Working Toward Racial Justice in Birth: Breaking Silence

By Hanifah Rios

Hanifah Rios 2014
Photo by Yesenia Rios, 2014

This guest post is the third in a series leading up to HealthConnect One’s National Action Summit, “Racial Justice or Just Us? in Birth and Breastfeeding,” intended to encourage open,  thoughtful dialogue about finding or not finding, working or not working towards racial justice during the vulnerable time of birth and breastfeeding.

“The way a culture treats women in birth is a good indicator of how well women and their contributions to society are valued and honored.”

– Ina May Gaskin, Birth Matters: A Midwife’s Manifesta

It has taken me a long time to formulate my thoughts around Racial Justice in birth and breastfeeding and whether we are working toward it, or not. Initially I was wrapped in semantics and wanted to dissect the term “Racial Justice.” I’ll start there.

Justice is what we all want. It’s righteousness. It can be a reward, but it can also be a punishment.

The problem with justice is that it can be so subjective, so black and white.

Justice (jus’tis) n.

1. the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness: to uphold the justice of a cause.  2. rightfulness or lawfulness, as of a claim or title; justness of ground or reason: to complain with justice

And, Justice can also mean:

3. conformity to this principle, as manifested in conduct; just conduct dealing, or treatment. 4. the administering of deserved punishment or reward. 5. the maintenance or administration of what is just by law, as by judicial or other proceedings.

“Americans define racism as individual, overt and intentional. But modern forms of racial discrimination are often unintentional, systemic and/or hidden.”

(Sen, 2013)

These forms of racism allow for a systematic silence on the effects of racism and racial inequality on non-white residents of the United States; or maybe it’s the silence that allows these new forms of racism to proliferate.  Whatever it is, it’s this silence that makes Racial Justice work difficult yet essential to improving birth and breastfeeding outcomes for black and other non-white women and families.

I will not be silent.

Since the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, one might be content to say that justice prevailed, but that is far from the truth.  Most of the laws governing this society are based upon racist ideologies that are in everyday use in 2014 and have manifested in the inequities we see in the prison system, in education, and even in medicine.

The systematic denial that the history of slavery is still intrinsically entwined in every aspect of life in the U.S. today is why Racial Justice work is necessary. It doesn’t take rocket science to connect the dots and see that it is past time for the United States to make far-reaching changes, and bring equity to right its wrongs.

Racial Justice is a framework being used to bring equity and justice to communities suffering from racial inequities in the United States.

Racial Justice
requires the use of plain
language about racism to make systemic changes
and bring equity.

Plain language. Breaking the silence. That’s a start.

“We know there are disparities — they are well documented — but we need to confront them and understand why,” says Dr. Adil H. Haider, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Surgery Trials and Outcomes Research. “Even though it’s a sensitive topic, we can’t move forward until we acknowledge the problem. We need to have an honest discussion about these things instead of just trying to ignore them or pretend they’re not there.” (Janel Sexton, et al., 2011)

Works Cited

Janel Sexton, P., Lisa A. Cooper, M. M., David T. Efron, M., Sandra Swoboda, R., Cassandra V. Villegas, M., Elliott R. Haut, M., . . . and Julie A. Freischlag, M. (2011, September 06). Looking for the Roots of Racial Bias in Delivery of Health Care. John Hopkins Medicine.

Sen, R. (2013, August 20). Building a New Racial Justice Movement. Retrieved January 16, 2014, from Color Lines.

Hanifah Rios trained as a Direct Entry Midwife at Maternidad La Luz and has provided support to families who consider home birth as a viable option. Hanifah worked as Lead Doula and Program Manager of a Community-Based Doula program at Families First in Georgia until 2012. She played a valuable role in normalizing the “non-medicated birthing experience” for many young women.

It has always been Hanifah’s mission to advocate for and support women and children of all ages who have been traditionally denied equal access to care, free from judgment, regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, education and/or socio-economic status.

She believes that when the new mother feels loved, supported, and validated she will feel confident enough to ask for support and guidance as needed in her new role as mother, and doulas are excellent at providing just that to young women in the communities we serve.

Editor’s Note: Hanifah Rios is sharing her thoughts on Racial Justice with us in three parts. You will find Part Two right here exactly one month from today.

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