For Ina May Gaskin
I received with surprise an online petition against one of the most important fighters for the humanization of childbirth in the world, Ina May Gaskin, in which the petitioners accuse her of racism. The words they use are harsh, violent and cruel, and offered me the opportunity to reflect on the existence of such cruelty, in life and especially in the virtual world. It was only after talking to some friends that I could understand the context, and combine them with circumstances of the contemporary American political moment—this made a lot of difference in my perspective on the problem.
There is great dissatisfaction with the fact that the birth movement in the United States was created and led by mostly white and middle-class women. From my perspective, nothing could be more natural than this if we take into account the obvious characteristics of this social class: more money, more time to devote to unpaid tasks/volunteer work, more access to cultural advantages, higher education and so many other class and race privileges that we know so well. Add to that the fact that the American black community constitutes no more than 10% of the population in this country, and it is little wonder that the birth movement has been driven primarily by white middle-class women, and that African-American women feel marginalized in the birth movement as well as in the wider society. However, what could be seen as an aid to the privileged people to the unprivileged – and an effort to decrease the distances between them–is instead seen by a group of activists-black feminists as an invasion and an attempt to undermine the protagonism of the disadvantaged non-white women in America. This subject goes back and forth and one needs to understand the whole context to deal with this kind of resentment.
When I read the statements of these activists and compared them to the actual character of my friend Ina May, I was astonished at the absurd moral penalties to which she was subjected. It is like someone stealing a bag of cookies at the grocery store and being sentenced to death. The condemnation of the activists, in turn, was not directed at her ideas, her propositions, her narrative or the phrase – politically incorrect or not – they say she used. No, the penalty is supposed to destroy her morale and her honor, and rewrite her personal history. It is not something like “We disagree with you for your phrase, which can add a further burden to American black women, victims of a racist society.” No, the petition makes it clear that the people who wrote it believe that this person, this long-time pioneer and heroine of the birth movement, is a “racist,” a “white supremacist,” Ku Kux Klan type, and it is because of “people like her” that there is racism in women’s care in the United States.
Yet it would take only five minutes of conversation with Ina May to discover the nonsense of such aggression. As another birth activist said to me, “There is not a single racist bone in her body.” This made it clear to me that the petition says much more about the hatred, frustration, and long-held resentments against white society emanating from these people than from any flaws committed by my friend and activist. It is a tragedy that they have chosen Ina May as their current focal point for revenge.
Immediately I realized that the petition was part of a strategy of attacking historical activists who fought for the humanization of birth. I re-read Ina May’s statement—the one that got her into so much trouble—and I could not perceive any racism in it, but rather a phrase that could be interpreted in a number of different ways. I remembered what my father said about a black guy in Brazil who was becoming a football coach. Said my father, having a coffee with me at the mall: “Against him weighs the fact of being black.” When you take that phrase out of context it seems that your intention was to say that “being black” is a defect for someone who wants to be a football coach. What he meant, however, is that being black would make him suffer many prejudices and encounter tremendous barriers that never occur against whites pursuing the same position. The same sentence can be read in two different ways, according to the desire of the one who reads it; it can be considered racist by people who prefer to attack all who mention race, but can mean the opposite if you understand the context and realize that the phrase was said by a known combatant in the fight against racism.
After my conversations with other birth activists about the petition being circulated against Ina May, I was able to understand that she is the victim of a process that is not happening only now. It is being used by a “race patrol” who tries to attack the movement of humanization for its white and middle-class roots as if the guilt should fall on the few white activists who have decided to bring up the idea of dignifying and spiritualizing birth.
My first reaction was to think “I do not want to argue with fanatics, people who believe in hatred and revenge as elements of positive transformation and who do not mind dividing a movement that is already small and suffering attacks from the powerful forces all the time.”
After a few minutes, a little calmer, I thought that there is a huge need to narrow the differences between social classes and races in our society, in America and in my own country, Brazil. Both countries have many disparities and black women are at the bottom of our social strata. The struggle of these black women is fair and noble, and the importance of their ideas cannot be sacrificed because of their misuse by these bitter activists. The fact that they are bearers of hatred and negativity cannot lead me to disregard their struggle – as well as the struggles against chauvinism, oppression, inequity, sexual rights of minorities and many others. If their message seems to me – and many others – to be full of hatred, our response must not be of despair—rather it has to be necessarily guided by respect and consideration for their pains, sorrows and wounds.
The sad reality is that, in fact, drug overuse IS one of the major causes of maternal and infant mortality in the United States among both white women and women of color:
“The biggest killers during and after pregnancy are cardiac problems and overdoses involving prescription opioids and illegal drugs. (“America’s Shocking Maternal Deaths” by the Editorial Board of the New York Times Sunday Review https://nyti.ms/2civjl3)”
“Overdosing is the second-biggest cause of maternal mortality in Texas. Another is racism: In Texas [the state with the highest maternal mortality rate in the US] black women are 11.4% of all pregnant women and a whopping 29% of those who die. Texas is one of 19 states that have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. . . Help with drug abuse is scarce, as is maternal health care. (Katha Pollitt, “The Story behind the Maternal Mortality Rate in Texas Is Even Sadder Than We Realize”, Sept. 8, 2016, www.thenation.com/login/)”
The important thing is not to blame women who overdose, black or white, which Ina May did not, but rather to understand the racial, social, and economic stratifications that push them into drug abuse to cope with lives often too hard to bear, through no fault of their own.
I am sure that my friend, Ina May Gaskin, does not deserve the unworthy treatment she is now receiving daily. The attacks directed at her affect all those who care about human birth and its repercussions in society. Ina May is an example of woman, mother, grandmother, activist and women’s fighter of any color, religion or social stratum. I will be with her always because she is one of the most enlightened, loving, egalitarian human beings I have ever had the honor of knowing.