Black Motherhood: An Inescapable Disparity

By Katarina Watson

A study comparing infants of college-educated mothers found that rates of infant mortality and low birthweight were twice as high for Black infants compared to white infants. Additionally, Black infants were three times as likely to die from causes attributable to perinatal events. A different study observed similar disparities even when controlling for socioeconomic status.

Moreover, Black American women living in wealthy, racially-integrated neighborhoods have higher rates of adverse birth outcomes than Black women living in predominately Black neighborhoods: a phenomenon that can be explained in part through the concept of stereotype threat, the fear and/or worry of confirming a negative stereotype of one’s identity group and being treated accordingly poorly. The “threat” of confirming one’s stereotype becomes more pervasive when one has a stronger investment in the “stereotype relevant domain“—in this case, Black women in higher education and jobs are underrepresented and subject to greater discrimination and isolation, thus creating more stress and concern about stereotypes of their race and/or gender.

Simply put: neither education, nor income, will save Black women.

Black women experience stereotype threat simultaneously through lenses of race and gender; this can greatly impact behavior, and–in addition to the stressors that accompany becoming a parent of a Black child–becomes heightened during pregnancy. This is a unique source of stress, one that I found was best exemplified by Shalon Irving’s story. Irving grew up in Portland, Oregon as the only Black kid in her classes. She put herself under a lot of pressure, a sentiment echoed by a close friend: “There’s this feeling that we’re carrying the expectations of generations, the first ones trying to climb the corporate ladder, trying to climb in academe … There is this idea that we have to work twice as hard as everyone else. But there’s also, ‘I’m first-generation; I don’t know the ropes; I don’t how to use my social capital.’ There’s a bit of shame in that … this constant checking in with yourself — am I doing this right?”

Eventually, Irving became a Lieutenant Commander of the Commissioned Corps of the US Public Health Service, in addition to her position as an epidemiologist at the CDC. Much of her work focused on structural inequities in healthcare and she was privy to the connections between trauma, violence, and illness. Ultimately, these connections were what made her pregnancy so difficult, in conjunction with a medical system that did not believe her until it was too late. Irving died three weeks after giving birth. Despite her tenacity, perseverance, and success, she did not survive Black motherhood.

These disparities transcend status and class and permeate all facets of the Black experience in America. Raegan McDonald-Mosley states it plainly—”… you can’t educate your way out of this problem. You can’t health care-access your way out of this problem. There’s something inherently wrong with the system that’s not valuing the lives of Black women equally to white women.”

Note: In the context of reproductive health’s racist origins and the high Black maternal mortality rate, it is crucial to mention that these injustices exist for all Black women, regardless of education or income level. This post is in no way meant to diminish or negate the experiences of Black women from lower income and/or education levels, rather, it serves to further illuminate a particular disparity that impacts all Black women.

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