I had been thinking about this for a very long time and recent events made me realise that I hadn’t written about it yet. Safe, separate spaces for black women.
I had posted, what I thought was, a simple request for a black doula up North (I’m in London. And yes everything north of my house is… north…well… I’m not that bad!). I had no idea how much fragility, defensiveness and spiritual whitesplaining it would unleash. I didn’t post it willy nilly. I posted it in a group that I knew was inclusive and would be a good resource. What I didn’t foresee was the storm that would follow from the first post on.
‘Anything against blonde, white ones?’ I confess, I did look again and think.. ‘What on earth provoked that response?’. She continued on to say “I had a thought if this was ‘any blonde, European Doula in this group’ it might sound very different.” Now I have already had this kind of comment since I started Abuela Doulas, where I run doula preparation courses particularly, but not exclusively for BME women. There is something about calling for a black doula that makes some white doulas throw their toys out of the pram. White women don’t need to ask not to have black doulas. They have a wide range of choice as to the doulas that they can choose, so they can simply ignore the black ones. I know a black doula who has had this happen time and time again, with white women turning to her as their last resort. She’s not bitter. She accepts that there is a doula for ever woman, and sometimes, she’s not the one. With Abuela Doulas we are increasing the pool of BME doulas, and I regularly get requests from black and asian women for doulas that reflect them and their cultures. This doesn’t mean that white women won’t get doulas, nor that they can’t use black doulas. What it does mean is that the choice for black women opens up. After all, people don’t throw their toys out when someone comes in and asks for a Russian speaking doula.
This doula then decided that clearly I didn’t understand race, racism and what it means to be elevated beyond ethnicity. She told me that it wasn’t good to go to the other extreme and exclude white people. Then she moved into telling me her black heritage as generations back her grandfather was related to, descended from black slaves. Then began the first mentioning of her black soul. As the ‘conversation’ progressed, she explained that her ideas were bigger and it was clear that no one else was prepared to expand their own thinking or hadn’t attained her ‘levels of understanding’.
What was heartening were the other doulas in the group coming forward to ask her about the appropriateness of her postings, and to ask her to pause and consider why a black woman might like to see herself reflected in her birth support. Sadly she took it as an attack and white fragility reared its head. She refused to accept that whilst being able to transcend race is a fabulous idea, it it simply that, an idea. It is not the way it works for black people in the world and saying that we should all just do it is unhelpful to say the least. We know that racism exists and is widespread.
So how do black women get to talk about the things that affect their lives, their births, their families if they are continually exhorted to ‘look at a white woman’s higher knowledge’ of these things? I was grateful for the women who messaged me to check that I was okay. I was. I’ve been living with crap like this for 51 years. I was grateful because they didn’t make it about them and talk about the pain my pain and other people’s racism causes them. White tears are an actual thing. So many times when black women start to tell their stories, express their hurt, pain and/or anger, a white woman will begin to cry and pull the focus of the moment onto herself. They also present when a white woman is asked to be still and to listen without comment so that a black woman can finish her own story. Suddenly they feel attacked and bullied. The need to retain the centre seems to become paramount.
We talk differently when we are together as a group, without white people present. We exhale. We talk. We don’t measure or adjust for how white ears might hear our words. This isn’t to say that we wish to remain separate, just that in the being separate, we can begin to deal with our wounds, share our joys and frustrations without censure. So yes, I think that we need our separate spaces and no I don’t think that others have the right to invade them. And I certainly don’t want to hear about your ‘black soul’. If you truly had one, you would not try to invalidate me. When a woman wants to tell me how racism affected her birth, I do not need a white woman to tell her that it’s not racism. When a black woman needs to cry, needs to let those tears out, she should have a safe space within which to do it. Oh and fyi, our conversations are not dominated by nor about you when we’re together. They are about us.