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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Being Black, Being White

L'expérience de grossesse et d'accouchement des femmes noires, qu'en est-il au Québec?

We had a typical Quebec moment when the organizer of this important forum invited me to speak, as a white doula who has had many years of experience serving black families, and I had to decline because of my own religious practice. I really love this aspect of living here, in Montreal, in Quebec, in Canada, where cultures, religions and heritages slip and slide together, usually quite happily.

Instead, I compromised by offering to write a small piece about my experience as a white doula and midwife here, and the advice I would give others when working in the black community.

First of all, let's get something really crystal clear here. Yes, there are different variegated levels of privilege. But if you are white, you pretty much have to accept that come what may, you are more privileged overall than any person of color. I will never, ever understand the nature of the every day racism that my friend Elizabeth experiences. Yes, she has a great life, yes she owns a beautiful apartment and makes good money and yadda yadda. But people look at her and think something that has to do with the fact that she is black (beautiful mama, african lady, exotic queen, and so on),  and they don't do that with me, or at least if they do decide to put me in a box, its not based on the color of my skin.

So, now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about how our experiences as white people affect the ways that we work with or for the black families we may serve.

We can fall in to one of several potholes on the road to true justice and tolerance:

1. Overcompensation. Please don't make the mistake of thinking that you need to somehow "fit in" to your clients' cultural or religious activities, beliefs or customs. It's just dumb. You are YOU. Be gracious, be humble, be authentic. Don't wear particular clothes, talk in a certain way or act differently just because you are working with people who are not like you. You will never know what its like to live their experience, so just plan on being respectful and courteous, and try not to pry.

2. Cultural Voyeurism. It's true, some African or Caribbean cultures seem so cool and attractive to those of us who grew up in, Calgary, for example. However, it is not your place, as a guest in someone's home, and particularly as a guest in someone's life, and at a very intimate and powerful moment of that life, to explore your fantasies about what their cultural heritage might be. You are not in their lives to learn about their culture. You are particularly and specifically there to accompany that family on the path to parenthood. The tasks that involves are pretty much the same across the board. Provide prenatal education; facilitate informed choice; translate and interpret medicalese when necessary; assist the parent(s) to figure out what they want for their birth experience and how they plan to reach their goals. Love the new family. Create kind and lasting relationships within the maternity care team. You're not there to find out what its like to be from Congo, or from Switzerland.

3. Random Assumptions. These are the beasties that really get to me. Just keep your assumptions to yourself and everyone will be better off. Remember, something you may characterize as a harmless opinion could be a hurtful assumption.

4. Trauma Rating. Please don't go in to a relationship where you (white person) are providing care for a (black) person, where you have any intention of "turning the racism tables". It doesn't work that way. Historically, men have oppressed women and white people have colonized colored people. It's history. Let's try to avoid playing a game of who has the worst history. That never ends well. As a white person who has been involved in non-profit work for many years, often providing pro bono services for black and other colored people, I see clearly the pitfalls of the Great White Hope and I see how tempting it might be to share my awful traumas ("just like yours, see?") with others. But its a mistaken path. Your pain as a nation or as a people is different from mine. All I can do is respect, love and do my job.

Finally, because this forum is about the black person's experience in maternity care in Quebec, how do these points above affect the doula, midwife and birthing person? Institutionalized racism is a reality in our hospitals today. ("Mexicans bleed, West Africans scream, East Asians' babies don't descend, North Africans come to Canada to cheat the health care system" etc etc etc). As a black person receiving service from the maternity care team, it is so important that you have a birth companion with you who can accompany you through a hospital stay that may be less than pleasant. As a white doula or midwife, watch your words, be doubly careful of acting out your own prejudices and generalizations. Watch your tongue! Open your heart! Stay human!


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