Go Folic! usually steers clear of controversy. So why I am writing this post, especially as I am one of only two regular contributors to this blog? As a white woman who is concerned with women’s well-being and who works in the field of public health, I feel compelled to speak out, and to ask my other white colleagues to follow suite.
Who is Renisha McBride?
At about 2:30 AM on Saturday, November 2, Renisha McBride got into a car accident in her home neighborhood of Dearborn, Michigan. She decided to knock on the door of a nearby house in order to seek assistance. After being refused help, she began to walk away. It was then that the 70-year old homeowner shot her in the back of the head with a rifle, claiming that he feared for his life.
As many of her advocates have pointed out, if Renisha had been white and the elderly man who shot her had been black, the shooter would have been jailed and the national news machine would have picked up this story immediately. But Renisha was black, and the shooter was white. It’s Sunday morning now, and this story is getting more coverage in the mainstream press . However, early on, one of the only non-black national news sources to cover the story was Salon.com (thank you, Joan Walsh).
I am a progressive news junkie – a day doesn’t pass when I don’t listen to KPFA, watch the evening news, and peruse the headlines of the New York Times. The fact that it took almost a full week for me to learn about Ms. McBride’s death – via a Davey D interview on Hard Knock Radio with filmmaker Dream Hampton – says much about the state of racism and racial injustice in America.
Theodore Paul Wafer, the man who used such force when he shot Renisha that her family was unable to hold an open casket funeral, cited Michigan’s “Stand Your Ground Law” as justification, claiming that he was afraid for his life. How can one be threatened by an unarmed teenage girl who is walking away from you? It is certainly beyond me to understand. There can be no justification for what happened.
Why write about Renisha McBride on a health blog?
Within public health circles, it is well known that African-American women are two to three times more likely than white women to give birth to babies that are born too small (low birthweight, or less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces) and too early (preterm, or at less than 37 weeks of pregnancy). These health disparities continue to impact the health of black women, men and children throughout the life course; poor birth outcomes predict infant mortality, as well as other adverse outcomes, from child disabilities and asthma to adult cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
When first presented with these statistics, I assumed that poverty (certainly a result of racism) was to blame. It was overwhelming to learn that even black women who are well-educated and financially successful – in other words, women who I count among my friends and colleagues - experience poor birth outcomes at two to three times the rate of their white peers.
Why do these disparities exist, even after socioeconomic status is taken into account? As Jason Silverstein so eloquently documents in a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, “Racism is Bad for Our Bodies.” Living in a world where one not only experiences discrimination, but also must ready oneself to experience it on a daily basis creates a constant state of stress that a growing number of studies have shown to increase the risk of everything from depression, to hypertension to breast cancer to infant mortality. As Mr. Silverstein points out, the problem is so pronounced and so so serious that two prestigious journals - The American Journal of Public Health and The Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race - dedicated entire issues to the subject.
What is a white woman’a role?
In her interview with Davey D, which you can listen to in the KPFA archives, Dream Hampton states that white women have an obligation to confront our own racism and our own fears of black people. I suspect that many of us who work in public health would maintain that in embracing the “fight” against health disparities, we have already done so.
Is this actually the case? In my fields – reproductive and Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health (MCAH) – black men are usually excluded from conversations (and program funding), even though for the majority of women, they are one half of the equation. Even worse, black men are frequently demonized as the perpetrators of violence against black women.
These beliefs clearly reflect the racial narrative that is woven into the fabric of white American culture and media, in which people who inhabit black or brown bodies are portrayed as criminals, as slaves, as victims, but rarely as full human beings.
Black folks are not a cause…
Recently, I was asked to join a community advisory board for a project that is addressing race-based health disparities. During our first meeting, members were asked to state why we were interested in the project. Almost every white woman at the table, myself included, said something about her commitment to “The Cause.” However, black members’ responses were women far more personal, as women talked eloquently about their own experiences and/or the real life impact of racial injustice on the health of people that they loved.
I thought about my own response long after the meeting. Intuitively, I knew it was wrong, but couldn’t put my finger on why, despite how deeply troubling I found it. When I sat down to write this post, it hit me – I had turned black women into a cause, an act that is every bit as dehumanizing as acting on other racial stereotypes can be.
We cannot escape the skin we’re in, no matter our color. But those of us who are white can afford to ignore its consequences. In a study that was initially published in the January 2009 issue of the Maternal and Child Health Journal, black women of all socioeconomic backgrounds reported racism experiences during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood and vigilance in anticipating future racism events.
The “cause” of racism I can walk away from when I leave my office if I am white. It is much more difficult to walk away from racism when I understand a problem as affecting colleagues and people I love on a daily basis.
Were I to have a daughter of Renisha’s age who found herself in the same circumstances, I would want her to be able to seek help, in whatever neighborhood she found herself. Living in a world where one must constantly fear for one’s own life or the life of one’s children, can only intensify the health impacts of discrimination.
As one protester in Detroit pointed out to a Voice of Detroit Reporter, “I have a twelve-year-old daughter. I don’t want to hear this kind of news about her. We have a Black President, but it is still open season on us. I’ve been working since the age of 14 and have three college degrees, but people still stereotype me, following me around as I’m shopping.”
It is incumbent upon all of us who work in the health field and are white to support our black sisters and brothers in their fight to ensure an end to this “open season” on black folks of all ages. We must make repealing “Stand Your Ground” laws and “Stop and Frisk” policies a matter of public health.
Before that, If we genuinely want no more Oscar Grants, no more Trayvon Martins, no more Jack Lamar Robersons, no more Jonathan Ferrells, and no more Renisha McBrides, we must confront the racist, irrational fears we hold of both black women and men. (Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine can be good place to start). We must refuse to feel comfortable with or to support media portrayals of black men and women as criminals, victims, or causes, and examine our motives in wanting to help. We must listen to and acknowledge the stories that black folks tell about their experiences of racism. And we must invite our other white friends and colleagues to do the same.
Written with great respect,
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