Weathering through Racism: Slow Agonizing Deaths of Black Women
The first thing I hear from a new client is, “I’m afraid of dying!”
Felicia Fracis-Edwards, Doula, African American Infant and Maternal Mortality, Los Angeles, California
I. (A) The Overarching Issue - Weathering
Living in Black female skin can erode the human spirit. Sister-to-Sister: International Network of Professional American Women, Inc. (“Sister-to-Sister, Inc.”) is unique in myriad ways, the greatest of which is creating enriched lived spaces wherein Black females find consolation and unconditional acceptance of them authentic selves. Our work is necessary due to weathering rooted in America’s history of marginalization of Black peoples. Manifested through constant and repeated exposure to socioeconomic adversity, political marginalization, social out-casting, weathering is slowly and painfully killing Black women! Understanding this is simple. From physical, emotional, and mental tolls the severity of stress experienced leads to them weathering away. As regards African American females, evidence of this fact is their aging much faster than their white counterparts. On average, they are seven years older than their biological ages.
Weathering harms Black females’ quality of life, health, livelihood, and much more. It leads to a host of medical issues, including pre- and post- pregnancy complications, high blood pressure, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and insomnia. Anxiety accumulates from the daily assaults of microaggressions, racism, discrimination, and implicit bias. Exercise, high incomes, higher education, healthy eating, and professional status cannot serve as protective barriers.
I. (B) Why Support Sister-to-Sister, Inc.?
Societal change comes about through committed servant leaders, who despite limited human, financial, technology and other capital, will take on seemingly immovable and impenetrable obstacles race-based inequities. Over the past thirty years, we have served as changemakers towards bettering society for all individuals. Formerly known as Sister-to-Sister, Sister-to-Sister, Inc. has worked to advocate for and advance equity in Black women and girls’ lives. Seeing a critical need birthed Sister-to-Sister. These drivers led us to make a difference – first as a community-based group organized on January 17, 1994, and, as of May 2020, a Colorado-incorporated, tax-exempt public charity. Enrichment of the lives of Black females consequently enriches the broader community. To fill a void over thirty years, we have offered them educational resources, training, mentorship, emotional support, access to subject-matter advisors, and more. See https://www.sister-to-sister.org for our current offerings.
II. Prelude: A Thought-provoking Role-play Exercise
Imagine yourself as a 30-year-old Chief Pediatrics Resident of a large American academic institution’s hospital system. You are expecting your first child. Feel the excitement surrounding you and your devoted husband, as you await your first-born’s arrival. Bouncing with joy, you have already bought her the cutest little pink outfits!
Just after giving birth to your little one via a C-section, you begin experiencing horrendous pain. You tell your treating physician – a white male – that this intolerable pain is increasing. The physician – who has sworn to “do no harm” – ignores your expressed pain level. He simply responds with the admonishment that, “You’re having a panic attack.” Sent home two days after delivering your baby – still in excruciating pain – life seeps from you at rapid speed. It is too late for help. As you fade away, you can only think of your newborn, who without you must grow into womanhood.
Sadly, this narrative is not a work of fiction. It is the true lived experience of Chaniece Wallace, M.D. There are far too many stories like this one, and data illustrate that the epidemic is growing! Had Dr. Wallace lived, she, undoubtedly, would have continued to weather racism and discrimination, both implicit and explicit as does every Black female. Without societal change, it, coupled with Black maternal mental health will continue growing exponentially. Black Chief Resident Dies After Childbirth, Highlights Tragic Trend, Medscape (October 28, 2020) https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/939954
III. Black Maternal Mortality and Morbidity
As the late, great thespian Cicely Tyson profoundly observed, “Without Health, including Mental Health, life does not exist.” “Few human experiences match the intensity of stress, pain, exertion, and emotional turmoil as labor. While the risks of pregnancy exist, and are completely unacceptable, for all females in this country, Black women are three times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications. And moreover, tragedy lies in unaddressed pregnancy-related morbidity (i.e., short- or long- term health problems resulting from pregnancy and birthing children. This tragedy affects women’s lives far into the future.”
Substantial, reliable data suggest that African American females are the most vulnerable demographic in the U.S. Eighty percent (80%) of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) acknowledges, racial disparities in healthcare compromise Black peoples. According to America’s preeminent public health authority, multiple factors contribute to such disparities. Among these factors are the variation in quality healthcare, underlying chronic conditions, structural racism, and implicit bias. CDC further acknowledges that “social determinants of health prevent many people from racial and ethnic minority groups from having fair opportunities for economic, physical, and emotional health.” On their face, social determinants of health – the usual suspects – can never explain away the fact that highly educated African American women with higher-than-average incomes earned from successful careers still risk dying at much higher rates when pregnant than white women who do not graduate high school. Unarguably, the role that the social construct of race plays in the deviation is the common denominator of who lives or not.
IV. Black Maternal Mental Health
Twenty percent of women in the U.S. experience maternal mental health (“MMH”) issues. Fifty percent of Black mothers will experience MMH conditions. While Black women are twice as likely as white women to experience such conditions, they are half as likely to receive requisite care. And these conditions are the leading cause of maternal deaths attributable to suicide and drug overdosing within the first year after delivering a child. The financial toll on America’s economy from their going untreated is staggering, costing fourteen billion dollars, annually.
Tackling issues underneath their surface through inclusive collaboration underlies our success and longevity. In 2022, we focused lens on health inequity – a largely ignored issue of immense importance. This led to accomplishing several firsts in Colorado’s history. We were the first community-based organization to tackle Black maternal and infant health, mortality, and morbidity, head on. Affording these public health crises visibility, statewide, we hosted Towards Health Equity: Saving Lives of Black Mothers and Infants Educational, Networking, and Fundraising Gala whereat two hundred representatives from healthcare, business, law, government, politics, and the community gained insight into racial disparities in health and healthcare from premier national policy and law expert Dayna Bowen Matthew, J.D., Ph.D. Dr. Matthew shared solutions for addressing these disparities. In addition to our public event, which received broad media coverage, our charity did more to raise awareness of the crises. We hosted two forums for private screenings of Aftershock, an award-winning documentary, and facilitated intense and candid discussions led by distinguished medical experts. As the only Colorado-based organization to acquire rights to screen the documentary, we paved the way for screenings by three of Colorado’s largest esteemed health organizations to screen the documentary for their physicians.
V. Continuing Pursuit of Equity
On April 6, 2024, five days before 2024’s Black Maternal and Black Maternal Mental Health Week, Sister-to-Sister will launch its Towards Health Equity: Responding to Silent Cries for Help (Black Maternal and Mental health) Educational, Networking, and Fundraising Gala. From its proceeds, we will strengthen our infrastructure – currently consisting of all volunteers and two part-time independent contractors. This year, alone, Sister-to-Sister has formed collaborative partnerships through which to offer programming in the areas of health literacy, Black maternal mortality and morbidity, utilization of available clinical (i.e., mental health) resources to lessen weathering, internalized trauma, financial literacy, and the emotional toll caused by discriminatory removal of Black children from their homes and their subsequent placement in foster care/for adoption.
This fiscal year Sister-to-Sister, Inc. will establish a Black Maternal Health Education Program, using a five-thousand-dollar ($5K) grant awarded by UCHealth Community Partners, as seed money. Another goal of ours is to increase scholarship awards specifically targeting Black female students in healthcare, legal, and business fields. Such scholarships will help reduce racial and ethnic disparities in health and healthcare; enlarge the pool of attorneys who can offer Black women pro bono (free) legal services; and decrease the wealth gap. To help build a pipeline for generational wealth, facilitate Black females’ autonomy and self-sufficiency with their creativity and talents, and inspire our girls to reach high, Sister-to-Sister, Inc. has created the Onyx Dada Marketplace ™ framework – an online e-commerce platform and trademarked the name. Through this platform, current and future entrepreneurial women can advertise and sell their products, goods, and services for a fractional distribution fee. We are seeking grants, sponsorships, and donations to fund related expenses that include 1) hiring a part-time, contracted Project and Marketing Manager, 2) purchasing an effective database to house the platform, 3) engaging an experienced IT consultant to design and maintain the platform, and 4) covering incidental expenses. Additionally, Sister-to-Sister, Inc. will seek to partner with like nonprofit organizations to establish the Colorado Black Women Business Collaborative, an alliance of Black professional women working together to achieve economic parity.
Sister-to-Sister, Inc. Mission Statement
Advancing equity in all aspects of Black women and girls’ lives through community, vital education, scholarship, social connectivity, emotional support, networking, and forums to showcase their creativity in a global environment.
1. American Mothers Nursing Research. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36729771/. Geronomius, A. T., The weathering hypothesis and the health of African American women and infants: evidence and speculations. (1992). Ethnicity and Disease. Retrieved May 1, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1467758/ (March-April 2023)
2.Centering the Woman in Maternity Care, Edwards-Robinson, K. https://info.primarycare.hms.harvard.edu/review/centering-woman-in-maternity-care (April 12, 2022)
3. Maternal Mortality Rates in the United States, 2021
4. Hoyert, Donna, L., Ph.D., Maternal Mortality Rates in the U.S., 2020. National Center for Health Statistics, Health E-Stats 2022. EOI: https://dx.doi.org/1015620/cdc:113967 (February 2022); https://dx.doi.org/1015620/cdc:124678 (March 16, 2023).
5. Other sources estimate the pregnancy-related mortality rate for Black women as 5.2 times higher than white women. These authorities indicate that the rates of maternal mortality and severe maternal morbidity are three to four times higher in Black women than Caucasian women.
6. Carr, Lyndsey (October 30, 2020). "Dr. Chaniece Wallace (1990-2020)". Contemporary OB/GYN. Retrieved March 30, 2021.
7. Working Together to Reduce Black Maternal Mortality (April 3, 2023) https://www.cdc.gov/healthequity/features/maternal-mortality/index.html
8. Financial Toll of Untreated Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders Among 2017 Births in the United States, American Journal of Public Health (June 2020) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7204436/