Sunday Morning ~ White Privilege
October 14, 2018
White privilege. During my time living and working in various places around the world I have thought about this phenomenon. It’s so obvious when I am there. It’s easy to get swept up in the glaring problems and how one’s skills might help, but the end result or process isn’t so easy to evaluate. In Congo this was discussed a lot. Are we helping or hurting? Is saving someone’s life enough in the moment, or is it causing long term harm by perpetuating dependence? It’s one reason why I didn’t want to work with MSF again. When I found the SEED program, which would focus on educating medical professionals and build capacity for delivery of medical services in the local setting, it made much more sense to me. I believe in the program. I felt part of the team of Malawian colleagues who were working hard to improve midwifery education. I completely believe in the midwifery ward project and want to promote it any way I can. I also feel it is a model that could be used around the world, including in Maine, where the problems with delivering maternity care are similar, though not identical.
All that was challenged this week. As I presented the midwifery ward project to a group on Friday, it was pointed out, very publicly, that I was full of white privilege and had no right to be presenting on this as I was not Malawian. Whoa. That was a show stopper. My slides were offensive and disrespectful I was told. This was nearly the same presentation we gave in Rotterdam, the major difference was that Ursula and I did it together there. I had never considered that I would be offending anyone. I believe this is a great project that could be duplicated in Maine, where women are also suffering in the system. This person took me down. I had to struggle to even continue, not sure if I should, or shut the projector off and walk away? Or open it up for discussion and bag the rest of the presentation? People had paid to attend this conference and I was madly trying to figure out what to do, standing in front of everyone, trying desperately not to faint as my vision got blurry and legs started giving out. But that’s all about me, of course.
White guilt, perpetuating colonialism, white privilege, white, white, white.
In the late 80’s, we were deciding where to make our home and considered all we wanted out of a good life, including schools for our children, access to cultural events, proximity to natural beauty, affordability, etc. Maine was a good fit for us. The drawback was the lack of racial or cultural diversity as Maine is a very white state. We’d envisioned raising our kids amidst diversity. In lengthy discussions about it with friends, it was pointed out that Maine may not have much racial diversity, but it certainly has socioeconomic diversity. There is incredible wealth here and devastating poverty. I started looking at those parameters as another type of diversity. Working in the medical system, it is blatantly obvious. There are two standards of care. maybe more. So what is really helping those in dire poverty? Does our skin color matter when the poorest here are of the same tribe?
I get frustrated when some men I know deny or refuse to acknowledge male privilege. Do they really not see it? Do I know what they should do about it? Am I willing to make suggestions about how to be more cognizant of it, or should I plant my feet and tell them to figure it out themselves?
In some ways I’m grateful for the public scolding because it has made me think a lot about the issue and how my actions feed into perpetuating white privilege. I also wonder if it was productive? Would it have made more sense to point it all out in the Q&A where we could have had a meaningful discussion and done some problem solving? It made the audience uncomfortable; it made me mortified; is that the most productive? As I did the eighteen mile training run today, I thought no discomfort I felt during that run could come close to what I felt during my presentation Friday. I’d been so focused on us being one group of midwives, working for the same cause, I hadn’t broken us down into black, white, hispanic, native american, or any other race. I just thought we were all midwives and who cares what color anyone is? I never could recover to make that point and I was too guarded about every subsequent word worrying I would set off another tirade. Watching the audience look at the floor for the remainder of the hour took some guts. I’ll give myself that much. Nothing is clear right now, but I still have the underlying conviction that we’ve got to come together for a common cause. It scares me to think of fractioning off like this, though I want to move forward with respect and intention. How that happens is unclear. I hope the fog lifts soon.