*This is my experience as a white woman questioning racism and prejudices within my own extended family, and the difficulties that can arise. For further information on white privilege and black women mortality rates please see my further reading list at the bottom of the page*
Racism and white fragility are topics that can divide many. When it’s members of the public, keyboard warriors or passers by its easy to challenge blatant racism. It’s easier to challenge when it’s a verbal action. It’s easy to label racism when someone uses an offensive word. It makes it much easier when it’s someone you’ll probably never see again. It is hard to challenge when it is your own loved ones, that are the ones spouting and harbouring the unpleasantness. The grandpa’s with the ‘outdated’ views, the great aunts with little to no patience for todays ‘PC world’ full of ‘snowflakes’.
In neither pregnancy, when I entered the maternity ward did I have any angst or worry that would be deemed unusual. It was birth, billions had done it before and not died, and billions will continue to do it…and not die. It IS a white privilege to enter a labour ward and to not have the odds of a traumatic and dangerous birth starting to stack up. I, nor my white peers, have had to fear that myself and baby is at a higher risk of negligence and death because of skin colour.
When I had the boys I was unaware that there was even statistics out there reflecting the neglect of black women in childbirth. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that such statistics were needed to be recorded. I asked my midwife in my first pregnancy, why the area had a higher maternal death rate than other areas. She wasn’t sure. Now I know why, because it was a diverse area with black and ethnic minorities making up nearly 40% of the area. Neonatal death (a death of a child within 28 days of birth) is more prevalent in black babies, also.
I approached this subject with an ‘older’ woman I knew who had worked within healthcare of new mothers and babies (for decades) when the recent MBRRACE report was published. “God, that’s shocking,” she said. “You’d think in this day and age it wouldn’t be like that.”
It’s not shocking though. What is shocking is that within the very framework, that is wholeheartedly trusted by women in their most vulnerable states, there is the dark, hidden reality that there is little to no acknowledgement for how dangerous this period of time is for BAME women. Nobody likes talking about the death of a mother or a newborn, especially when it’s multiple deaths every year that could have potentially been avoided and the lack of knowledge and racist myths from the time of Jim Crow laws are still apparent within the system. (Please sign here for a petition for the urgent review of care, to ensure in future practice black women are no longer at greater risk of maternal mortality than white women)
I was angered by this conversation. Cross that someone integral to many women’s care lived in an ignorant bliss of what black women endured and continued to endure on the UK’s maternity wards. Should I have been forceful with the conversation? Given her a bollocking for being ignorant? No. All I can hope is that I sparked a thought in her own head to look into the facts. I can be ignorant too. I always will be to some extent. Sitting on my own pedestal, pretending I have a fountain of knowledge is plain offensive. I hold the guilt and the reality that I have only opened my eyes to racism and privilege because I am the mother of two dual heritage children and myself have been educated by BAME women – a role that they shouldn’t have had to take on. I often wonder if I was not in this position, would I have been so determined to learn, I hope I would be. These frustrating conversations seemingly have increased as I have grown older though, and it more and more seems to be with a particular generation.
A member of my family asked me if I had omitted a couple of elderly (extended) family members from the wedding guest list as I believed them to be racist. The truth is, I hadn’t invited them because they weren’t close to me – people I rarely saw or spoke too. I had never taken into consideration their views. I didn’t know they possessed such thoughts.
But it made me think about the people I had intentionally parted from. Some in a harsher manner than others. The extended family members that I no longer made contact with for the sheer fact I was scared of them using harmful expressions in front of myself and my children. I decided that I was then going to stop being silent about my opinions within my own, and open up conversation when I feel so strongly that it is my duty as white woman to try and educate and speak about such topics, that others within the family had probably shied away from in fear of upsetting and disrespecting the older generation. Sometimes, it has helped. Other times I have come to the stark realisation that my time was wasted, and they were people I shouldn’t allow in my life any longer, an option we sometimes forget we have. because ‘family is family’.
Life is short, and those you love won’t be around forever. However, because life is short, do not let yourself become consumed by the comments you would like to question and the views you wish you had challenged. From personal experience, whether you ignore it or not, it taints your opinion of a loved one. You will still love and care for them, but the respect and rose tinted vision you once had of them will not ever completely repair. And, I feel it is important to understand that this is okay. You can hold happy memories and fond feelings of those people, that does not mean you agree with them and you don’t need to continue your relationship in such close proximity.
- challenging and questioning does not mean it has be a screaming row. Racism, homophobia, xenophobia, fat shaming, etc are often highly emotive topics that people can feel very strongly about. It is different for every person, but keeping calm allows you to explain yourself properly. “We don’t say things like that in this house” can be just as effective as a long rant.
When I asked on my Instagram if people had ever challenged influencers/instamums (instagram accounts) for their views, the most common answer was yes. Or at least they unfollowed if they feared being called a troll for ‘calling out’. When I asked a few months later if people challenged their own elderly family members over hurtful and harmful comments, the most common answer was no. Those that didn’t were worried (like myself) about upsetting the relative, or that it wasn’t their place as often the elderly are the matriarchs of the family. The same people who have held whole family units together through the good and the tragic. Those that had confronted undesirable views were split down the middle. Those who found that they never repaired a relationship following a conversation, and others – although impossible to completely change someone’s views – had been able to make an impact, limiting the offensive comments and narrow minded views being repeated amongst themselves and their children. A small number had gone no contact when their wish for such language and attitudes to be curbed had been mocked and ignored. Some had positive reactions and received apologies, and a few felt their relatives were now beginning to understand that casual racism, fat shaming and xenophobia were being fuelled by their favourite tabloids.
For me, having children was the push I needed to start reevaluating what I allowed to be said around myself, my children and my home. I have overcome the fear of taboo subjects, I have had to change my boundaries in regards to ‘respect’ and learn that sometimes it is harder to challenge family members because you risk hearing things you didn’t want to hear, evoking a reaction that isn’t easy to deal with. It can be incredibly hard. But it is for the best. It allows you to make an informed decision about your own boundaries, and your own level of respect you wish to be shown.
I don’t have the answers as how to handle it within your own circle, I certainly can’t tell you that you will always walk away with the result you wanted, but white privilege isn’t going away, and with the medical advances nor is THAT generation (I joke) and I feel very strongly that it is our duty as moral citizens and as white people to educate our family on the privilege we are born with and the fragility we acquire as we grow into adults, and to use it in a way that is positive for society as a whole. I am sick of the excuses that are recycled. Phrases such as ‘It was a different time’, ‘things were different back then’ aren’t acceptable, they’re just enabling. Everyone has seemed to have adapted well to the 21st century, people of all ages using social media, Whatsapp, iPads, listen to podcasts, use contactless, learn new bus routes, drive new cars and I wonder why we so freely render the ‘older generation’ as incapable of continuing to learn and expand on societal/humanitarian matters, when they are quite clearly demonstrating that they are able to ‘keep up with the times’ in every other respect. Surely that is discriminatory in itself?
Nova Reid – campaigner and inspiring speaker, specialising in anti-racism workshops. There is a lot of helpful information on Nova’s website and on her Instagram @novareidoffical. I recommend the IGTV episodes – I’ve found them really helpful.
Rachel Cargle – US born Rachel, a writer for Harper Bazaar and academic has an incredible blog and IG page that constantly makes me question myself. I found the articles on white feminism eye opening and insightful. They are things I have not yet come across and continue to refer back too. IG: @Rachel.cargle
Remi Sadé – Remi is 1 half of the Alright For A Mum (IG: @alrightforamum_) and the Make Motherhood Diverse team (@makemotherhooddiverse) Remi appeared on Radio 4 Women’s Hour recently to discuss the MBBRACE report. You can find it here. IG: @remi.sade
Candice Brathwaite – the founder of aforementioned Make Motherhood Diverse. Candice tirelessly raises awareness of the injustices black people are facing in present day UK. A nation which is so insistent on claiming that racism is no longer an issue here. Candice has also written her first book ‘I am not your baby mother’ which is available for pre-order here. I had no idea about the black women forced to work as wet nurses during the slave trade until Candice discussed it on her Instagram recently, if you have ever wondered why Black Breastfeeding Week existed, I highly suggest you read the information surrounding it. (@candicebrathwaite)