We CAN All DO This! Five Ways White Doulas Can Heal Racial Inequities

Fabric cutouts create the image of a black woman's head on an orange background. A few lines of poetry radiate from her head, urging peace and united confrontation together.

One of the most important issues of our lifetime is the health difference that White, Black, and Brown women and babies have.  This is true in almost any part of the world where White peoples colonized indigenous peoples.  As a culturally White doula previously unaware of these issues, it can be really difficult to figure out how to address them. As doulas our primary urge is to care for something or someone. It makes sense that we want to act in caring ways when we hear about racial inequities. Because of the nature of our work and our caregiving skills, doulas can uniquely contribute to the mending of racial and other inequities in health outcomes for marginalized[i] communities. Healing is a lofty goal. If you were to ask, "What would be the ideal outcome of addressing these inequities?"  It wouldn't just be having things statistically even; a community would want to heal the wounds that have been created and unite. That's ideal. That's what we all desire to contribute to. But the paradox is, just like in other aspects of doula work, that we don't get to define what behaviors contribute to healing. We need to listen and let Black families and doulas lead. That's where this essay came from. I listened for a few years and paid attention. Two years ago I wrote this essay, circulated it, and refined it based on the comments of my Black perinatal colleagues and friends. These are the ways each doula can uniquely contribute, no matter who you are, where you live, or what level of awareness you have about marginalized communities. 

1.  Believe people’s stories and their perception of events. If someone were to share their birth story, we understand that their perception of events is their truth.  As doulas, we accept people’s realities.  People see what they see, they feel what they feel, they know what they know. We don’t try to explain the physician’s motives, or say that because an intervention wasn’t intended to harm that it wasn’t harmful.  People of color, especially Black women, need the exact same acceptance and validation when sharing their stories with you – no matter what that story was about.  If they experienced someone’s behavior as demeaning, insulting, or a microaggression, then that is the reality of what they experienced.  Period.

2.  Protect the space.  As doulas, we know all about protecting the space for our birthing or postpartum clients.  We create a bubble around them so they can do the work that needs to be done. As Loretta Ross, one of the founders of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, says, “Hold the container without trying to shape what’s in the container.”  People of color already have great ideas on how to heal from racism, what parts of any particular system need to be fixed, and how to bridge the gaps in racial inequities.  Why?  Because they are the people with the problem.  The people who have the problem are the experts on the solutions.  What is needed from us, in this case, culturally White doulas, is for us to hold the space for them to do their work. Not tell them how to do it, or what we’ve learned as White women who’ve been doulas a long time.  If we’re asked, that’s different.  But our job is to protect the spaces that Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people create in our communities for their own programs.

What does that look like?  It means that we promote doulas; we promote culturally specific doula programs and their methods of recognizing achievement; and we assist efforts to train doulas from affected communities to take care of their own.  Doulas already know how to empower another person and how to let them be in the center while we take a supportive role. Even if we think that person’s choices might not be leading them in the direction they wanted, we know to keep our mouth shut. For one, we could be wrong. Two, it’s better to let someone have their own experience and learn from it than interfere. Sometimes a second venture that results from the ending of the initial effort is better than the first effort could ever be. We didn’t create the institutions that support racial inequities overnight and we’re not going to shift them overnight either.  There’s time.  (A sense of urgency and that “there is only one right way” are actually features of White culture![ii])

3.  Work on yourself first. Or keep working on yourself.  As Whites, we have the option of getting involved with racial issues or not.  Even if you never speak to a Black person, you can become aware of issues and talk about race with others in your circle.  If you want to get more involved to work with Black people and/or other marginalized families in solving the racial inequity problem that we all have, then it’s even more important to work on yourself first.  You need to become the kind of person that a person of color would want to work with. And they get to choose what matters.

That is the task that I gave myself six years ago.  When it comes to health outcomes in my city, Whites do better than other Whites in the rest of the United States, and Blacks do worse than in other parts of the country. If I was going to contribute to the solution, I was going to have to do some rigorous self-examination.  I asked myself, “What qualities would an oppressed person want in a friend? What about someone they were working on a task or project with?”  Then I looked at myself, and did what I needed to do to become that person. 

As doulas we extend caregiving to many different people.  We are used to adapting to what is needed while still being authentically ourselves. Doula work is a process of self discovery.  It also involves the whole person – we bring our conscious selves to every parent-baby group we work with.  The same thing happens when you start talking about race, it requires all of your self to do it well and be sensitive to others.  Doulas can lead in this way because we already have the skill set. 

4.  Look for your recognition or gratitude somewhere else.  Don’t look to the people in the container you are holding for thanks.  They are often emotionally exhausted doing the hard work of dealing with structural racism and white supremacy in their own world.  For a white person to come along and ask for thanks for doing that work voluntarily puts the focus on the white person. That doesn’t mean you don’t deserve appreciation or recognition, it just means that’s the wrong place to go for it. 

It’s similar to the “ring theory” of when people are grieving over a loss (Silk).  Draw a small circle and put the person with the loss in the center.  Then draw more circles around them, with each circle representing a level of closeness to the loss.  Find your spot on a circle.  For every person from where you are to the person in the center, that’s who you offer support to.  You look for support from the people who are in the bigger circles outward from you.  “Support in, grieve out.” 

I see reproductive justice work the same way.  Don’t ask the people who are more deeply affected by the issue to support you. Ask for support from your less involved colleagues instead, and have them help you to see your accomplishments. Remember if you are white, this work is seen as voluntary for us.  While we may feel differently about it, it does always remain an option for whites to just participate in the status quo. 

5.  Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.  One of the messages most white people get from their home culture is that they deserve to be emotionally comfortable.  If someone makes us uncomfortable in a conversation, we let them know so they can address it or we move away.  But the only way we’re ever going to change the fact that more Black and Brown mothers and babies die every year from preventable causes is to get uncomfortable.

Doulas know how to hang in there. When doulas make a commitment to be there no matter what, we mean it.  There are births and babies that have altered us permanently as people and that we will remember forever.  We opened ourselves up to that. We do this even when we are uncertain, anxious or uncomfortable because the need is so great for our client. The need is great with this too.  We are strong enough emotionally to set our individual needs aside, and have the hard conversations.  Doulas can conquer our own white fragility[iii] because we’ve had to hang in there so much when a situation got rough.  We know the rewards that are on the other side when we lean in to the hard stuff and make it through.   

For those of us who are culturally White, our ancestors thought they were helping by protecting us from their actions and ideas about white supremacy and racism.  They did not value the skills to live in a multi-racial world.  We have been debilitated by that notion.   So we have to learn now to discuss how the social construct of race has created oppression and altered people’s bodies so they don’t function properly across generations.  We will make a lot of mistakes – believe me, we will.  But that’s okay.  We’re beginners and its just like your first birth or family to support.  You were nervous but you knew you could do it.  It would be hard and you didn’t expect perfection from yourself.  Being good enough was good enough then and it is good enough now. 

We just have to start.


[i] To be marginalized means that your group and their concerns are pushed to the outside, and not recognized or valued by those in the center, to be rendered powerless

[ii] Waking Up White, Debby Irving, p. 194

[iii] White fragility  - “discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice” (Oxford Dictionary)

Note: I capitalize "white" because the term is referring to a cultural group. This agrees with major style books.

Note 2: I wrote this essay in February 2019 and got several rounds of feedback from my Black friends and colleagues. Thank you for your effort to help me communicate what I most deeply wanted to.

Photo is close up "From Pain To Glory" by Batenga Obuseh from 2020 State Street murals in Madison, Wisconsin

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