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Self-Advocacy and the Health of Black Women

Amid a pandemic that has disproportionately killed Black and brown individuals, and a national reckoning over racism, people are now forced to pay attention to the shocking realities of racial inequities that damage the health of people of color in America.

Systems of discrimination and inequality generally intervene in women’s access and quality of care and medical assistance. Oftentimes, judgements of morality get in the way of women receiving healthcare, especially when it comes to reproductive healthcare and healthcare for plus-sized women. Systems of medicine are also guilty of actively marginalizing women by dismissing their symptoms. 

I speak from personal experience in saying that for Black women, there’s something deeply unsettling about being in a doctor’s office. There’s an elusive discomfort that’s difficult to describe, yet somehow we know it’s unique to us. For some, it makes us question whether we should even go to the doctor at all. And though it may be true that everyone feels some level of discomfort in these spaces, the difference is this: being a Black woman puts us at a disadvantage in every arena of life —and at this point, many of us have come to accept it —  but this is one place where we truly can’t afford it. This is the one place where it can mean life or death.

Equity is a central issue in healthcare as inequalities reveal the larger aspects of power, oppression, and discrimination that ground our understanding of circumstances like poverty, disadvantage, oppression, and poor health.

Developing skills in listening to and working with local communities would require significant changes in the quality and distribution of healthcare. That said, a general commitment to human rights may not provide the kind of equity gains that are necessary in women’s health. Rather, a commitment to eliminating specific inequities, including gender inequities, should be a central theme in healthcare ethics. Attention to the intersections of gender and race within the medical field has the potential to deliver direct health benefits to Black women. 

Even with this action plan however, Black women are still vulnerable in a doctor’s office, so what can she do to advocate for herself in a system that doesn’t pay attention to her?

Here are three questions a Black women should have in her back pocket to ensure that you’re getting the best care:

1. Have you had the proper informed consent conversation with your healthcare provider?

You have the right to ask questions, discuss details about the suggested treatment and viable treatment alternatives, all while feeling comfortable enough doing so, in a judgement-free setting.

2. Are my health concerns being fully addressed?

You should be able to leave your doctor’s office with the confidence knowing that your health concerns are being investigated appropriately.

3. Am I my own biggest advocate?

Your care relies heavily on how you express your symptoms and listen to your instinct. There is no medical textbook or doctor in the world who is going to understand how you experience your own symptoms better than you. Intuitively, if something feels ‘off’ to you, it probably is, and it is time for doctors to listen.

Remember that when it comes to healthcare providers, you have options. If you’re being repeatedly dismissed by your doctor, or have been prescribed medications to mask your symptoms — rather than get to the root cause —  it may be time to explore different avenues.

The system is flawed, but with knowledge comes power. As a Black woman, it’s important to understand how we’re feeling and communicate our symptoms as clearly and accurately as possible. Listening to our instinct is critical — don’t be afraid to ask questions, push further and seek out all of your options. In a system stacked against us, being our own advocate is the most effective tool we have to receive the care we deserve.

— Rachael Bailey, Intern

Challenges Women Face In The Workforce

As Equal Pay Day (for white women) has just passed, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the current challenges that women in the workforce face.

First, why is it important to look at the workforce in segments? The short answer is that people are multi-dimensional and they may be a part of many marginalized groups at once. Therefore, it’s not only important that we talk about how policies impact certain groups, like women, we also have to talk about other compounding factors and systemic issues that women face based on their race, age, and class – we call this intersectionality.

In the business world, understanding intersectionality is an important part of practicing inclusion because it defines how different facets of identity contribute to our unique perspective and team participation, as well as the ways in which different types of discrimination overlap with one another.

Intersectionality serves as a reminder that when you address discrimination toward one group, it’s important not to neglect or disregard further discrimination of groups within that group. A business that focuses on being culturally diverse and inclusive should also make efforts to ensure that their space is as accessible as possible to people with disabilities, for example.

Women face more challenges in the workforce than men. Period. For example, women’s wages have grown more slowly than men’s wages, persistent racial and ethnic disparities in wages only compound challenges for many women of color, who disproportionately work in low-wage jobs. This means that women must work more, while making less and struggling to get ahead.

Within the workplace itself, women continue to grapple with long-standing inequities, including the gender wage gap that stems from a lack of supportive work-family policies, biases ingrained in workplace culture, discrimination, and occupational segregation that reflects women’s overconcentration in low-wage jobs. The unique experiences of women of color—who live at the intersection of compounding gender, race, and ethnic biases—are often ignored entirely, meaning that the practices and attitudes that devalue their skills and limit their opportunities for advancement frequently go unchallenged.

The barriers women face in the labor market and the challenges associated with managing work and family responsibilities mean that women often perform paid work that is nonstandard or undervalued—working at the margins of the economy to make ends meet. This has historically been the case for women—especially women of color, who were expected to work outside the home at a time when middle- to high-income white women were not and who were segregated into low-skilled and low-wage occupations such as domestic servants, seamstresses, laundry workers, and farm laborers. Their exclusion was further codified in 1938, when domestic workers and farmworkers were excluded from legal protections, including minimum wage requirements, in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Women still make up 95 percent of domestic workers, and a majority of them are women of color and foreign-born and non-U.S. citizens. These women are often mistreated due to the intimacy of their jobs and the lack of regulations and workplace protections.

Additionally, women in particular have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Women—especially women of color—are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis, stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security. The pandemic has also intensified challenges that women already faced. Working mothers have always worked a “double shift”—a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labor. Now the supports that made this possible—including school and childcare—have been upended. Meanwhile, Black women already faced more barriers to advancement than most other employees. Today they’re also coping with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community and the emotional toll of repeated instances of racial violence falls heavily on their shoulders.

Furthermore, many mothers are considering downshifting their career or leaving the workforce, and mothers are significantly more likely to be thinking about taking these steps than fathers. Among mothers who are thinking about downshifting or leaving, a majority are leaving because of childcare responsibilities.

So what can we do?

To address the challenges that women face both at work and at home—especially women in low-wage and nonstandard work, including many women of color—policymakers must work toward a new social contract that includes four key components.

First, workers should be assured fair and equal wages, with an increase in the minimum wage, elimination of the tipped minimum wage, stronger equal pay protections, and robust overtime and wage theft protections.

Second, workers should be assured high-quality jobs with essential workplace protections and benefits, including access to earned sick days, fair scheduling, broad health and safety laws, and protections against discrimination and harassment.

Third, workers, especially women, need policies that accommodate and support their caregiving responsibilities, such as inclusive paid family and medical leave and quality and affordable child care.

Fourth, policymakers should listen to and prioritize workers’ voices when creating new policies to ensure that they address the holistic needs of all workers. This should include partnering with unions and ensuring that workers are able to form unions and bargain collectively under labor law.

When policymakers boast about the U.S. economy, they fail to recognize the complexities of women’s daily lives and their diverse experiences in the workplace. It is time for policymakers to acknowledge and address the challenges that women face in the workplace and in managing their caregiving responsibilities without supportive work-family policies. By understanding the disparities faced by the nation’s most vulnerable workers, particularly women of color, policymakers can begin to tailor policy solutions to meet workers’ current and future needs.

Doing so will only grow in importance as the nature of work changes and workers no longer have access to traditional employer-provided benefits and workplace protections. Policymakers must prioritize new and essential workplace standards that reimagine labor laws and workplace protections and benefits in order to ensure the economic security of all workers, particularly women. When developing and touting economic policy proposals, policymakers must seek a real-world understanding of all women’s lives—including their everyday experiences and the challenges they face.

— Melina Brann, Executive Director

Navigating Post-quarantine Socializing

2021 didn’t exactly start how we had hoped as COVID-19 continued to spread. However, vaccinations have been a game-changer and after a very long and isolating winter, people are ready to enjoy the sunshine and warmer weather in the company of friends and family.

Following the easing of some restrictions, restaurant patios are busy with those willing to brave the chilly spring afternoons in order to share a meal or drink with others face-to-face. Taking the time to bond and rebuild our connections with others while we can is not only important for our well-being, but it may help us survive if COVID-19 restrictions are put back in place.

Even though social distanced gatherings are permitted, not everyone has the same ideas about what their post-quarantine interactions with others will look like. Will you only meet up with people if they are vaccinated? What does it mean if you are not included in your friend’s first group outing? Are you comfortable telling your sister that you’re not ready to see anyone in person just yet? These decisions exist in gray areas of social interactions, are up to individual interpretation of the rules, and can lead to uncomfortable, awkward, and potentially upsetting interactions.

So how can you balance the need to reconnect without being pressured into social interactions you are not ready for? Or how do you manage these social rules without hurting feelings along the way?

Directly communicate your socializing needs.

Most people tend to want to avoid conflict. So when ideas around how to properly following regulations differ, or when people have differing levels of desire for social interaction, it can feel challenging to find a balance between making sure your needs and the needs of others in your social circle are being met.

Satisfying social relationships are built on a foundation of being responsive to each other’s’ needs. Even though direct conversations about disagreements can feel uncomfortable, they are actually linked with more relationship satisfaction later on. This means that it may actually be better for your relationship if you speak up and say that you’re not comfortable under certain circumstances. You will likely be pleasantly surprised (and relieved) about how willing other people are to accommodate your needs.

Handle rejection.

One of the really awkward parts of navigating social life out of quarantine is how to handle restrictions on how many people can get together at once. This can lead to difficult decisions about who is and isn’t invited to social outings. Feeling left out is naturally unpleasant and can make you wonder if it’s a sign of something wrong in your relationships. Similarly, knowing that you have excluded someone can make you feel guilty and avoidant of them.

Instead of letting these uncomfortable feelings push you away from others, use it as a sign that you really want to reconnect with those people. Reach out and tell them how excited you are to see them soon. This provides a clear signal of how much you value the relationship, your intentions for the future, and reduces the likelihood of these relationships breaking up because of something that is ultimately out of everyone’s control.

Build resilient relationships.

COVID-19 has made it clear how important our social relationships are for keeping us afloat in chaotic times. It is important that people take advantage of the time we can spend together to invest in and strengthen these bonds by safely navigating in-person socializing when possible. However, it is also normal to expect there to be some discomfort as guidelines can put personal and interpersonal needs at odds.

In these moments, directly and clearly communication what we need and looking for the best intentions in others’ actions could go a long way toward sustaining these bonds.

Women’s Equal Pay Day 2021

In addition to celebrating Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day this month, Equal Pay Day falls on March 24 this year for all women in the U.S. 

In 1996, the National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE) first observed Equal Pay Day as a symbolic way to raise awareness about the gender wage gap and push toward equal pay. 

Equal Pay Day marks how far into the year women would have to work to earn the same as men did in the previous year. Therefore, it would take an additional three months for the average woman in the U.S. to earn the same amount as the average man does in 2020. In a typical 9:00-5:00 workday, this would mean that women begin working for free starting at 2:40 pm

However, even greater disparities exist for women from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Women of color experience larger gender wage gaps and must work even longer to earn the same amount as men. Equal Pay Day for different racial and ethnic groups reveal how many days women have to work into the next year to receive the same earnings as white men. 

Asian American and Pacific Islander Women’s Equal Pay Day falls on March 9, 2021. On average, Asian American and Pacific Islander women make $0.85 for every dollar made by a white man.

Black Women’s Equal Pay Day is August 3, 2021. Black women typically earn $0.63 for every dollar that a white man earns. 

Native American Women’s Equal Pay Day falls on September 8, 2021. Native women, on average, are paid $0.60 for every dollar paid to white men. 

Latina Equal Pay Day is on October 21, 2021. As the last Equal Pay Day observance of the year, Latinas experience the greatest pay disparity, as Latinas typically earn $0.55 for every dollar earned by white men. 

These wage discrepancies highlight the unequal financial power between men and women in the workforce. The gender wage gap persists, despite the Equal Pay Act being passed over half a century ago. In the U.S. Women in the U.S. earn 82 cents for every dollar that a man earns. Furthermore, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that pay equity will not be reached until 2059. 

Although progress has been made over the years, the fight for economic equity must continue until all women earn the same as their male equivalents.  

— Sophia Zhang, Advocacy Intern

Celebrating Us This Black History Month

“I just want a week without a major event that causes me to worry about my livelihood as a Black woman.”

I recently texted a friend this after a conversation about our naïve hope that February will be less brutal somehow because it is Black History Month. But since this conversation, it seems like other Black folks share the same apprehensive enthusiasm – instead of being excited for a month intended to uplift our stories, culture, and leaders, we find ourselves anxious about the days to come.

It is peculiar to celebrate on cue, for just one month; the shortest month of the year at that. We’re expected to celebrate historical Black figures, to yell about our struggles, to push forward despite our utter exhaustion and anger to take advantage of the one time of year that the country is paying attention. So often Black people have to immediately power through our trauma so that we can stand up and shout our pain when people are finally listening. Constantly explaining out personhood is something we are all too familiar with and a burden we are trying to release after an unrelenting year.

Black History Month has felt like it was forced on us rather than being for us. It is exhausting constantly being bombarded with reminders of what we don’t have and were never meant to have in this country. Growing up as one of the only Black girls in my predominantly white high school, and even in college, it seems like a betrayal to reject it. But it feels fake, tiresome, and it is just not enough. I felt, and still feel sometimes, like Black History Month was treated by my peers as an article you read and forget about as soon as it’s over.

These feelings are too familiar. Our history, no matter how you put it, still comes with an emotional sting that never truly goes away. For Black people, 2020 was maddeningly and infuriatingly much of the same. In the middle of a global pandemic, our businesses were closing, our families were torn through by a virus that was compounded by our lack of access to healthcare, and our community was mourning. Then, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and countless other names of Black people who were taken toon soon dominated media. This year felt like a soul-crushing re-opening of wounds we’ve never healed from. Yes, we now have VP Kamala Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman to serve in this position, but this month should serve as a teachable moment for us to acknowledge the complicated history of being the first Black anything, and the dangers of placing a nation’s hopes on one Black woman.

2021 Black History Month has a heavy responsibility of setting an example in this new world, while also reminding us that our own realities haven’t changed as much. Maternal mortality is still three times higher for Black women than it is for white women. Black people are still up to ten times more likely to be arrested for minor crimes. A young Black boy can’t even ride an elevator holding his phone without being violated.

At the Women’s Center, we encourage women to share their stories and heal from them. But it doesn’t end there. Our goal is to empower women of all ages today, tomorrow, and forever. We are writing our history now as the victors, not the victims.

Over and over, Black people – particularly Black women – have moved the wheel of history in real time. It was brilliant Black women whose joy, perseverance, and determination to be seen could not be contained. Women like Stacey Abrams, Amanda Gorman, Aurora James, Dr. Kissmekia Corbett, Rosalind Brewer, Megan Thee Stallion, and more whose spirits moved us to action. To vote. To buy Black. To believe. To Lead. To heal.

So do the Black women we know and cheer for, hype up on Instagram, and tweet about daily. Because, quite simply, we ARE them.

Instead of learning about ourselves through the removed lens of Black history articulated by white researchers, let’s commit to meeting and challenging our past this month. Let’s recognize that we can celebrate progress while still remaining resolute in our cry for personhood. Let’s share our stories, not as heroes, but as whole humans.

This Black History Month, we are acknowledging our past while weaving together new history. We are re-educating ourselves on the things our history books didn’t teach us: the brilliance of communities like Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the unburdened joy of Black roller skate culture, the New Black Renaissance of culture happening right now, and the complicated history of hearing Black melodies and seeing our dances on mainstream white stages. We’re going to delve into all of that this month.

This Black History Month, we’re celebrating, not because the calendar is telling us to, but because our community compels us to. And if that means ignoring the whole thing and just doing us, so be it. Because if nothing else this month, we’re going to be our Blackest selves – just like we are every day.

Melina Brann

Executive Director of the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing

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