Updated: Jun 20, 2020
In America, African American women are 3-4 times more likely to die from pregnancy related causes than their white American peers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not only confirmed this statistic, but also noted that “research suggests that half of these deaths are preventable. Racial disparities persist.” Scholars, hungry for more answers, took a deeper look at why black women are disproportionately impacted by maternal mortality. What they found, was that the experience of being black in America can be so harmful that it physically deteriorates African Americans from the inside out.
You’re probably flustered with questions like: what? What scholars, scientists, and studies? What is the process like? Or who has confirmed these findings? Have no fear, your questions will be answered in full. But first, to begin understanding the black experience, one must first recognize it as being unique to the individual.
Despite oppression being a recurring theme, every individual has their own reality, emotions, experiences, trials and tribulations; which shape and ready them to face the surrounding world. The experience of being black in America is undeniably influenced by white supremacy.
White supremacy is a system of power enforced by foundational institutions (such as: the school system, banking systems, prison industrial system, health care system, and corporate/private/political sectors). These institutions favor and distribute their resources unequally to men(trans inclusive), women (trans inclusive) and non binary individuals who identify as white. This leaves other demographics at a disproportionate disadvantage when it comes to receiving equitable opportunities/resources.
Researchers found that this disadvantaged experience inevitably led to chronic stress also known as toxic stress. Linda Villarosa, Contributing writer to the New York Times magazine explains this phenomenon “Toxic stress is the result of aggressions that happen to you and insults that happen to you and in this case race related. It can be anything from ‘I feel that I am treated differently.
People think I am less intelligent’. To, ‘I am being discriminated against by the police and housing and in my workplace. And it’s been proven that those have a physical effect on the body because every time you get stressed out in this way, and if it happens repeatedly, then all of your systems fire up and if your systems continually fire up then they break down.”
In agreeance to Linda, Michael Lu, a disparities researcher and former head of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration (the main federal agency funding programs for mothers and infants), said "It's the experience of having to work harder than anybody else just to get equal pay and equal respect. It's being followed around when you're shopping at a nice store, or being stopped by the police when you're driving in a nice neighborhood...An expanding field of research shows that the stress of being a black woman in American society can take a physical toll during pregnancy and childbirth. Chronic stress "puts the body into overdrive," Lu said. "It's the same idea as if you keep gunning the engine, that sooner or later you're going to wear out the engine."
Chronic stress leads to a process known as weathering. Weathering is what leads to black women experiencing maternal complications. Arline Geronimus, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, coined the term "weathering.” She used it to describe the process of stress leading to wear and tear on the body. Renee Montagne, an American journalist, elaborated on this topic in her article on NPR, "Black Mothers are Dying in Childbirth,” in which she describes the life and death of Shalon, a remarkable woman with her B.A. in sociology, two master's degrees and dual-subject Ph.D., who also has amazing insurance and a sturdy support system of family and friends. However, unfortunately “Three weeks after giving birth, Shalon collapsed and died from complications of high blood pressure.” Renee conducts a thorough investigation as she searches for answers.
Eventually she came to the same conclusion as the one from medical researchers: “Weathering has profound implications for pregnancy, the most physiologically complex and emotionally vulnerable time in a woman's life. Stress has been linked to one of the most common and consequential pregnancy complications, preterm birth. Black women are 49 percent more likely than whites to deliver prematurely (and, closely related, black infants are twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday).
Here again, income and education aren't protective.” It is undeniable that the experience of being black in America, disproportionately influences maternal mortality rates through chronic stress and weathering. However, there are other factors to consider when examining maternal mortality rates; such as, racial bias from medical professionals. According to The National Association of Mental Health, 56% of white health care providers report having no form of cultural competency training.
This means that majority of our trusted medical professionals are likely unconsciously performing racially biased practices. It is our duty to continue raising awareness of the issue and spreading the findings supported by new data. The path towards justice begins with awareness. And yes, you can perform your civic duty by sharing this blog!
By Mya Taylor