Black babies are more likely to be stillborn. That is institutional racism

The poor medical treatment of Serena Williams is perhaps the most high-profile example of what can happen when doctors fail to listen to their black patients

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Wednesday 03 July 2019 18:45
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The report’s authors said the research sheds light on why different people have such a range of ability’s to fight infections and have a range of immune systems
The report’s authors said the research sheds light on why different people have such a range of ability’s to fight infections and have a range of immune systems

It’s hard to communicate the utter pervasiveness of racism to those who do not, or will not, understand it. Too often it’s assumed that the effects of this ugly phenomenon are akin to being mildly insulted: it hurts, but it’s easier to try not to dwell on it. There are others who would go further, claiming what one person calls racism is nothing more than another’s willingness to be “brave” and “honest”. Racism in practice is neither of those things. For those of us who face it daily, it’s violent, suffocating, soul-destroying, even deadly.

Many people know this already, yet too many still don’t. In Britain, part of the problem – besides the way society drowns out the experiences of those grappling with discrimination – stems from a lack of research. Few studies are dedicated to exploring the consequences of disproportionately targeting and dehumanising communities of colour for hundreds of years.

Up until very recently, for example, if we wanted to at least try to understand why black people die at higher rates than any other race following childbirth, we’d have to look at research carried out in the United States. If we wanted to know how racism affected the mental health of those subjected to it, we’d again, have to seek examples from across the Atlantic. We’d have to settle for assumptions. And in many cases, we still do.

Now, following extensive research from Queen Mary University of London, looking at 13 studies from the UK, US, Denmark and Norway, it seems the reach of racism in Europe is becoming clearer, statistically speaking: according to the report, pregnant black women are twice as likely to experience stillbirth than white women. The study looked at 15,124,027 pregnancies, 17,830 stillbirths and 2,348 newborn deaths. According to lead researcher, Professor Shakila Thangaratinam, it is “the largest study of its kind, and finally provides precise estimates of potential risks of stillbirth”.

The reasons behind the higher risk of stillbirth among black women vary, but many (as you might expect) point to institutional racism. “Low educational and socioeconomic status, reduced access to antenatal care, and increased rates of fetal growth restriction” were cited as potential reasons behind the increased chances of stillbirth “at all gestational ages in black women compared to white women”. Each of these factors have already been shown to have direct links to behaviour that I would describe as institutional racism.

When it comes to access to antenatal care, for example, black women in Britain on average receive less and lower quality health assistance while pregnant when compared to their white counterparts. It’s the same when what has come to be known as “pain bias” comes into play, in which medical professionals downplay or dismiss reports of pain depending on one’s gender, socioeconomic background or race. Black patients are, according to studies (although, once again, most of these are carried out in the US), less likely to receive pain relief than white patients due to racial bias.

Just a couple of months ago, the UN special rapporteur on racism found that “the structural socio-economic exclusion of racial and ethnic communities in the UK ... continue to determine the life chances and well-being of people in Britain in ways that are unacceptable, and in many cases, unlawful”.

Many of these recently statistics will feel very real to countless women, regardless of economic status. The poor medical treatment of Serena Williams during her pregnancy was perhaps the most high-profile example of what can happen when doctors fail to listen to and effectively care for their black patients.

In fact, speaking to The Independent, Dr Jenny Douglas of the Open University and founder of the Black Women’s Health and Wellbeing Research Network, says the most alarming issue raised by the research into stillbirth was the fact that there is still no explanation in to the causes – “because we’re not doing the research”.

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And, as Douglas pointed out, it’s not just stillbirth that’s a factor. Maternal mortality rates also point to neglect of Bame patients, with black women in the UK five times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than white women.

This is how racism works. If you’re benefiting from it you might not even recognise it exists, and yet for others alongside you it’s a viscous force operating on everything from their salary to their mental health to their own child’s chances of survival. And even then, the data isn’t always there to demonstrate exactly how and why it happens.

Preventative action against discrimination is waning while the public appetite for hate continues to grow. Who knows how much worse communities of colour, and black people specifically, will fare in the coming years?

While more research won’t necessarily lead to an immediate change in the life chances of black babies and their mothers, knowing more about the extent to which women like myself face such discrimination during pregnancy and birth could at least be an important first step in reversing those harmful practices and attitudes.

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