The root of modern medicine's failings towards black mothers

Recently a disturbing statistic began recirculating via Twitter: That black mothers in the U.K. are five times more likely to die during childbirth. The following article explores the deeply entrenched synergy between racism and modern medicine that contributes to this. With reference to my own birth, and the all too common complications my mother faced.

Photo: Instagram/Mother_of_daughter

The longstanding woes that befall black women during childbirth, were highlighted this earlier this year with the news that 'Mummy blogger' Clemmie Hooper had been anonymous trolling a number of other 'Mummy bloggers' as well as her own husband. There were allegations made that she had specifically engaged in racist cyber bullying of black female mothers, because she felt threatened by their growing popularity. Under the online pseudonym AliceInWanderlust Hooper wrote a myriad of comments including one aimed at black female blogger Candice Braithwaite, who Hooper had actually befriended online prior to the trolling attacks. One screenshotted comment circulated on Twitter read "Candice is often really aggressive and always brings it back to race, privilege and class because she knows no one will argue with that. It feels like a weapon to silence people's opinions". The idea that the victims of racism and classism could utilise their oppression for weaponisation, misunderstands the nature of power dynamics pretty wildly. So much so that it is hardly worth being offended by. In short, the statement itself is too ignorant to matter. Or it would be, if not for the fact that Hooper is actually a practicing midwife. As is the case with most forms of inaccurate beliefs, they only matter insofar as they are held by people with the power to affect society. Unfortunately this is often the case, and underpins a lot of the problems black women face during pregnancy.

Photo: Mammy Stereotype/The Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University

Photo: Mark Knight/The Herald Sun

It has to be made clear that Hooper herself, isn't the focus of this article. It also seems highly unlikely that she actively wants anyone's children to die during childbirth. The point of this example is to highlight the deep rooted belief systems that inform medical decisions. Beginning her disparaging comment against Braithwaite by saying "Candice is often really aggressive" plays in to a longstanding racist trope that is levelled at black women when they dare to show any emotion, confidence or sexuality. The two photos above highlight how longstanding this phenomena is. The left photo shows a 'Mammy' postcard. Racist propaganda spread during the Jim Crow south to dehumanise black people and justify lynching. Notice the servant attire to showcase subordination. Exaggerated lip size to depict apishness. Lack of shoes to insinuate wildness and perhaps most important, the arms in a boxer's stance highlight aggression. The photo on the right was a caricature drawn in 2019 and published in Australian paper The Herald Sun. It depicts Serena Williams having a tantrum in response to a refereeing decision. Despite widespread criticism The Herald Sun upheld the decision to publish the image and issued no apology. Like the Jim Crow image, Williams lips and body are exaggerated to give a more apish picture. Her opponent in the match, Naomi Osaka (posited as the sensible antithesis to Williams animalistic nature) is drawn as blonde and fair skinned. Osaka is Haitian and Japanese in actuality and has black hair. I believe therefore making her features more Eurocentric is clearly a deliberate ploy to create a black vs. white binary in which whiteness represents civilised behaviour. Much in the way clothes are used in the mammy postcard. What this shows us is that the attitudes and perceptions of black women held in the Jim Crow South, are palatable and defended in newspapers today, as well as held by current midwives. Which is a terrifying prospect. It probably seems as though the point of this analogy is to claim that white midwives take less attentive care of black mothers because they see them as subhuman? Well, it's not quite that simple...

The depiction of black women like Serena Williams (who suffered nearly fatal childbirth complications herself) is so dangerous for black mothers because it feeds in to the idea that black women don't feel pain in the same way. As absurd as this sounds (because it is) it's a belief that is actually the backbone of the eugenics approach that has shaped medicine. A now deceased man called James Marion Sims is hailed as 'the father of modern gynaecology', and it is true that without his contributions the field would likely not be as advanced as it is today. Unfortunately, the chilling reality is that in pursuit of scientific discoveries Sims undertook often deadly experiments of slave women on the basis that they would not experience pain in the same way.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In my opinion, nothing highlights the soul and ethos of Western society more perfectly than the fact that: someone's contributions to medicine dwarfed their inherent racism and cruelty in public opinion. It showcases the prevalent belief that black bodies are cannon-fodder in pursuit of the advancement of white people. The photograph above shows a statue of Sims in New York being taken down (after severe protest) as recently as 2018. If we look at the cases of Sims' experiments and the imagery of the Jim Crow, we can fast forward to today and see the contemporary consequences. This year you may have heard of a woman called Renee Bach. She is the founder of an evangelical U.S. missionary organisation called Serving His Children. Despite not having the proper medical qualifications as a nurse or Doctor, Bach reportedly took it upon herself to carry out procedures on several children in Uganda. The centre she worked at has seen at least 105 children die. One must question why someone would go to Uganda to appease their desire to "play doctor" at the expense of children's lives. Unless of course those lives were somewhat more disposable. During my own birth, the lackadaisical approach of the doctors and midwives saw them ignore my mum's distress that I wasn't coming out normally. As it transpired, the umbilical cord was wrapped around my throat and I was being starved of oxygen. Rather than applying due diligence, my mum recalls the doctor making a comment about how wide African women's hips are. Which is their opinion meant I would have no trouble finding the room to exit. Luckily my late Nana who was a midwife (thankfully for me, not of Clemmie Hooper's ilk) was on hand and furiously demanded an emergency caesarian. Had she not, I would have likely died, or best case scenario ended up with cerebral palsy.

At face value the statistic that black women face such a higher mortality rate is shocking. Mainly because you ask yourself, what difference would your skin colour make once you're on the hospital bed ready to give birth? All things being equal the answer would be nothing. The reality is that the bed you're lying on stands within an institution shaped partially by pseudo science and eugenics. Because to a degree that's what hospitals are. That's what all modern institutions are because, that's the way the world has been constructed. The media we all consume is evidence of this and reinforces these belief systems. The doctors and midwives working within hospitals can't possibly be exempt from this. Black women's chances of surviving childbirth aren't malleable once they enter a maternity ward. They are eroded by the trajectory of history long before that. I can only be thankful that me and my mum had my Nana to protect us from the world around, as she continued to do throughout my life until her passing.

Photo: Josephine Hart (Martyn's Nana). 1929-2013

Article written by Martyn Ewoma. See more from Martyn here


You may also like...

Mental Health Awareness Week is an example of how far society has come in terms of de-stigmatising mental health issues. It is now time for government to be as proactive as the people they represent.



Using Format