboard in our minds. The place where we keep in boxes all those memories, feelings and emotions that we don’t want in our everyday lives. The traumas, the uncomfortable things, the things we hate about ourselves, the things we have said and done of which we are ashamed or of which we live in fear. We put the lids tightly on those boxes and push them right to the back of our cupboards and we hope the lids never come off.
But then, I thought, perhaps there is another set of boxes, the ones we fill full of beliefs and values, the ones with the lids half off, the ones we dip into many times a day but that are so familiar to us, we don’t actually see them anymore. Like when you drive a well-known and familiar route. You don’t even think about it, you just drive with your mind on what you need to buy from the supermarket later on, a difficult conversation you need to have at work, your mind so occupied you don’t even notice completely new road markings until someone else’s beeping car horn jolts you back into paying conscious attention.
I thought, is my white privilege in one of these half open boxes? Am I dipping in and out of my white privilege box so unconsciously that I can’t even recognise myself doing it? Or is it actually in a box, the lid tightly on, way back in the dark recess of the cupboard because it’s something I don’t want to recognise about myself? Maybe there’s more than one box with different aspects of my attitudes, beliefs and feelings about skin colour and racism in different boxes.
But, you know what? It is my cupboard, these are my boxes and I definitely have a box labelled ‘white privilege’ that I use so often I don’t even register my own behaviour as discriminatory.
Oh, shit. This makes me a horrible, terrible person right? No, this makes me a human being who, having finally recognised what she’s been doing, wants to become fully aware and make meaningful, sustainable changes to her behaviour. Just like you, right?
One of the first issues I struggled with was that believing I should treat all people as though they were white too, is, in itself, as form of discrimination. I held to the idea that if I didn’t ‘see’ skin colour then I couldn’t be discriminatory.
Here’s the thing; if I do not allow myself to see the colour of a person’s skin, then I also shut my eyes to the discrimination they suffer and how they are treated differently. Just because I am not the perpetrator does not mean they don’t suffer. By shutting my eyes to the colour of a person’s skin, I unintentionally discriminate against them because I do not see the million micro-aggressions and differences in how they are treated that happen to them every single day. Every. Single. Day.
If I pretend I can’t see the colour of another person’s skin, then I have also shut my eyes to the colour of my own skin. By failing to see how others discriminate against people of colour, I fail to see how I discriminate in the guise of white privilege.
White privilege is a strange concept when one is actually white. Our sense of superiority around what we deserve because we’re white is so deeply ingrained and instinctive that most of us have no idea just how brainwashed we are with it. So brainwashed that we neither see nor recognise it until it’s pointed out to us.
When my white privilege was pointed out to me, I did the thing that many white people do. I told myself I understood what it’s like to suffer racial discrimination because I’ve been discriminated against for other reasons. Of course I understand, I told myself, haven’t I been discriminated against for being disabled, for being old, for being a woman, for being poor? Haven’t I been treated differently, even attacked in the street, for things I can’t help? Of course I know what it’s like and I don’t discriminate against people of colour because of that.
Then the moment of revelation came – supposing I was all these things and a person of colour too – what then? The truth is that although I am discriminated against for being a poor, disabled, old woman, I am a WHITE poor, disabled old woman. That one word, WHITE, the colour of my skin, is what saves me from even worse discrimination than if I were a poor, disabled, old woman of colour. And my ingrained white privilege is what stopped me recognising this as a fact for so long.
When white people become aware of how privileged we are, instead of looking at that from within ourselves, we turn it outwards and onto people of colour. Tell us how you’re discriminated against, we say to them, tell us your stories; explain to us what a micro-aggression looks like.
Just stop and think about that.
What we’re asking is for a traumatised person to relive their trauma by explaining to us how it happened and how they feel about it. Would you ask that of a victim of any other trauma? No. So don’t do it in this context either. It causes harm. Remember that. It causes harm.
You will be told that in order to change your ideas about racism and white privilege, you have to start with yourself. This will be confusing because, in your mind, you’re not a racist. It is also uncomfortable and shocking to have to realise and accept that you are the very thing you despise in others. Being racist is not about being overtly discriminatory towards people of colour, it is simply that you cannot be anything else if you are white and have not dealt with your white privilege attitude in every aspect of your life.
If you’re a decent white human being you will want to put this right. You will be horrified to recognise that you are, in fact, a racist by virtue of doing nothing or because you’ve unintentionally caused harm. Your instinct will be to rush off to ‘fix’ things and make them right.
Fixing things by joining groups, proclaiming your intentions to change, demanding policies and rules to ‘stop this sort of thing happening’ changes nothing.
NOTHING AT ALL.
None of these things make any difference because they are all external to who you are and the set of beliefs you hold about skin colour and discrimination. Informing yourself is only one small part of changing. The biggest and most difficult part is looking within to recognise and acknowledge all the tiny things you take for granted because you’re white, that you never even think about. It ends when you change your behaviour, your beliefs and your attitude to, not only how you treat people of colour, but that you stand up for their rights exactly as you would for your own.
Anything less is just good intentions. And as the saying goes:
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
Kath Harbisher trained as a Doula in 2007. She is also a qualified Counsellor. Her primary interest is in human beings; who they are and what makes them tick. It is a life passion.