Race, Birth & Social Media
This is a blog post by Mars Lord that I would very much like you to read and contemplate.
I first met Mars Lord earlier this year. I was blown away by her. And frankly, if you've ever spent any time at all in her company you'll appreciate it's hard not to feel swept up by her passion & momentum.
Mars has much to motivate her. Shortly before I met her, the MBRRACE-UK report was published. The primary finding – and typing this still jolts me - is that Asian women are TWICE as likely, and Black women are FIVE times as likely as White women to die during pregnancy & birth.
That's new news, people. Happening in the UK, in our NHS, today.
It wasn’t just Mars' passion that blew me away, though. At the time I met her 2 things were happening in my life which increased the impact of her words on me. First, I’d just made the definitive switch from my previous career to birth work. Second, my 3rd child and only daughter had just turned 3. She had started pre-school and was suddenly out-range and in the care of new people. As you might imagine, as a white, left-leaning birth worker, and the mother of a dual heritage daughter, Mars had my full attention.
This new blog from Mars is centred on a recent shitstorm which has given the findings of the MBRRACE report yet a new lease of life. Racism, privilege, social media – this story has got the lot. It was prompted by the actions of one individual, and encompasses how those actions may have, definitely have, and continue to, affect other people.
It's also about far more than that. It's complicated, and it's messy, and it's scary and each & every one of us should feel touched by it. As the story has unfolded positions have been taken. There has been outrage, opinion, calls to action and calls for calm (and kindness, the issue Mars takes to task in her blog). Regardless of how you perceive the situation, though, there are truths to be told here about racism, perception & how social media affects us all.
Make no mistake, what Mars is writing about is a social media phenomenon. It could NOT have happened without a screen & keyboard veiling this persons true identity. So, before I put fingers to keyboard, I wanted to define what I thought I knew about the particular experience for Black women on social media. I thought I remembered a fairly recent radio report which claimed that half of all the abusive tweets sent were directed to Diane Abbott. But that couldn’t be accurate, right? Surely not half? So, while the kids watched a bit of TV, I did some sofa-based research, and googled 'Diane Abbott trolling'. These were the FIRST THREE RESULTS;
DIANE ABBOTT RECEIVED ALMOST HALF OF ALL ABUSIVE TWEETS SENT TO FEMALE MPS BEFORE THE ELECTION, POLLS SHOW (The Independent, 5th September 2017)
DIANE ABBOTT: TWITTER HAS PUT RACISTS INTO OVERDRIVE (The Guardian, 18th December 2018)
DIANE ABBOTT DEMANDS CRACKDOWN ON ANONYMITY OF ONLINE TROLLS AS WOMEN MPs STEP DOWN (iNews.co.uk, 31st October 2019)
Whoa. Those news articles are each a year apart, and yet virtually similar. Has nothing changed at all in that time?
So I googled again, this time ‘Black Women online abuse’. This time the first result was the 2018 Amnesty International Study into online abuse against women. This was the largest ever study into online abuse and covered over 150 countries. The report yielded yet more stark findings;
Black women are 84% more likely to be targeted in abusive or problematic tweets than white women
1:10 tweets mentioning black women was abusive or problematic (that’s versus 1:15 tweets mentioning white women – not in itself a great statistic, let’s be honest).
BAME women were 34% more likely to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets than white women.
So I want to take a moment to be very clear how deep the social media damage goes. It’s not just the trolls sending abusive & ‘problematic’ tweets to Black women each and every day. It’s not just the stone-cold racists. It’s not just ‘That’ midwife.
Harder to identify is the damage social media does to us. By its structure & design social media is dynamic, responsive to opinion and open to interpretation. This social media superficiality is what simultaneously makes it oh-so-easy to focus on & coalesce around single-message ideas, and also so hopeless as a platform for real debate & exchange. In the comments our attention, focus & willingness to identify & interpret complexity and nuance is suspended. You don’t have to hang around social media for long to see people who ostensibly share the same outlook tearing lumps off each other, rather than holding a shared line on what should be informed & considered discussions about race, gender & politics.
Since meeting Mars, I’ve been wondering where & how I have a right to speak about this. ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race’ had a silencing effect on me. The more I read, the more I followed, the more trepidatious I felt. But I still wanted to know how to help my children navigate the World. Last night, as I rose up from the sofa to put my 3 dual heritage children to bed, after 30 miserable minutes reading depressing articles about how little progress the World is making, I was painfully aware that despite being 2019 they are as likely now to be judged by the colour of their skin as my husband was growing up in Tottenham in the 1970s. Here today, I fear that my daughter – despite intersectional privileges bestowed upon her by serendipity – will not receive fair, balanced, compassionate care in her pregnancy & birth experiences, or indeed her LIFE.
The purpose of this blog is not to tell you what to think or do. Only you can decide what action you do – or do not – take. For me, I continue the distressing task of making every pregnant women I work with aware of these imbalances. Distressing + terrifying for the Asian & Black women I work with, increasing the common level of anxiety felt in pregnancy exponentially. For them, the MBRRACE report means read more, delve deeper, take more responsibility, seek yet more support.
I do want to raise your awareness though. The composite issues of race, birth & social media should touch each and every one of us because the treatment of all women, whether on social media, in the birth room, or walking down the street is intersectional (here and here). The knowledge that our sisters are at risk should increase our determination to ensure all women's voices are heard.
There is an ethical responsibility to stand with & support women who are made vulnerable by our attitudes & institutions. There is a responsibility to make space as women of colour demand the changes they need to trust in their safety. We - White women, those of us who are not at the sharp end - should also understand with clarity that this is not purely an altruistic act. We are currently drifting in a new tide of nationalism, protectionism & strong-man politics, and this does not augur well for any woman. We are not safe simply because judgement, injustice & ire is directed away from us. It’s toxic, and it seeps and leeches, insidiously wearing away at everything that stands between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’.