Week 3 Summer Accelerated Class M.S. Student Responses: Culture & Race

By Z.

Class Mobility without Relief against Gender and Race Injustices

We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired” Fannie Lou Hamer[1]

Although many philosophers and thinkers believe that freedom and equality are the inborn rights bestowed by nature to all human beings, it is evident that throughout human history women have been deprived of these rights. They are often discriminated, victimised, objectified, exploited and dehumanised not only for being women but also on the basis of the engrained mindset of class, caste and race prevalent in the society. Their labour and rights are being devalued, neglected and framed within the patriarchal structureswhich have strong physiological, psychological and social impact and implications on mothers as well as children.

In the article ‘Work, Family, and Black Women’s Oppression’ Patricia Hill Collins has analysed the oppression of Black women perceived as “mules”. Contrary to the mainstream ideology of family prevalent in America, she underlines the fact that there was no distinction between the public and private sphere in the African-American families for Black women. Tracing the history of the changes in the nature of work and family in the Black community, Collins has classified the evolution by dividing the history into four eras. In the first era, when Blacks were slaves and had no social and political rights, women’s reproductive capacity was controlled and treated as an instrument of production of slaves by white slave-owners. The second era started with the abolition of slavery. Black men and women took to agriculture and other menial activities for survival. Some of them became wage labourers and women had to continue their perpetual low paid or unpaid work both outside and inside home. The third era began when women moved from domestic and agricultural work to factory work where they started getting some minimal benefits. They were able to start making groups and support fellow Black women and mothers. There was a paradigm shift after the second world war. They were given rights for education, housing and government service, which played a significant role in the upliftment of a small section of the Black community. A large segment of community remained in the same condition as they were earlier. Here I can say that a similar condition and situation occurred with the Dalit caste of India. The Dalits have not got adequate freedom and equality in Indian even after more than six decades of affirmative action. A small fragment of Dalits who have moved forward from previous socio- economical poverty and deprivation are also facing similar challenges, discriminations and stigmas from upper classes and castes .

The racial discriminations by the Whites has adverse consequences for Black women and their babies. As Keisha L. Goode has described in the thesis chapter entitled “Birthing, Blackness and The Body: Black Midwives and Experiential Continuities of Institutional Racism”   that in spite of all the professed medical health care policies , Black women, despite their similar socio-economic status, education, occupation and wealth as white women or other racial groups, continue to face high risk of maternal health problems such as premature pregnancy, infant mortality, maternal mortality- rate and low birth weight rate etc.

Survey studies show that the experience of social discrimination against Blacks has three forms in their life: 1. internalized racism mean internalization of negative stereotypes of images, 2. personally-mediated racism defined as experience of prejudice or “differential assumptions” and discrimination or “differential actions” by individuals and / or groups, and 3. Institutional racism in terms of differential access to goods, opportunities(Goode2015). These factors collectively work for increasing stress rate in Black women and are directly responsible for poor birth outcomes. Research demonstrates that the high rate of stress has psychological and as well as physiological impact on Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-encrodine(HPA)axis which regulates women’s internal hormones and protects the nervous system. Due to long term racial discrimination and stigma faced by Blacks within neighbourhoods and communities results in stress which has strong effect on HPA increasing the risk of chronic maternal disease.

Midwives serving Black mothers belong to the Black community and considered as the primary maternity care provider or birth worker. For a long time they have suffered from social prejudices and stigmas as dirty, ignorant, unfit, untrained, incompetent, evil women. We can clearly see the racial mindset of the Whites towards them in the educational documentary “All My Babies”, produced and sponsored for Georgia Department of Public Health by filmmaker George C. Stoney. The main purpose of the movie is to highlight the racial biases and prejudices prevalent in the practice of teaching and training of poor Black African-American midwives by white doctors, nurse and health inspector about cleanliness, hygiene, prenatal care, sterility practises and , causes of maternal death , etc. Miss Marry who is playing role of a respectful and successful midwife has done two kinds of deliveries. The first, of which focuses on a woman who has had several successful deliveries, while the other woman has had miscarriages due to unhygienic environment and lack of prenatal care. Under the supervision and care Miss Marry both women achieved successful home delivery. In this manner film shows the value and importance of midwives as maternal care taker. Medical obstetricians also realised their necessity and attempted to start “Collaborative care” work between physicians and midwives to improve the outcomes.

However, working under these circumstances Black women were totally refused by their Reproductive rights or justice. In “Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice” by Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber Fried and others, an account has been provided as to how women of color raised their voice and generated awareness against the control, regulation and stigmatization of female fertility, bodies and sexuality. The article also focuses on these issues with reference to gender, class, race and nations. Through their movements and activities, they made an effort to achieve reproductive rights, reproductive freedom and reproductive health. They also tried to focus on reproductive rights as human rights and individual choice regarding her bodies rather than restricted by any institutional constraints about reproductive choice, birth control and family planning. It has been observed that official policies, nation’s welfare programme were aimed at a coercive and brutal control of Black women’s fertility for keeping a check on Black population. Activists and movements for women’s rights and choice for women’s control on their fertility have to be vigilant about the racial patriarchal backlash against the little achievements made so far.

[1] Slogan of first National Conference on Black Women’s Health Issues in 1983. “Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice” by Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber Fried, …..2004.

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Week 3 Summer Accelerated Class M.S. Student Responses: Culture & Race

By Jenny

An overwhelming theme taken from this week’s reading can be how race affects birth/child-rearing outcomes, as well as a group’s conception of reproductive justice. In the introduction chapter to her dissertation, “Birthing, Blackness, and the Body: Black Midwives and the Experiential Continuities of Institutional Racism”, Keisha Goode lays out the demonstrated linkage between race and birth outcomes. Black women in the United States experience higher rates of infant mortality, maternal mortality, premature births, and low birth weight than their white counterparts, regardless of socioeconomic status (Goode 2015). This she attributes to internalized, personally-mediated, and institutional racism. Women’s stress responses to racism in these forms triggers chemical/hormonal reactions that adversely affect the health of mother and child. Conceptualizing these systems of racism is a good jumping-off point for processing the diverse perspectives from our readings this week.

Borrowing Goode’s definition of internalized racism, this system of oppression is “the internalization of negative stereotypes or images” (Goode 2015). The case can be made that internalized racism completely overturned the birthing practices of women in the United States over the course of fifty years. As Goode describes in her essay, the medical branch of obstetrics was a burgeoning field and doctors did not have the same access to pregnant women as midwives did. So began a racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-poverty smear campaign that depicted the use of midwives as reserved for lower classes, immigrants, and women of color. In a matter of decades, at-home births attended by midwives became obsolete. We see glimpses of the perceptions that prompted this cultural shift in the film All My Babies. While heart-warming upon viewing, this film was actually produced by the Georgia Department of Health to educate illiterate midwives on birthing practices during the medical transformation of the birthing field. In the film, we see a convention of black midwives being addressed by a white male doctor in a lab coat. He brings up a recent case in which a baby had died due an infection in the cut of the umbilical cord and implies that it was the fault of a midwife for not taking the sanitary precautions needed. His words echo in the mind of the midwife that the film follows as she reflects on a recent healthy birth she attended (Stoney 1953). This resonates with the publication Goode cites that depicts midwives as dirty and ignorant. Whereas once obstetricians sought the insight of veteran midwives, this represents a reversal in the mindset regarding midwife expertise. This shift has had devastating effects on the health of black mothers and babies in the US (Goode 2015).

In her dissertation, Goode lays out the definition of institutional racism – differential access to goods, opportunities, and/or resources. Institutional racism has been at the core of the more insidious practices around women of color’s reproductive health history in the US. Jael Silliman, et. al chronicles the use of sterilization practices and the implementation of racist policies by the US government that target women of color in Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice. Among a long list of practices aimed at women of color that range from unethical/questionable to horrific, the authors bring up the push for sterilization drugs on the market that have not been properly tested on women of color, the Depo Provera shot being one such example (Silliman, et. al. 2004). Over one summer during college, I interned at a teen pregnancy program. I remember that providers frequently pushed the Depo shot as a reliable form of birth control for the recent mothers, with the underlying assumption being that since they had already had one child at a young age, they could not be expected to self-regulate their family planning routines. Countless teens in the program received injections of the Depo drug. It was not long after that that this prescribed form of birth control fell out of favor.

Undivided Rights also details federal policies directed at men and women of color that covertly control fertility. The authors bring up how this became a focus of federal welfare policies in the 1980s and 1990s. So-called “family caps” denied additional benefits to women who had more children while receiving public assistance (Silliman, et. al. 2004). In my former role doing policy work in the domestic violence field, we focused a lot of our legislative energies on the state budget at the beginning of the term. The proposed 2011 budget included “full family sanctions” – the denial of benefits to an entire family for the parent’s failure to meet department of social services requirements. The paper put out by the Legal Defense Fund, “The Sanction Epidemic in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Programs” discusses how the imposition of full family sanctions is often subject to the DSS workers’ whims, who no doubt bring their own internalized and personally-mediated racism into the equation (Legal Momentum 2004). Working in the domestic violence field, I often accompanied clients to DSS to apply for public assistance. The requirements that the department set before clients could ever receive any assistance would be difficult to comply with, even in the best of situations; when factoring in domestic violence, housing crisis, transportation, child care, and literacy issues, they were near impossible.

Women of color have built movements around resisting these racist/classist/heteronormative reproductive health policies and practices distinct from historically white women’s agendas. As stated in Undivided Rights, “The groups in this book created their own definitions of reproductive rights-definitions that are grounded in the experiences of their different communities and that link oppressions. It is because of these intersections that women of color advance a definition of reproductive rights beyond abortion.” Because of the intersections of oppression that women of color face, reproductive justice does not just mean fair access to birth control and safe abortions – their movements have taken on environmental and spiritual identities, for example. The aspect that is most troublesome to me in their accounts of these movements, however, is how the lifeblood of the work has been supported by traditionally white women’s/men’s funding sources. The Mother’s Milk Project, a movement among the Mohawk nation in Akwesasne, was sustained with the support of the Ms. Foundation, a predominantly white women’s feminist organization. The Latina Roundtable on Health and Reproductive Rights, a coalition designed to protect reproductive rights for Latina women, was supported through a grant from the Ford Foundation. This begs the question of, given the history in which hegemonic systems have prevented women of color from having the same access to reproductive justice as white women, what is lost in the movement by receiving funding from these funders? Having worked in the non-profit sector, I understand firsthand how the strength and growth of grassroots movements can be squashed without an adequate funding stream. However, with grants come deliverables set by the source, and sometimes stipulations on who can do certain types of work. After thinking about these pieces, I wonder: what would these movements look like if there was more available funding from sources governed by women of color?

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Week 2 Summer Accelerated Class M.S. Student Responses: Technology and Reproductive Dilemmas

By Z.

Procreation is a natural phenomenon. However, for more than last three decades ‘procreation’ and ‘childbearing’ have become a technological affair at the transnational level. The advances in genetic and reproductive technology (ARTs) have opened up worldwide awareness regarding new possibilities in the field of fertility and contraception for women. It is not wrong, if Barbara Katz Rothman says that through ‘gene therapy’ people are “playing God” by taking hold over life and death. In this manner, technologies enable us to control the reproductive conditions and boundaries. In the field of new reproductive technologies, we shall be looking at ARTs as well as reproduction in hired/traded bodies like, Genetic testing or prenatal diagnosis, Donor insemination (DI) and In vitro fertilization (IVF), Test tube insemination, Surrogacy, are known as reproduction aiding technologies whereas Abortion, Contraception, Sterilization, are recognised as reproduction controlling technologies. These technologies have come to define motherhood, fatherhood and family in a new way, through which infertile couples have been given a new hope and the chance to have children according to their own choices and those who don’t want, have the option to live without having one.

Recently, in one of the exception cases of child birth has been recorded in the history of medical science and technology. A 32 years old woman named Maya Sharma (changed name) who was willing to have a baby had discovered that she had ‘genetically 95% male’ chromosomes in her body. After three years of ARTs treatment procedures, she has given birth to twins babies in Meerut, India on 9 Feb 2015. According to infertility specialist Dr. Sunil Jindal[1]this is something similar to a male delivering twin”. The mother has diagnosed “Flabbergasted” or ‘XY gonadal dysgenesis’ in which women’s external characteristics appears as female while their internal reproductive organs like uterus, ovaries and genital areas are not mature for conception. Through the help of hormonal and endocrinal genetic treatment doctors successfully developed her infertile uterus and by using IVF and Donar eggs they transplanted it in her uterus for pregnancy.

It seems as reproductive consciousnesses and freedom where women have gained the freedom to choose and reject their motherhood. It also challenges the patriarchal dominant structure of society in which women are not free to exercise their reproductive choices. However, sometimes these technological benefits raise numerous moral dilemmas and questions for the mothers, their families, others and promotes hierarchical structure of the society where women’s essential role is to give birth and take care for their families. In the case of Maya, she desired to become a mother despite having 95%male chromosome in her body and technologies helped her to achieving this goal but still the success rates of these technologies are 50-50. Furthermore, if the embryo or sperms are donated by other person, there is a possibility of genetic imbalance and disorder and it may affect future life of a child. These technologies are so expensive and promoting birth market and baby manufacturing factories which create inherent class biasness in the society. It has been observed that in some cases it affect mother-child and father-child relationships, child can be married with his genetic siblings or his genetic mother can anytime claim for her child.

As understanding of these complexities we can conclude that although genetic and reproductive technologies have opened up the door of wider possibilities in order to provide choices for motherhood but whatever is provided may not necessary be ethically and emotionally justified.



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Week 2 Summer Accelerated Class M.S. Student Responses: Reflecting on Loss as a M/Other and a Feminist Sociologist

By Jenny

In her autobiographical piece, “Reflecting on Loss as a M/Other and a Feminist Sociologist”, Gayle Letherby cites her early academic work on the construction of motherhood:

All women live their lives against a backdrop of personal and cultural assumptions that all women are or want to be mothers and that for women motherhood is proof of adulthood and a natural consequence of marriage or a permanent relationship with a man…Social attitudes and institutions support the assumption that women’s ultimate role is motherhood and women who do not mother children are still expected to mother others; either vocationally as a teacher or a nurse or within the family as a sister, aunt, daughter or wife/partner (Letherby 2010).

Essentially, she is saying that the social script for women is to experience motherhood in the sense that they themselves birth a child and parent it. If somehow this script is underwritten, society dictates that they seek out mothering options through other vocations. So strong is this social code that women who deviate from this plan are looked upon as suspect by peers, as we see in the video clip, “Childfree Woman vs. Mother” (Angel Stardom 2012). In this short video, a woman condescends another woman who has clear, well thought-out, and rational responses to her inquisition as to why she does not plan on having kids. Somewhat aggressively spiraling out of control, the attacker’s line of questioning becomes less and less rational. It is if to say, we pressure women to subscribe to society’s expectation that they become a mother, but when presented with real, tangible, and valid opposition to this, the rationale for why this pressure exists disintegrates.

This expectation for women to become mothers is part of what Lauren Berlant describes as the “life plot” in her essay, “Intimacy: A Special Issue.” In this piece, she describes the singular life path that is socially reinforced.

I learned to think about these questions in the context of feminist/queer pedagogy; and how many times I’ve asked my own students to explain why, when there are so many people only one plot counts as “life” (first comes love, then…)? Those who don’t or can’t find their way in that story – the queers, the singles, the something else—can become so easily imagined, even often to themselves (Berlant 1998).

This passage demonstrates that the path that is socially engrained for us – to find a partner, get married, have and raise children – makes it so that the people who do not subscribe to this one, single life plot are considered illegitimate. This life plot is so deeply acknowledged in our society that any other lifestyle model is analyzed from a deficiency model. That children should have two parents, a mother and father, is so transcribed in our social DNA that if either of these figures are lacking/absent, we are quick to point out the social costs (children’s behavioral/adjustment issues) without controlling for other societal factors (Marsiglio & Pleck). It leads to declarations as to what a mother is. The Huffington Post article, “Why Men Can Be Mothers” comes from the perspective of a gay father raising kids with his partner. He demonstrates the way that he and his partner provide nurturing support to their kids, asserting that they, too, can “mother” children (Ball 2012). But if motherhood is a social construct, then so, too, is fatherhood. And in a family with two fathers, they would presumably be able to re-write the script.

But as Berlant suggests, re-writing the script would mean overthrowing a hegemonic institution that is so deeply engrained in our social script.

Rethinking intimacy calls out not only for redescription but for transformative analyses of the rhetorical and material conditions that enable hegemonic fantasies to thrive in the minds and on the bodies of subjects…To rethink intimacy is to appraise how we have been and how we live and how we might imagine lives that make more sense than the ones so many are living (Berlant 1998).

Even someone like me, who recognizes that my life is driven by this social script, still feels compelled to follow it. As I wrote in my biography, I cut my teeth in a helping profession as a domestic violence service provider. I am now in a direct caregiver role as a nanny, knowing full well that this is what society has prescribed for me. So, the question remains as to whether, in the advent of marriage equality as a declared right for all Americans, we are getting closer to rethinking this “hegemonic fantasy”. Given the facts that we are not actually changing the script of the institution of marriage but just extending the right to more individuals, and science has enabled us to select precisely the kind of family and children that we envision for ourselves (Katz Rothman), it would seem that our recent efforts are only furthering it.

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