Decolonizing Wellness: Recentering BIPOC in Midwifery
At the beginning of this story I am 20 years old, sitting in the lobby of a conference center, practically vibrating with purpose. I was at a natural birth conference, surrounded by women who were fighting for the right to give birth in the way that they chose. I had dragged my college roommate and boyfriend with me – trying to spread the gospel and bring them into the light, showing them just how powerful it was to witness a woman’s body doing what it naturally can, without the intervention of the medical system. I waited in line and eventually had my copy of Spiritual Midwifery signed by Ina May Gaskin herself, telling her all about how I wanted to become a doula, working with underserved women. My flimsy ideals were all in the right place. I was also the product of where I was living at the time, the city I have now moved back to: Asheville, North Carolina – the Portland of the South.
You (quite literally) can’t throw a stone in this town without hitting a DIY poster advertising a workshop on tinctures, a reiki session, a lecture that is just one step away from a cult recruitment session. We fancy ourselves a city of health conscious, spiritually awakened liberals with the disposable income to pursue all avenues in our search for enlightenment. When I first moved here after growing up in a small, conservative-leaning town, it felt like a new world of possibility. I was finding my way into conversations about gender equality greatly through issues of health and wellness. I knew that I wanted to help women, but I hadn’t educated myself on the nuances of that intention. So, there I was, in a conference center watching a natural birth on the big screen along with the glowing faces of hundreds of other well intentioned, tone deaf white women.
Access was never mentioned. Nor the statistics that showed that the trauma of institutional racism that limited many women from the kind of “complication free” pregnancy that is necessary for a home birth. A few years ago, Ina May Gaskin was publicly shamed for her statements that implied that women of color experienced higher risk pregnancy due to lifestyle choices such as drug use, lack of proper nutrition and (drumroll please) lack of prayer. On top of being blatantly racist, these statements undermined the fact that midwifery belongs to People of Color, and that our current medical system (including the natural birth movement) consistently fails BIPOC, gaslighting them and placing the blame back on underserved communities. It is also a perfect example of the closed-minded hippie logic that seems pervasive in not only the natural birth movement but wellness culture as a whole.
In the last few years, I have been thinking back to this time in my life, trying to understand my motivations as a way to understanding the willful ignorance of many other white feminists. Wellness movements like the natural birth movement are deeply encoded with white supremacy. They are the pinnacle of what is wrong with white feminism, which is unsurprising as they are a direct result of the hippie movement and Second Wave Feminism. My question is: is there room for intersectionality in wellness, as it stands today? The answer is yes, but only if we hand the reigns back to the people we stole them from.
Using the midwife as an example, we can track the ways in which wellness has been commodified and coded to oppress BIPOC. The natural birth movement owes everything to women of color whose practices predate colonization. African midwives who were sold into slavery and through diaspora came to the United States, brought their practices with them. Of course, far before that, indigenous womxn had their own traditions and lifeways which have been violently interfered with by genocide, forced sterilization and assimilation (watch the video at the end of this post that features Indigenous midwives working at the Dakota Access Pipeline.) Midwifery in the United States relied on the survivance of cultural knowledge passed down generationally by BIPOC, up until the commercialization of obstetric surgery (linked here is a short blog post that touches on notable midwives of color.) When obstetric surgeons realized that they could take birth out of the home and into a hospital setting, a smear campaign was led against midwifery and it started by targeting BIPOC and immigrants. Public service advertisements would admonish the dirty, untrained and uneducated midwives (often showing images of black women) in an attempt to scare mothers into the waiting arms of a patriarchal medical system. The campaign worked and birth as we know it changed forever.
I’m glossing over so much here, including the nonbinary gender nuances of midwifery before colonization as well as the ever-present racist trope of the “Mammy,” which still follows black midwives to this day. These are both discussions I want to return to, and which need more time for me to adequately address. For now, we have to flash forward to the 1960s when people like Ina May Gaskin were “discovering” the possibilities of the female body like Christopher Columbuses of the Cunt. Like much of the hippie movement, communities like The Farm began to look back on traditional (read: precolonial) practices to fight against patriarchal systems. In their defense, the state of birthing was dire at that time. Practices like Twilight Birth had erased the female body from the equation and invasive, unnecessary medical intervention was rampant. The issue is, these white women, in their choice to disengage with conventional American life, were coopting the wisdom of black and indigenous midwives and claiming it as their own. Reading books like Spiritual Midwifery (1975), a foundation text of the modern natural birth movement, the lived experiences and wisdom of African, black and indigenous womxn are erased and used as anecdotes that allow for their white counterparts to connect with their “primal” instincts. Philosophies like this are what lead to women like Ina May Gaskin citing racist and unfounded evidence when asked about the health outcomes of People of Color.
I framed this blog post around my own path through feminism as a practice in not turning away from your own mistakes. Even Ina May Gaskin has evolved and embraced more nuanced approaches to infant and maternal health for BIPOC (though we should re-center our influence away from Gaskin and back to BIPOC). I am still learning, of course, and I will be for the rest of my life. I will look back on things I’ve said in this post and cringe, but that’s a sign that you are evolving and that you are willing to admit that you are wrong. One thing that I have come to understand is that if you want to create change, the greatest thing that you can do is to give up your power. So, I’m not going to pretend to know the answer to how we as white women can find our way back from our colonizing standpoint on health and wellness, mainly because that isn’t the point. There are so many people who are already fighting that battle and it is our job to showcase their work and support them through our actions and financial assistance. If anything that I’ve said here has sparked your interest, please follow the activists and organizations listed below, they, and many others, are the ones doing the work:
Miriam Zoila Pérez aka the Radical Doula creates resources for doulas and other interested in the intersections between social justice and birth activism. Her book The Radical Doula Guide: A Political Primer for Full-Spectrum Pregnancy and Childbirth Support is just one of these resources.
The National Association to Advance Black Birth advocates for greater education and resources to combat institutional racism that effects black maternal-infant mortality. Their services include everything from doula training to advocating for policy change.
The Changing Woman Initiative has been raising public awareness around the overlooked issues of Native American maternal health and the lack of Native American/ Indigenous representation within midwifery in the United States.
Read more about the unique issues of access and erasure that effect maternal and infant health in indigenous communities, and how midwives are taking back control by decolonizing the birthing process.
[Image: a woman holds a baby in a lush garden.]