Diary of a Black birth worker

As a birth worker,

I am honored to be allowed into the sacred birthing spaces of the women I serve. I get to see the power of their bodies as they bring life into this world. As a black birth worker, I also get to see how prevalent racism and prejudice still are within hospitals and white providers.

Earlier this month, I attended a birth at a hospital in D.C. that has a reputation as the best in the city. Over 80% of the births that I attend are at this hospital and I know the staff, providers, and culture well. I was the doula of a black woman who had been in that hospital for around 2 weeks for preterm labor (black women are 60% more likely to go into premature labor compared to white women, according to the CDC). This women ended up going into labor naturally at 33 weeks and while she stated that she felt supported by me as her doula and birthed a healthy baby, it came with at least one noticeable microaggression. After this woman birthed her baby and was still in the process of being stitched up, I watched as the NICU doctor leaned over and asked the nurse something. The nurse then turned to my client and stated “Hey hun are you breastfeeding or formula feeding?” raising her tone as she mentioned formula feeding. I immediately became irritated because as many times as I’ve attended births at this hospital, the culture has never been to give a choice of formula. If you are wondering why this is such a big deal, “she just gave her a choice, her options to feed her baby,” there are a couple things you must understand:

Maternal and infant mortalities are highest in black women. We are three times more likely to die in childbirth than our white counterparts and our babies have the highest infant mortality rates. Experts have always claimed breastmilk is the best way to feed babies and have proven that breastfeed babies are healthier, have higher IQs, better immune systems, and that breastfeeding reduces childhood obesity, and reduces the chance of breast cancer in women.

However, Black women are 9 times more likely to be given formula for their babies than white women. Why is this? It’s because of racism. It’s because of the lack of prenatal care black women receive, how we are talked down to, and how  our pain and health concerns are ignored. So you see how it wasn’t just a question or a choice of feeding options my client was given. It was a total disregard for her babies life and chance of survival as a black premature infant.

As a black birth worker and mother, I understand the obstacles we as black birthing women face in the birth rooms, but what about the racism and ignorance we receive a birth workers? I recently attended a birth of white client, and while I sat by her bed, supporting her through her labor, her white mother decided to grab my braids in her hand and closely inspect them. She asked a series of questions ranging from how its done, how long do I keep my hair like this, and “is it your hair or yarn?” As I uncomfortably shifted in my chair, my smile waning, I brushed off her comments and tried to remain professional and keep space for my laboring client. Her mother also continued with the microaggression and inappropriate comments as we discussed hair color of the soon to be born baby (black, blonde or red), as she asked (with a wink) “Oh what color were both of your babies born with?” There was no longer strength to muster up a smile. I stared at her with a blank look on my face.

As black people, we tend to brush off comments, questioning their intentions, and if we heard what we thought we did. Not to risk being told we are “playing the race card” or being “overly sensitive,” even though our instincts are usually right.

Black women, as birth workers and birthing persons, I encourage you to stay strong as we continue to bring awareness to the disparities that face our community and fight for equality and respect in all birthing spaces.

-Jacquelin K

Jacquelin Knighton