Over the last few years, Beyoncé and Serena Williams have given me much of which to be proud. It may be hard for those who don’t understand the complexities of the concept of fictive kinship that runs deeply within black communities to get this. But their successes feel like my successes.
Both women are revered around the world. Both women are beautiful. And both women have lived a life filled with the scrutiny and hyper-surveillance that is particularly experienced by black women.
Black womanhood is an exclusive club that is often emulated but can never be understood fully from the outside. To have accomplished the things that they have achieved both financially and professionally would be noteworthy regardless of their race. But performing those feats in a world littered with, and structured by, racism is impressive.
For me, Beyoncé and Williams exist to give young black women like me, and young black girls like my future daughter, reassurance that you can reach your goals and receive accolades despite racism.
But unfortunately, upon hearing about Beyoncé’s recent Vogue cover, I was disappointed to discover another thing I have in common with these women. They, too, have been touched by the dangers that come with giving birth while black in America. And also like me, it nearly cost them their lives.
Maternal mortality is a hot topic right now. Women all over the United States are sharing personal stories that illustrate the way our current birth system removes women’s consent and denies them of playing an active role in their birth experience. Until now, however, much of the mainstream dialogue on post-birth complications overlooked the impact that race has on women’s birth experiences. We now know that black women are three to four times more likely to die of birth-related causes than white women.
What makes this statistic so astounding is that for other racial groups an increase in education yields an improvement in health outcomes. However, for black women with a PhD, health outcomes are similar to those of white women with high school diplomas.
If you had asked me three years ago why this was, I likely would have shrugged my shoulders. But my own birth experience three years ago showed me firsthand that there are pivotal reasons black women are dying during or immediately after childbirth. Those reasons include an inherent bias against black women, the assumption that we are not knowledgeable about our own health, and old-school misconceptions about black people’s ability to tolerate pain.
Doctors advised induced labor for my first child because a late-term ultrasound showed there was an issue with my son’s kidneys. My control over my body and my delivery was taken from me at that point, and even when I went into labor before my scheduled induction date, I was told that my birth plan was not an option. My birth plan, mind you, was nothing extreme. I wanted to sit in a bathtub to manage pain, to bounce on a ball to provide a distraction and to be monitored intermittently instead of continuously. I was also cut, without being consulted, instead of being allowed to tear naturally during the delivery.
Things got more difficult instead of more manageable in the weeks that followed. In addition to aches and pains, I experienced blood clots and pervasive weakness. No one took me seriously, and as a new mother, I was unsure of the best way to advocate for myself despite being well educated.
As a young black mother, I was not given full control or autonomy over my body.
Like Williams, I indicated something was wrong and was ignored. Unlike Williams, I did not have the power or influence to convince my local medical team that something was wrong with me. Getting a diagnosis of leftover placenta required traveling to another state. Having a negative birth experience alienated me and left me feeling as if I had failed myself. Everyone around me raved about how beautiful my son was and told me how glad I should be that he was healthy. But I found very little room to express the fact that the experience made me feel violated and ashamed. “How could I think I was prepared to be a mother when I couldn’t even stand up for myself?” I asked. “What could I have done differently to avoid this outcome?” I wondered.
Research, examples of women like Williams and Beyoncé, and reflection have reminded me that my experience was no fault of my own. I did diligent research before giving birth. I spoke up when I had the opportunity. I am not to blame for having a traumatic birth experience.
Reading these women’s stories led to tears of joy as well as empathy. Empathy because I’d been there before, and I knew the pain that they were describing. Joy because these role models that I have watched develop since childhood continue to serve as role models for black women across the United States. We are not to blame for our negative health experiences, and we do not deserve to carry the burden of fixing them.
Black women deserve to have medical experiences free of racial bias, and conversations with medical professionals that don’t leave them feeling as though they have just been whitesplained. And black women certainly deserve to regain ownership of our own bodies. I hope black women with platforms and power such as Williams and Beyoncé bring awareness to these types of issues. They are spreading information to an audience that does not spend its time researching medical and peer-reviewed journals.
While we bring awareness to these issues and do our best to change the culture of racism and bias in the United States, it is important that black women start having dialogues about these negative experiences.
We have many paths to trailblaze and successes to forge. We can’t let them take us out that easy.