THE PERILS OF WHITE SAVIOURISM – An Open Letter

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Dear midwives, doulas, nurses, academic institutions, administrators, leaders and healthcare professionals,

There is a long legacy of philanthropy amongst upperwardly-mobile, politically progressive white people, directed towards marginalized communities — black women, indigenous/Native American women and women of color. Yet these communities continue to suffer the worst outcomes while giving birth. Despite our best intentions, White saviourism has not protected Black women, Native women and women of color from worsening outcomes. White saviourism – particularly white feminist saviourism – is not new and despite its ideals, has had little effect to achieve impact despite good intentions.

At this point on my path I FULLY COMMIT myself to the highest ethical standards – not the ones I’ve held in the past, but those I strive to hold in the future. I myself am in the process of unpacking my white supremacist, racist, biased and discriminatory beliefs and practices – as a birth doula, a former homebirth apprentice, a mother, a nurse, a writer, a wife.

I have been approached over the years by many organizations, professionals, artists and media-makers in the birth world to do various kinds of collaborations. At this point, I am choosing to collaborate with organizations, businesses and individuals who I feel best espouse the values I’m striving to implement in my practice and life. These conversations are incredibly nuanced and complex and I own that.

Here is a good example of my dilemma. I have chosen not to collaborate in the past with many seemingly wonderful organizations, due to my questioning of whether an entire board of white or white-appearing women are equipped to tackle the needs of the most marginalized communities without input, payment and credit given to members/leaders of these communities.

These are the questions I have for you, your institution, your organization or project –

– What input do Black women, women of color and indigenous/Native American women have in the policy-making, the design and implementation of your programs at your organization’s highest level? What stake do they hold in your organization? How much do you seek to control or design the program offerings in the scope of “birth justice” or “birth as social justice” work versus allowing, encouraging and paying Black, indigenous and women of color to control and design these program offerings?

– What is the purpose of creating a scholarship to train a Black or woman of color as a doula in your organization, with the understanding that your organization and its programs are designed and implemented by white women – given all of our implicit biases? In what ways does this organization fail to prepare them to serve their communities, to combat the systemic racism, bias and white supremacist beliefs such as those you and I have only begun to unpack? What is the impact for example, compared to you directly funding existing organizations that are designed, run, managed and controlled by Black and women of color?

– What are the ethical implications of directing funds towards your organization’s program development and away from black women and Native women who are already doing this work, who have decades more experience than you or I in this work, and will inevitably be far more effective than you or I in this work if given the resources they desperately need?

I come to you with these concerns not to be antagonistic, but in the hope of deepening our mutual understanding. This work is hard as hell and these conversations require courage.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Kate Novotny

Image: the University of Cincinnati School of Nursing, Class of 1940

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