I work as a doula. Although I love my job, I can’t help but be bothered by how the world seems to think that only white women care about childbirth. The literature of unmedicated childbirth often co-opts experiences of women of color to serve as an inspiring example of unmedicated birth, while also leaving people of color out of the general discussion and advocacy related to pregnancy and birth. But this kind of systemic racism isn’t limited to the “natural” birth movement: It’s happening everywhere in the “mainstream” pregnancy world, too.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but women of color are seriously missing from the imagery of anything that has to do with being pregnant, giving birth to a child, or parenting a newborn. Every cover of every pregnancy book? A white woman. Every baby book? A white baby. Don’t believe me? Here, look. This is the result of a Google image search for pregnancy book:
When I searched for pregnancy book on Amazon, there was one ambiguously brunette woman out of the first thirty-two books that came up. Here on Barnes and Noble’s Pregnancy & Childbirth page, there’s one woman of color depicted in the first thirty books (and she’s a drawing, on the cover of a book with two other white people). Here are the covers of some of the pregnancy/newborn books I own as a doula (except for about five of them which got lost in my recent move and some that live in my doula bag.) And these are like, the hippie, liberal birth books!
See a theme developing here? Now obviously, the biological processes of being pregnant and giving birth are the same, no matter what your race or ethnicity. But I think the racism that’s evident in birth imagery is worthy of comment and worthy of calling out.
There are, of course, several books specifically catering to women of color, like Kimberly Seals-Aller‘s The Mocha Manual To A Fabulous Pregnancy and Having Your Baby: For the Special Needs of Black Mothers-To-Be by Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, among others. But I don’t understand why women of color can’t show up on the books that are directed towards every woman, which I assume the books with white women on the covers are.
Let’s look at books about infant and newborn care. They fare slightly better on Amazon, with two of the first sixteen results depicting babies or mothers who are not visibly Caucasian. But yet again, the overwhelming majority show white babies, either with their white mothers and/or fathers, or alone.
As for pregnancy websites, like the biggies Babycenter and The Bump, they’re slightly better in terms of depiction of people of color, possibly because the editors and writers for those sites have access to large libraries of stock photos. Or maybe they’re just more progressive! Either way, the fetus inside the womb on the landing page of The Bump is still a white baby and so is the first picture in the rotating article box. White babies for everyone!
Again, there are quite a few awesome websites that are specific resources for women of color, like SistaMidwife, Black Women Birthing Justice, and Mamas of Color Rising, among others. There’s also Radical Doula, which is a great full-spectrum resource for all pregnant people. But is that enough?
I know that people might say, “But white people are the majority in the United States! The census says 72% of people are white! So it makes total sense that all the pregnancy and birth books show white people on the front!” That’s true. But there are also about 100 million people who identify as African-American, Hispanic, Asian, South Asian, Native American and more,100 million people who might want to procreate and find out some information about said procreation. White people aren’t the only ones having babies and they are not the only ones looking for information about pregnancy, motherhood and newborn care. And I don’t think it’s fair that women of color are essentially unrepresented in the one of the most common areas of pregnancy and birth imagery: That of information and education.
Just as it’s important that children of color see themselves depicted in children’s entertainment or children’s literature, it’s vital that birthing people of color see themselves represented in the information sources available to them, whether that be books, DVDs, websites, or the literature and brochures given out at the doctor’s office, hospital, or birthing class. Representation of people of color is important because the imagery we see every day profoundly impacts what we find “normal.” When we see images of white women over and over again, the standard pregnant person in our societal consciousness becomes a white woman. This is damaging, limiting, and ultimately, not even a truthful representation of the population of people who are having babies. (Note: This discussion could easily include depictions of non cis people, as well).
Birth books and birth websites are, admittedly, a small part in the equation of how women of color are not being served by our current model of maternity care. Women of color fare worse in almost every category of reproductive care, from breast cancer screenings to maternal mortality rates to cesarean rates. Some research even shows that perceived racism can affect birth outcomes.
Now, I know nothing about marketing or publishing or marketing within publishing. Maybe What To Expect When You’re Expecting would sell a fraction of the copies it usually does if they put an Asian woman on the cover. But I’m betting that wouldn’t be the case, because the market for pregnancy books is never ever going to die because people will be having babies and needing information about it until the Polar ice caps melt.
Books, and book covers, and websites, and pictures on websites, and brochures and birth videos and all literature and resources for birthing families should represent the vastly diverse nature of their audiences. The total whitewashing of pregnancy and birth, the erasure of women of color from the depictions of pregnant people, birthing people, and infants, does a disservice to all women and all families because it shows a world that does not reflect the truth of our world, the vastly diverse one that our babies are born into.
Now, I know that I am not in any way qualified to speak about how women of color feel about this disparity. I’m a white writer and a white doula and along with my whiteness comes a whole heaping mess of white privilege. As a white cis woman, I can go into any bookstore or navigate my way to any website and find depictions of women who look like me, so I want to be clear that I am not speaking for anyone. I became a doula because I am a feminist, because I fiercely believe in working to make the way that people give birth better (whatever that means, in whatever form it may take). Because my feminism is intersectional, the lack of depiction of women of color or mixed-race people in the imagery associated with birthing is something I want to engage in conversation about.
I’m not trying to save women of color. I’m not trying to speak for women of color. I’m not saying that women of color even want to be represented in pregnancy and birth books or websites. But, as a birth professional, I strongly feel that until the literature and educational materials of childbirth reflect the diverse nature of people giving birth, we have a long way to go.