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Forgotten: Give Women of Color the Credit They’re Due

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October 15, 2020

With celebrities such as Ariana Grande and Emma Watson blazing headlines with outspoken rhetoric about sexual health, rights, and bodily autonomy, it can be easy to overlook the women of color who made such conversations possible. Dialogue and discussion of reproductive justice among the general population is guaranteed to foster uncomfortableness surrounding the challenges female-identifying individuals face with their sexual relationships, bodies, and the heavily influenced social stigmas against their entities. When these talks are fostered by a certain type of woman – slim, fair-skinned, and conventionally attractive – ears who would pay no mind if western societal standards of attractiveness were not present suddenly become attuned to reproductive justice-isms spoken by allies. Ironically, these women use what restrains us from social equality as a plus to encourage the opposite sex to listen to us, but how can this achieve without trampling over minorities bounded by both racism and sexism? 

Amy*, a reproductive activist from metro Atlanta, experiences this question bi-weekly.. During educational workshops and sessions, she has witnessed how her white peers shift the reproductive conversations to topics without room for intersectionality. She is the only black woman in her organization that focuses on educating young women on reproductive health, justice, and promoting careers in sexual health. 

“As a black woman, it can be hard to navigate what should be equitable spaces with other women, but I feel as if my ideas are repeatedly blown and talked over and disregarded as minuscule issues. I’m a Southern native. I’ve lived in places riddled with environmental racism to where my family members developed reproductive complications. I’ve smelled the animal waste and raw sewage from the grounds, just six feet away from me. One of my friends became extremely nauseous and as a result, had to miss work without pay. Tell me, these white women want to convince me that this isn’t a reproductive issue. This lady could not feed her children, she couldn’t raise them in a safe environment. How is that not a concern?” 

Amy’s frustrations are often met with disregard from her colleagues. 

When trying to discuss the black maternal health crisis, she was once accused of being racist.

“They said that all mothers matter. Well, that is true. But no one is addressing the racial reason behind the death of black mothers. Conversations about why we should not shave, if we should shave – it’s all centered through a white women’s perspective. There’s no talk about how black mothers have to debate whether or not to have children because of the police or if doctors are telling us wrong information when we go to the OBGYN because they think that we’re dumb. We birthed this movement. That’s the ironic part.” 

Amy’s last comment is, indeed, a bitter irony. Black women paved the way for reproductive justice. It was black women who gave the movement what it is known as in contemporary times. In 1994, a group of black women, tired of the lack of focus on black women’s sexual health, formed the group Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice. Adopting the concept of reproductive freedom, a notion birthed by sixteen black women in response to the inadequate Webster v. Reproductive Health Services of 1989, the group re-edited “We Remember.” We Remember serves as the original response to the aforementioned act of 1989 which declared states the power to limit abortion access to potential seekers. Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice provided the contemporary term of the movement and the manifesto which frames the goal of reproductive justice in modern times. The new edit declared reproductive freedom as having the decision to bodily autonomy, raise a family in safe conditions, and to have a family if decided upon. Connecting personal liberty, justice, and freedom to the movement led it to become a human rights issue and increase the urgency for the fight. 

The same fight is continuing, with its message being muddled by women who pay no mind to the founding mothers of reproductive justice. That is not to credit the work that privilege communities of women have in the fight for reproductive justice, but to counter the widely thought idea that reproductive justice is a movement for affluent, suburban white women. The makers of the term that has led to substantial changes – birth control is available in college campuses, able to be covered through insurance, and accessed over the counter – is due to the activism of the Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice cohort broadcasted through the Washington Post. It did not come from Ariana Grande. It was not resurrected by Lena Dunham nor pushed into the mainstream by any other women representing the status quo in America. 

It came from black women.

Asking about how reproductive justice and microaggressions can be fixed, Amy sighed with heavy stress releasing through her lungs. Her eyelid became heavy as she paused to reflect on the essential question. 

“Education. Education is it. Educating yourself about the history of reproductive justice and the hijacking by women who use their supremacy as a way to speak over black women and other minorities. It’s hard. Many don’t want to learn since addressing your own biases and subtle microaggressions are uncomfortable, especially if you believe in yourself as a hardcore left-leaning person. But honestly, that’s the only way. Allow women of color to speak. Listen. Just listen and use your power to change the things that we can’t, and also are not credited for doing. Be an ally, but be the right ally. That’s all that I can say. The work needs to speak for itself.”

*Name changed to protect identity

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