What can The Handmaid’s Tale teach us about intersectionality in institutional life?

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on women living in a theocratic totalitarian regime in a newly created dystopian, pronatalist society called Gilead. The regime attributes declining fertility to women’s rights, same sex relationships and an environment damaged beyond repair, which it solves with  the creation of a society predicated on women stratified into their biological destinies to reproduce (Handmaids) or to fulfil household obligations in the private sphere (Marthas). The women are all white, and the story is told through Offred, the plucky white narrator enslaved in a white male supremacist society, where all the people of color have been banished to ‘the colonies'(we are also left uncertain about whether this includes indigenous peoples).  Margaret Attwood doesn’t need to attend to characters of color in the book because in a matter of sentences we already know that they are not included in this new world. This lets Attwood off the hook for engaging with with characters of color in the novel. However, critiques of the book from an intersectional perspective have noted that the narrative banishment comes to extrapolate white women’s experiences as representative of the experiences of all women, even though many of the exploitative and cruel mechanisms to curtail maternity and bodily autonomy used on the white women were used specifically against women of colour in actual North American history that underpins the life of the author and the novel. Or were used on enslaved Africans in the United States including public lynchings and being named after their owners.

The television version attempts to address the invisibility and exclusion of the book where people of color were banished or exterminated. People of colour are visible on screen, as loving husbands, loyal running mates, a daughter, a housekeeper.  The women of color characters are dispersed through the stratified roles of Handmaids or Marthas which also assumes levels of social mobility. But these characters are merely backdrop cardboard cutouts, holograms, one-dimensional, devoid of depth in this white supremacist tale. Characters like Luke and Moira don’t get to explore their racial identities, much less how religious totalitarianism would specifically affect their racialised experiences. In ignoring racism, the show misses an opportunity to show how racism would manifest and evolve in a puritanical theocracy. In the show, The Handmaid’s Tale assumes that racism has been solved or that it is trumped by gender in the cause of preserving fertility. But there is a lost opportunity to consider ‘racist sexism’, that is how policies and practices that discriminate against women, also discriminate in different ways against racialised women. It also fails to acknowledge that America has always been a dystopia for people of color or that American dystopia is founded on anti-Black violence.. It appears on the surface that all subjects other than the commanders and their wives are treated in much the same way as each other. Seemingly the biblical rules of law are applied equally for transgressions. But Bastien asks: 

Are white Commanders and their wives really okay with having a handmaid of color? Is there a caste system for handmaids of color in which some are considered more desirable than others? Do Commanders of color have the same privileges as their white counterparts? If Gilead is meant to imagine a possible future for America, how could deeply entrenched racial dynamics disappear?

In this color-blind, post-racial idyll, there are people of color, but they are hollow and we know nothing about them, past or present. Evan Narcisse suggests it is like the comment made when you’re a non-white person in a predominantly white institution: “When I look at you, I don’t see a marginalised/minority person, I just see a person.” Although meant kindly, in its unmarked privilege it erases the fact of your difference and what it means to inhabit your body and your life. Whiteness is still the unacknowledged default. As Stephanie Brown observes, the men in power are white, as are most of the women. It’s important though that we care about all of this in real life, not just as fiction, as Berlatsky notes:

Because fictional tyrannical dystopias are primarily envisioned as affecting white people, it can be harder to see negative policies that oppress others. At the point where the fictional metaphor matters more than the current reality, something’s gone terribly wrong.

Several critics suggest that The Handmaid’s Tale represents a failure of intersectionality. The term ‘intersectionality’ originates in African American theorising and activism, and is most commonly associated with work by Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Collins. It describes how systems of oppression are viewed as interlocking. Therefore, attempts to dislodge one axis of oppression will impact on another. Globally, the term intersectionality is being appropriated as a way to activate attempts to address issues of under-representation in institutions without reverting to a single focus lens on issues such as gender, race, class, or sexuality. Intersectionality provides an understanding that identities can be simultaneously privileged and marginalised, depending on social context. Consequently we are all interpellated differently by racism and sexism through a ‘matrix of domination’ (Collins, 1990).  For example, I can be a migrant woman of color who is marginalised through sexism and racism, but I am also privileged through class position, education, able body and heterosexuality. 

Intersectionality is being introduced into diversity initiatives in Universities and is gaining momentum in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine disciplines (STEMM) disciplines. Intersectionality is seen as a strategy  for addressing the barriers to success and to widen and increase participation by women, working class, indigenous and ethnic minority groups, in order to leverage a diversity dividend. The use of an economic metaphor valorises innovation and economic competitiveness, rather than attempting to address a pressing social justice. Metaphors to account for inequities and the underrepresentation of groups in STEMM disciplines include the old boys club, the glass ceiling and the leaky pipeline. These metaphors also guide the strategies developed to address these failures of inclusion and their limitations. Merely creating a pipeline and applying force to propel people forward does not guarantee an increase numbers (Núñez, 2014). In the case of a pipeline, we know that it leaks at various stages and is still designed for an implicit ideal input, consequently women and ethnic minorities are more likely than white men to leak out. We also know that the leaking is progressive, so the farther along the pipeline, the fewer these groups are in number (Clark Blickenstaff*, 2005). Merely focusing on increasing or diversifying the supply hides the real issue which is at the ‘demand’ end of things, that is, the organization and the need for it to change (Riegle‐Crumb, 2009, p. 4). Similarly, the metaphor of the glass ceiling assumes the barriers facing marginalised groups are a one dimensional insurmountable barrier experienced at the ‘top’, when in fact marginalised identities experience discrimination and ‘hurdles’ throughout their careers (Husu, 2001, p. 177)Instead the analytic of intersectionality is being vaunted as an antidote to under-representation.

Diversity management is fast becoming a feature of the public image of the corporatised entrepreneurial academy. Standing in for structural or organisational change, diversity risks reproducing the issues I’ve identified in the screen version in the Handmaid’s Tale. Damon Williams suggests there are several political, social and economic imperatives for Universities to respond to diversity. In its place in the knowledge based global economy, it must respond to changing demographics and meet the need for creative and capable students and also demonstrate the viability and vibrancy of diversity. The diversity management strategies it employs range from access and equity; to creating a multicultural and inclusive campus climate; enhancing domestic and international diversity research and scholarship and preparing students for a diverse and global world (Damon Williams, p.19). However, the emphasis on diversity as a way of increasing numbers and improving Human Resources, is often not supplemented with an explicit engagement with the systems of power and inequality that structure the processes of knowledge production. Consequently, the white, elite and middle class structures and structural arrangements that reproduce inequality remain both invisible and intact (Dill & Zambrana, 2009). The neoliberal assumption of an asocial and ahistorical individualised world of meritocracy, means sometimes ignoring racism and sexism (Ong, Wright, Espinosa, & Orfield, 2011). Unmarked white, masculine values and norms instituted through colonial processes of political, cultural, and military dominance favor dominant epistemologies which claim universal truths that overlook social locations and identities (Carlone & Johnson, 2007).

The Handmaid’s Tale is being flagged as a universal wake-up call, about a white feminist dystopia. But as critics note, this ‘feminist’ rallying point ignores enduring prior calls by indigenous and women of color and is a failure of intersectionality. The assumption of a post-racial, ahistorical world limits the possibilities of imagining alternative futures for people of color, in a time of Turnbull, Trump, Macron and Trudeau. Similarly efforts in academia to engage with ‘diversity’ without attention to intersectionality and attending to systems of power and inequality, risks positioning people of color as economic resources who are mere backdrop in a white supremacist institution.

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“I had to keep my options open”: White mothers and neoliberal maternity

Unpublished manuscript that never found an appropriate institutional home, but sharing for those who might be interested. Cite as: DeSouza, R., & Butt, D. (2016, June 11). “I had to keep my options open”: White mothers and neoliberal maternity. [Web log post]. Retrieved from: http://www.ruthdesouza.com/2016/06/11/i-had-to-keep-my-options-open-white-mothers-and-neoliberal-maternity/

Where patriarchal healthcare institutions saw birth as a process controlled by male doctors and supported by female nurses, contemporary midwifery draws from liberal feminism the concept of “choice” as the marker of maternal agency. However, critiques of neoliberalism locate “informed choice”, “empowerment” and “partnership” as discursive markers of specific capitalist subjectivities that are unevenly distributed among class, race, and sex. The ideology of reproduction as choice aligns with Foucault’s notion of “governmentality”, where the managerial state promotes middle-class discourses of responsibilisation, transformation and empowerment to regulate and maximise the efforts of individuals within the social body. Previous research has shown how maternal care nurses and midwives are instrumental in reproducing these discourses, reflecting white middle-class ideals of the individual service user. This study explored these themes through a secondary discourse analysis on focus groups with white migrant mothers in Aotearoa New Zealand. While migrant mothers noted differences between the New Zealand context and their home nation, unlike ‘other’ migrant mothers they generally adhered to neoliberal requirements to make choices aligned with the expectations of the state. The mothers espoused ideals of natural birth that sat in tension with their notions of informed consumption, reflecting technoscientific discourses that have informationalised the maternal body and interpellated mothers into neoliberal ideologies. The paper argues that attention to the restricted discourses of choice as empowerment illuminates how settler-colonial maternal healthcare systems are limited in their universality, failing to escape cultural and class-based assumptions that empower some mothers at the expense of others. The paper concludes that critical healthcare analysis and methodologies such as cultural safety provide tools for the transformation of these discourses.

Keywords 
Maternity, whiteness, neoliberalism, Foucault, cultural safety.

Introduction

Midwifery discourses have advanced a feminist vision of women’s empowerment where women usurp patriarchal control of maternity institutions and increase their own power by becoming informed. However, the intrapersonal strategies of information accumulation and behaviour modification can leave structures of power intact and fulfil neoliberal ends. Facilitating a non-authoritarian, woman-centred ethic of care through liberal feminist values (such as individual choice and autonomy) allows mothers to choose to be healthy and productive, while also leading to a reduction in demands on the state as women govern themselves and each other (Collins, 2009). Although midwifery has positioned itself outside dominant norms as an anti-authoritarian discourse, these ‘choices’ are made within a neoliberal consumerist context of health care (Spoel, 2007). Midwifery is simultaneously constructed by these norms and reproduces them, masking new forms of social regulation shaping health care delivery in the process (Skinner, 1999; Spoel, 2006; O’Connell and Downe 2009). Consequently, the emancipatory promise of liberal feminism has disturbingly converged with the economic ‘freedoms’ of neoliberalism, in a discursive formation structured by whiteness. Where previous work established this formation in the discourses of maternal and child health nurses, this paper diagnoses neoliberal discourses employed by white informed consumers.
The dominance of whiteness in Western healthcare systems has been well established (see e.g. Allen, 2006). The liberal theoretical paradigm is deeply embedded in nursing, where those employed in care are rarely able to see how it structures their professional culture, in turn making it difficult to understand how adherence to seemingly neutral and egalitarian values (to white norms) can be oppressive. Whiteness here does not refer only to the visible phenotype of individuals, but to “a cultural disposition and ideology held in place by specific political, social, moral, aesthetic, epistemic, metaphysical, economic, legal, and historical conditions, crafted to preserve white identity and relations of white supremacy” (Bailey & Zita, 2007: vii). Although it is a scientific and cultural fiction like other racial identities, it has a real social impact on the distribution of resources due to a “possessive investment in whiteness” among white individuals (Lipsitz, 2006). A combination of public policy and private prejudice operate simultaneously to create this investment and perpetuate racialised hierarchies that structure access to resources, power and opportunity. Lipsitz contends that white supremacy is less a direct expression of contempt (as usually described by whites who distance themselves from the term), and more a system that protects white privilege and prevents communities of colour from accumulating assets and upward mobility. Complicating any direct identitarianism, Lipsitz contends that non-white people can become agents of white supremacy as well as passive consumers in its hierarchies— not all white people are equally complicit with white supremacy. White dominance and neoliberalism are two powerful and interrelated concepts that describe the systemic and structural forms that produce and reproduce ideal subjectivities. It is this relationship between subjective experience and institutional rationality that this paper seeks to illuminate.
Liberalism and neoliberal maternity
The revalorisation of liberal precepts into the global structures of institutional power termed neoliberalism has been most thoroughly documented by Michel Foucault. Foucault’s analysis of governmentality as “both a political discourse about the nature of rule and a set of practices that facilitate the governing of individuals from a distance” (Larner, 2006: 6) has particular resonance in health and in maternity. The birth of a future citizen is an event with great emotional, biological, cultural and social significance; and consequently the rites and routines that organize birth reflect core cultural values (Fox & Worts, 1999; Reiger, 2008). Maternal and infant public health has been shaped by state concern about the quantity and quality of population in the context of imperial rivalry, both in the centre of empire and the outer edge of white settlement (Lewis, 1988). The “health of the race” and infant health have been a central focus for doctors and politicians, with babies viewed as valuable assets in the struggle for imperial supremacy (Lewis, 1988). While such explicitly racial discourses are today less prevalent, maternity discourses and practices still reflect and reproduce historical and cultural visions of what it is to be a citizen (Georges, 2008). Good mothering and good governing are intimately linked. Foucauldian analysis in health has shown how institutions produce subjects as citizens, where health professionals are not simply individual agents constrained by institutions but develop their values, beliefs and skills within parameters guided (but not fully determined by) those institutions. Healthcare professionals such as nurses and midwives manage key processes through which hegemonic social subjects are reproduced, and thus reflect transformations in ideologies of the public and the citizenry (Fox & Worts, 1999). Maternal health is therefore a rich site to track shifts in public health from a sovereign technique of population management to a global industry in a neoliberal economic system.

Foucault’s analysis in The Birth of Biopolitics identified neoliberalism as the development of a “general regulation of society by the market” (Foucault, 2008: 145). It involves the enforcement of competition (rather than exchange) as the principle of the market in a game which one is not allowed to drop out of, “a sort of inverted social-contract” (Foucault, 2008: 201). Neoliberal economics becomes “no longer the analysis of the historical logic of processes; it is the analysis of the internal rationality, the strategic programming of individuals’ activity” (Foucault, 2008: 222). In this game, economics is redefined as a behavioural science governed by the “relationship between ends and scarce means which have mutually exclusive uses” (Foucault, 2008: 222). This “competitive ratio” is naturalised, and the neoliberal subject “accepts reality” by responding to “systematic modifications artificially introduced into the environment” — becoming “eminently governable” (Foucault, 2008: 270). Through the extension of market values to all institutions and social action, good neoliberal citizens are constructed as choice-making subjects, who take responsibility for maximising their healthy productivity and minimising risks to their health, reducing collective health demands upon the state.
Historically, women’s freedom during pregnancy was constrained by structural or physical factors to ensure the safety of mother and foetus. Improvements in health have led to the emergence of more subtle kinds of governmental regulation, where normalising strategies focussing on individual ‘lifestyle’ have developed in tandem with the new public health and risk discourses (Petersen & Lupton, 1996). Self-regulation through the internalisation of scientific knowledges and medical technologies and the corresponding modification of behaviour have become central to a type of ideal neoliberal subjectivity variously identified as the healthy citizen (Petersen & Lupton, 1996), the active consumer (Fox, Heffernan, & Nicolson, 2009) and the reflexive project of the self (Giddens, 1991).

Mothers are incited to take up the advice and guidance of experts; are incorporated into relations of surveillance and discipline; and are required to monitor and adapt their behaviour against normative discourses. Ideal neoliberal maternal subjects are scientifically literate, meet normative standards, and consume specialty objects and expert advice (Avishai, 2007). They invest in “intensive motherhood”, a pervasive ideology in Western culture that is: “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labour intensive, financially expensive” Hays (1998: 46).
As Simon and Dippo (1986: 198) note, a historical and material perspective is required to understand the “nonarbitrary specificity” of power relations in the present, “for while the production and reproduction of social forms is a result of what people do, it can never be understood in terms of what they intend.” To that end, contemporary maternal speech must be linked to the historical conditions of its emergence. The history of midwifery development provides structural clues to the emergence of dominant discursive formations of maternity in New Zealand that enable, constrain and contest the narrated experience of migrant mothers.
Midwifery in New Zealand: erosion, erasure and re-emergence

Midwifery’s emergence as an autonomous feminist profession in New Zealand has been shaped by the desire for professional recognition among midwives and feminist aspirations for the control of birth to be returned to women, (Stojanovic, 2008). Midwifery training began in 1904 with the advent of the Midwives Act, prior to which trained midwives were imported from Britain. Free midwifery services became available to all women from 1938, either in their homes or in maternity hospitals (Pairman, 2006). The trends of medicalisation, hospitalisation and nursification eroded the autonomy of midwifery between 1904 and the 1970s (Stojanovic, 2008). For Māori, the Tohunga Suppression Act (General Assembly of New Zealand, 1907) curtailed the active involvement of tohunga (traditional knowledge specialists) in childbirth, and the expertise of Māori birth attendants or tāpuhi remained suppressed as midwives were trained in New Zealand. With fewer tāpuhi assisting birthing women in their homes, childbirth became relocated into state-owned maternity hospitals, which in the colonial view were thought to be safer and cleaner than Māori homes (Simmonds, 2011), even though Māori maternal mortality rose to three times that of non-Māori by the 1960s. Interventions to reduce infant mortality coupled with demands from women for pain-free childbirth increased the medicalisation of birth, leading to doctors supervising midwifery births and holding legal responsibility (Pairman, 2006). Nursification saw the merging of midwifery into nursing, the erasure of the word ‘midwife’ from legislation and the redefinition of the scope of midwifery practice within nursing (Stojanovic, 2008).
Autonomous midwifery practice (differentiated in scope from nursing) re-emerged through mutually beneficial political lobbying by consumers and midwives forcing legislative changes in the late 1980s. Spurred by decades of feminist struggle, maternity consumer activists saw autonomous midwifery practice as a mechanism for gaining increased control over their own birthing (Pairman, 2006). This pressure eventually led to the passing of the Nurses Amendment Act in 1990 which provided New Zealand women with the option of a caregiver (Lead Maternity Carer or LMC) who could either co-ordinate or provide the care they required from early pregnancy to six weeks postpartum (Pairman, 2006). Consequently, 75.3% of New Zealand women were registered with a midwife to provide lead maternity care in 2007 (Ministry of Health, 2007). Hence, partnership with women became a central tenet of New Zealand midwifery and to its claim as protector of the health of women from an intervening medical corpus (Reiger, 2008). The discourse of ‘partnership’ positions women as ‘naturally’ equipped and capable of carrying and delivering babies without physician monitoring or intervention in hospitals (Macdonald, 2006). The social model of this discourse locates risk not within the female body as under the medical model, but from power relations in the social world including poor support for women. In response, midwives have the capacity to nurture and empower the autonomous woman so that she is capable of birth without intervention (Lane, 2012). The study discussed here consisted of focus groups with mothers and maternal care professionals to evaluate the effects of these discourses and institutional arrangements on different groups of migrant women.
Study Design

The focus groups for this project were undertaken with the assistance of The Royal New Zealand Plunket Society (Plunket), and consisted of focus groups with five ethno-cultural groupings of new migrant mothers (including white mothers) about their maternity experiences (DeSouza, 2006; DeSouza, 2011). Ten first time mothers aged between 29-40 years, who had been living in New Zealand for between two and ten years took part in the white focus group. The women self-identified as ‘white’ and had migrated from South Africa (Jane and Charlotte), England (Nancy, Annette, Olive, Sarah, Carol), the US (Joan and Mary) and Scotland (Georgina). Four had post-graduate qualifications; four had under-graduate qualifications and one a trade certificate. Their occupations included: teacher, scientist, project manager, account manager, project manager, lecturer. Reasons for migrating included the New Zealand lifestyle and their husband’s careers. The group are not intended to be representative of all white female migrants, although the demographic bias of white migrants to New Zealand skews toward the upper-middle class. Of interest here are the range of available subject positions in the discourses represented and what implications those subject positions hold. Discourse analysis can aid understanding of the relationship between “subjectification (the condition of being a subject) and subjectivity (the lived experience of being a subject)” (Walkerdine, 2001: 20). In this case, the focus is on discourses of knowledgeable consumption, natural birth, and intensive motherhood.
Knowledgeable antenatal consumers

Mary invokes liberal feminist/woman centred tenets of choice, freedom and autonomy when she speaks about becoming pregnant through assisted reproductive technologies:

Mary: Artificial insemination… was something that was incredibly easy in New Zealand whereas in the States it would’ve been a lot more difficult and more expensive. For us moving to New Zealand was partly a life-style choice, we had a known donor and we found that we went to a fertility class and it was just incredible how helpful and inclusive they are and everything was really easy to do… more information is always good for us and we found that there was plenty of information for us. It’s like I said before we’ve been planning this for over five years so that was, their resources were there for us.

Mary’s excerpt reflects the liberal feminist ideal of a planned pregnancy and the control of reproductive processes (even in the context of assisted fertility), to which the democratisation of knowledge, its acquisition and demystification are fundamental. Mary positions herself as a responsible health consumer who makes choices (including migrating), within a caring and available system. She actively searches for and chooses the appropriate information, products and services from a saturated global market. Migration is a space where she can realise possibilities for mobility and self-actualisation, imbricating maternity in local and global patterns of consumption. Annette also positions herself as a knowledgeable and responsible consumer, who can both evaluate and challenge expert knowledges:

Annette: Although our doctor suggested certain paths that we could take I wasn’t necessarily in total agreement with what he wanted so I was trying to combine his knowledge with the information that I was reading as well.

Annette’s capacity to act and make choices is evident in her avoidance of informal and embodied knowledge in favour of formal knowledge:

Annette: When I found that I was pregnant the first thing I did was I bought a book named New Zealand Pregnancy Guide… although we have a lot of friends here I didn’t feel that I was in a position where I wanted to talk to anybody about the pregnancy because it was so early and I felt that the more people that I talked to and asked for their advice then if I did miscarry I’d have to tell everybody that I’d miscarried. So I was in that situation of having to try and discover a lot of information out by myself initially and I found that was a little bit overwhelming at times. But that book was particularly useful and then I phoned I think the Ministry of Health and got a list of midwives. And then to be quite honest it was absolutely useless, because I just looked at this list and I’m going, ‘well where do I start’? So you are in this catch 22 thinking ‘do I phone this person? Would they come to me because we’re on the other side of town?’ I didn’t have any recommendations. It was literally a list and it meant nothing to me.

Annette’s preference for purchasing a book of expert knowledge about pregnancy in New Zealand—rather than seeing her networks and friends as primary resources—is emblematic of her desire to produce herself as an autonomous, composed, and rational individual, avoiding public judgement upon her possible failure to reproduce. Her unwillingness to expose her pregnancy and potentially complicate social relationships means that she loses out on possible social support, information and referrals, which could enable the transition to parenthood.
Natural birth
The rewards of antenatal preparation are realised when women describe feeling informed and in control of their birth experiences, aligning with midwifery discourses of natural birth (Brubaker & Dillaway, 2009).

Mary: Well I thought we were going to have a very sort of natural birth with no drugs although I was hoping to take drugs if I was in pain. I found the antenatal explanation of how what happens in a C-section very useful as I ended up having a C-section. And the fact that they explained, ‘ok all of these people are going to be there and it’s going to be a person on your right is going to be your doctor and the person with the baby’, and all of that… I had a really negative reaction to all the drugs and when she explained again who was going to be in the room it was exactly the same as what the antenatal person had said.

Mary’s antenatal preparation equips her for an unintended Caesarean, but instead of feeling cheated by the requirement for medical intervention, she surfaces the woman-centred natural birth discourse of feeling in control and informed. Thus birth can be considered ‘natural’ despite medical intervention, as long as the labouring mother chose the intervention (Macdonald, 2006).
Charlotte’s narrative also captures the two competing discourses of birth that Mary situates herself in. On the one hand, Charlotte values having self-control (through being informed and behaving accordingly) and on the other is willing to surrender control—the choice to rescind action is also a choice (Lupton, 1994):

Charlotte: I just have to say to myself you know we’ve even had to go with the flow, and then also those booklets that you receive on feeding, those pamphlets. I did a lot of reading and my midwife gave me a lot of information. The information from those pamphlets helped me a lot and so I felt comfortable, like I’m on the right track now so everything is going well. So I was trying to speak to myself and keep calm (speaks quietly). I was in labour for since the Saturday and I gave birth on Monday morning so (laughter) I had to keep my options open as well about taking drugs so you know things like that.

Charlotte presents herself as a self-efficacious middle class maternal subject, able to internalise information and adapt her behaviour accordingly through self-discipline, self-denial and will power. Disciplining herself by subsuming her own distress and fear, aligns with the needs of the institution for calm consumers, who are more compliant and require less time and support than distraught ones.
Being given the right information at the right time made Charlotte feel supported:

Charlotte: The midwife that delivered my baby is actually from New Zealand but she worked in Cape Town for three years so that was good, that connection. She told me, step by step where and what stage I’m at. I think that’s the biggest support that you really need in the delivery room is to tell you at what stage you are at and what’s happening.

It is significant that Charlotte constructs her midwife as the person who delivers her baby rather than facilitates Charlotte’s ability to birth her baby. She discursively positions her midwife as a translator, who can link what is happening in her body to an identified physiological process. This positioning challenges midwifery discourses of the mother as ‘expert’ as the midwife’s role as a translator reinforces a hierarchy reminiscent of biomedicine.

Jane actively and discursively resists biomedical discourses, until she acquiesces to Entonox:

Jane: I was trying to still keep my energy up by eating and drinking as much water as possible. My choice was that I wanted to stay at home as long as possible, I didn’t want to be in the hospital for too long because when I start thinking of all the other options, and I wanted a natural childbirth, no assistant and also no pain relief. At the end for about 2 ½ hours before baby was delivered I chose Entonox with the gas and that helped. As the pamphlets also say I actually felt distance from the actual experience so if I think back I would’ve actually chosen nothing but I just felt at that stage I needed something and I chose that. So fortunately baby was in the right position, in a good position so I didn’t have to have a Caesarean. I was more scared of the Caesarean than the pain and I wanted a natural childbirth.

Jane positions herself within midwifery discourses of natural birth, disciplining her body so that she avoids hospital as much as she can, and engaging in deliberate bodily maintenance so she can maximise the efficiency of her body and have the energy to labour. She constructs a natural birth as one where she uses pain relief as a last resort.

Nancy disciplines her body through specific breathing techniques learned outside the health system:

Nancy: Yes. At the beginning of my pregnancy I was kind of really worried about actually giving birth. But what really helped me was I went to do yoga in pregnancy and through that they talked a lot about it and they did sort of breathing and just general exercises to help you kind of keep calm and focused. And at the end of it I really wasn’t worried about it at all and I thought I might even be able to get through this without drugs but I didn’t in the end, I gave in, in the last couple of hours.

Nancy positions herself as a good mother to be, taking control and acting to promote her own health and wellbeing through natural breathing. Nancy’s expectation that her body would be able to cope with birth naturally and without medical intervention reflects her incorporation in woman centred/natural birth discourses. Her acceptance of a biomedical intervention in the form of pain relief in the last few hours is presented as a capitulation, and reflects her perception of the control she had in the process and her failure to accomplish a natural process.
Intensive motherhood
The post-partum period is characterised by the demands of intensive mothering. Producing oneself in the discourses of the “good mother” requires taking sole responsibility for the well-being of the infant while being isolated and having minimal support. The post-natal ward represents a space where the rude transition from women-centred discourses to intensive mothering begins. There is a glaring shift from one-to-one attention from midwives, to competition for support and assistance with other new mothers:

Olive: I mean the actual labour and delivering – fantastic. I couldn’t fault them and the staff was superb, the midwife was just brilliant, the obstetrician fantastic. When I got on the ward I found it really hot, I felt really overwhelmed. I was right next to this buzzer and it just went buzzing all the time because everybody wanted help, I found that really quite distressing and I was absolutely knackered.

The clamour of the buzzer and interruptions signal a consequence of being returned to the factory model of maternity. Olive experiences a shift from care described in superlative terms to feeling overwhelmed, distressed and tired. Meanwhile, Nancy recognises that her expectations were primarily oriented to the birth event with no real preparation for the post-partum period:

Nancy: I just want to say in terms of thinking after the birth, and how it was compared to expectations, I didn’t really have any expectations of after the birth, everything was concentrated about the labour and, ‘oh God, it’s going to feel terrible’ and after the birth it just hit me like that and it was hell for six weeks more or less it was just hell… Yes and I wished somebody had actually told me that it was going to be that hard.

Nancy assumes that if she had been given the information, this post-partum period would have been easier for her, reflecting the notion of autonomous rational personhood that with planning and control of one’s circumstances, future success can be ensured (Wall, 2010).

Interviewer: What was the “hell”?

Nancy: Mainly lack of sleep, lack of sleep and just coping with a crying baby, and I had my Mum and I was lucky she was there for the first three weeks and she did the housework, the cooking and stuff. [Group laughter]
Jane: I also think you also just feel like a robot, cleaning the bottles, making a bottle, breast-feeding, in a little corner all the time, just you and the baby.

The mothers in the group identify a conspiracy of sorts. Much of their preparation for the world of parenthood revolved around knowledge acquisition, maintaining good health during their pregnancies and having control during their labour, none of which help in the postnatal period.
In the quotes that follow, the limitations of expert knowledge and self-sufficiency are identified and Nancy identifies the difference support might make for her.

Nancy: It would’ve been different in that I would’ve had a lot more support and for me a lot of my anxieties around that was I didn’t have anyone to talk to, and particularly (baby crying). And yes OK you meet people at your antenatal group but at that time they’re not your closest friends that you can say anything too. And having said that I did, you know… But I think that was it for me was thinking, ‘oh my God, I just need some adult conversation’. And that’s what I struggled with most probably.

Emotional support and having a confidant require time and energy, and an investment, which can be drawn on. The friendships Nancy has made cannot be drawn on for the kind of support she needs. For Georgina, the absence is emotional as well as practical—in the form of having ‘time out’ for errands or for ‘couple time’:

Georgina: Yes you do miss the support network, friends as well. I’ve got a lot of friends back home who have got kids and I think you miss that as well… Not just family but friends who would maybe be a bit more candour than you might take from them or what you feel than you take from close family and things. So I definitely miss that and also, we were just back home and it was just so nice…you know tight as you are, what simple things, like I needed to go out and do couple of things and I knew I was only going to be half an hour or so and to actually have somewhere to leave him and it would take me half the time.

Discussion and Conclusion

Women who identified as ‘white’ in this study constructed themselves within liberal feminist and neoliberal discourses as consumers who were rational unified actors. They were interpellated as competent selectors and consumers of maternity services, and moral value was attached to their ability to engage in self-reliant behaviours. They embraced the neoliberal psychological imperative to improve and transformed themselves, responding positively even in the most difficult of situations (Baker, 2009). These practices reflect women’s engagement in ‘techniques of the self’ that are constitutive of neoliberal subjectivity. The white mothers conform to the ideal of the good mother (to be) by discursively positioning themselves as taking appropriate individual care and responsibility for their pregnancies and maternal care.
The speech of the women reflects three specific discourses of liberal feminist maternity that form the basis of normative midwifery ideologies.
Firstly, the women routinely position themselves as knowledgeable consumers of authoritative maternity information provided by the health system. Critically interrogating the authority of biomedicine by coordinating and evaluating diverse sources of information is central to woman-centred discourses, where acquiring authoritative knowledge both bypasses medical control and is a way to claim empowerment, subjectivity and agency (Edwards, Davies, & Edwards, 2009). Her ‘preparation’ for motherhood through the acquisition of knowledge valorises scientific/professional knowledge rather than the informal and personalised information or social and emotional support that friends and extended family can provide (Marshall & Woollett, 2000). Authoritative professionals transmit information to individual women whose embodied, enculturated understandings and experiences are discounted or devalued. Yet individual women are expected to engage in reflexive techniques and /or practices of subjectification, to be accountable for the choices that are made, and to account for their behaviours to those who are tasked with monitoring and validated for monitoring them (Stapleton & Keenan, 2009). Thus regulatory technologies “construct an autonomous subject whose choices and desires are aligned with the objectives of the state and other social authorities and institutions” (Petersen & Lupton, 1996: 64).
Secondly, natural birth is positioned as a goal, suppressing technical and industrial discourses associated with medicalisation, except as far as they are in control of the mother. The women articulate being informed and having control, autonomy or authority despite experiencing various degrees of obstetric intervention. As middle-class women are more likely to receive the birth and/or medical treatments they desire, pregnancy and childbirth can be framed as contributing to their personal growth (Brubaker, 2007). In this paradigm of actualisation, it is assumed that intentional actions, self-discipline, self-denial and will power will achieve the ‘right’ kind of birth, and that intervention from a public health system is not a default practice but a considered choice of the mother based on information. In other words, a ‘natural birth’ does not happen naturally, but is chosen as an expression of the knowledgeable consumption discussed above.

Finally, the excerpts on intensive motherhood highlight how this responsibility for maternal self-expression and knowledge is a critical instrument of women’s control in the post-partum period. The mother’s needs are marginalised, as mothers take on most of the responsibility for nurturing and developing the sacred child. Pregnant women and their partners are subject to discipline, given that they are held responsible for maximising their own health and that of their foetus‘ and then infant’s body (Collins, 2009). Intensive mothering is intertwined with a neoliberal rationality, where individual responsibility and self-management are fore-grounded and social support is reduced compared with earlier in the perinatal period (Wall, 2001). Neoliberal discourses place individual responsibility for parenting on mothers, shifting the costs and the burden of work from public resources to household resources. The gendered aspects of these discourses are visible in the assumptions of reproductive heteronormativity, where market production separates the private and public spheres with women taking responsibility for childrearing. These discourses assume that households are based on a nuclear family; that caring labour is divided on the basis of gender, and that this labour is elastic and must expand to fit demand. In turn, the domain of the private is subject to surveillance and regulation to account for responsibilisation, or the ways in which public tasks become the responsibility of individuals, the private sector and community (Schinkel & Van Houdt, 2010; Clarke, 2004). In the postpartum, women note that they are treated like a “normal person”, a labouring, productive figure rather than the choice-making perinatal consumer. The responsibilities for infant care and repetitive ‘robotic’ household tasks seem overwhelming, and there is a sense of failure and disillusionment with the system and with providers that cannot be displaced through their well-developed information gathering strategies.
The interplay of the three discourses has significant implications for maternal mental health, as they locate the “specialness” of birth in decisions which are seen to be under the mother’s individual control, when in fact broader class positions are strongly determinant of what services and support are available. The incentives to locate maternal knowledge in an individual relationship with an authoritative caregiver produce dependence on a system that shifts risk and responsiblity onto the individual. These assumptions come to structure the professional habitus of nursing and midwifery professionals, who adopt regulatory behaviours that fail to support women who do not subscribe to white middle-class ideals. Governing occurs through the aspirations of mothers, and while the state appears to be protecting the interests of infants and parents, little in the way of actual resources are provided. These neoliberal discourses of individual responsibility constructed through dependence on knowledge also disempower women who do subscribe to these ideals, as the institutional withdrawal of support in postnatal care cannot be addressed by the skills the knowledgeable consumer has developed.
Conclusion
In recent decades the capacity of liberal feminist frameworks to provide effective support to non-Western women has been questioned, and midwifery has not been exempt. In New Zealand, the discursive emphasis of being ‘with woman’ implied in the etymology of the word midwife is central to indigenous critiques of Pākeha (white/European) midwifery (Kenney, 2011). Kenney notes that the Pākeha liberal feminist agenda privileges the individual while neglecting the familial context of pregnancy and birth. In contrast, the Māori word for midwife ‘kaiwhakawhānau’ emphasises the facilitation, creation and development of whānau (family). This discursive contrast between Māori models of midwifery has heightened significance in the context of the under-representation of Māori midwives (6.4%) when Māori births comprise approximately 28% of total births and in the context of and inequalities in birth outcomes between Māori and non-Māori (New Zealand Health Information Service 2010 cited in Kenney 2011; Ratima& Crengle, 2012). Midwifery as a profession has attempted to redress these injustices by incorporating Māori cultural principles and values (Ngā Turanga Kaupapa) in midwifery practice competencies (Kenney, 2011), and the development of cultural safety has become a central, if contested tenet of nursing education in New Zealand (Ramsden 1997; DeSouza 2008).
A consistent aim of cultural safety training in nursing has been to deconstruct the implicit racism of the healthcare system, by asking practitioners to reflect on one’s practice, values and cultural assumptions (Browne et al., 2009). In other words, it asks all of us involved in the health system to understand our own position as culture-bearers. Yet, the assumptions of white culture are hard to identify as the norms and commitments of whiteness are naturalised by their ubiquity and dominance. This culture not only shapes practitioner values but also shapes the dominant voices of those consumers who receive and evaluate care, while marginalising women outside these cultural assumptions. Operationalising critical feminist and postcolonial critiques through cultural safety can help nurses understand how the discourses they use are shaped by wider social discourses, which can then be critically interrogated (Browne, 2005). This analysis has aimed to contribute to this project by identifying three norms of white maternity that are normalised in alignment with neoliberal principles: the knowledgeable consumer, natural birth and intensive motherhood. These norms contrast to the discourses that have been identified in the literature on migrant maternity, which generally reflect less of an individualised focus on choosing the experience of birth and more on the presence or exclusion of wider family and social supports. Given the shock and isolation many women experience in the transition from impending mother to intensive mothering, critically advocating for those diverse structures of support can potentially benefit all mothers.
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Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Debbie Payne, David Allen, Ray Nairn and Tim McCreanor for their helpful conversations and feedback.

The Australian Women’s and Gender Studies Association (AWGSA) member profile

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Fearless speech or parrhesia.

Favourite food?

I have to say Goan food. It represents connection to my ancestral homeland, as well as to my family. It has sustained me through multiple migrations and immediately evokes comfort and nurturance.

What do you think is an important feminist issue in Australia at the moment?

The policies of detention and deterrence that are being invoked in the state management of asylum seekers

Why are you a member of AWGSA?

As a relative newcomer to Australia, I want to be involved in the inter-disciplinary conversations happening in feminist spaces. I attended the conference in Melbourne two years ago and made some great new friends. As a nurse socialised into a very gendered hierarchy, I have a unique contribution to makes as a feminist woman of colour, but I don’t want to be limited to conversations only within my discipline.

If you could have been at one historical event, which one would it have been?

Being a diasporic Goan I would have been interested in being at the liberation/Invasion of Goa by the Indian government.

Who are your academic/feminist heroes?

Octavia Butler (overcoming shyness, having self-belief and being committed to her writing), Audre Lorde (for living with illness, for her writing), Angela Davis (for her activism).

Where would you like to live?
Exactly where I live now, South Gippsland.

What do you appreciate most about your friends?

I’d have to say conversations that are energising, learning, rich and which mean that the friendship continues to deepen and has potential for depth and transformation.

Favourite book?

Too many to count but I’ve just been reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories and am awed by her ability to draw you into her character’s worlds. Another favourite was Americanah by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

A goal?

To learn more about the Aboriginal history of Australia and Aboriginal feminists. Not in an appropriative way but to be a better ally.

What is privilege and cultural appropriation? and why is it so difficult to talk about?

On 15 February 2016, I spoke on 612 ABC Brisbane Afternoons with Kelly Higgins-Devine about cultural appropriation and privilege. Our discussion was followed by discussion with guests: Andie Fox – a feminist and writer; Carol Vale a Dunghutti woman; and Indigenous artist, Tony Albert. I’ve used the questions asked during the interview as a base for this blog with thanks to Amanda Dell (producer).

Why has it taken so long for the debate to escape academia to be something we see in the opinion pages of publications now?

Social media and online activism have catapulted questions about identities and politics into our screen lives. Where television allowed us to switch the channel, or the topic skilfully changed at awkward moments in work or family conversations, our devices hold us captive. Simply scrolling through our social media feeds can encourage, enrage or mobilise us into fury or despair. Whether we like it or not, as users of social media we are being interpolated into the complex terrain of identity politics. Merely sharing a link on your social media feed locates you and your politics, in ways that you might never reveal in real time social conversations. ‘Sharing’ can have wide ranging consequences, a casual tweet before a flight resulted in Justine Sacco moving from witty interlocutor to pariah in a matter of hours. The merging of ‘private’ and public lives never being more evident.

How long has the term privilege been around?

The concept of privilege originally developed in relation to analyses of race and gender but has expanded to include social class, ability level, sexuality and other aspects of identity. Interestingly, Jon Greenberg points out that although people of color have fought racism since its inception, the best known White Privilege educators are white (Peggy McIntosh, Tim Wise and Robin DiAngelo). McIntosh’s 1988 paper White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies extended a feminist analysis of patriarchal oppression of women to that of people of color in the United States. This was later shortened into the essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (pdf), which has been used extensively in a a range of settings because of it’s helpful list format .

Many people have really strong reactions to these concepts – why is that?

Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicultural education and author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy developed the term ‘white fragility’ to identify:

a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation

DiAngelo suggests that for white people, racism or oppression are viewed as something that bad or immoral people do. The racist is the person who is verbally abusive toward people of color on public transport, or a former racist state like apartheid South Africa. If you see yourself as a ‘good’ person then it is painful to be ‘called out’, and see yourself as a bad person. Iris Marion Young’s work useful. She conceptualises oppression in the Foucauldian sense as:

the disadvantage and injustice some people suffer not because of a tyrannical power coerces them but because of the everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society…

Young points out the actions of many people going about their daily lives contribute to the maintenance and reproduction of oppression, even as few would view themselves as agents of oppression. We cannot avoid oppression, as it is structural and woven throughout the system, rather than reflecting a few people’s choices or policies. Its causes are embedded in the unquestioned norms, habits, symbols and assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules (Young, 1990). Seeing oppression as the practices of a well intentioned liberal society removes the focus from individual acts that might repress the actions of others to acknowledging that “powerful norms and hierarchies of both privilege and injustice are built into our everyday practices” (Henderson & Waterstone, 2008, p.52). These hierarchies call for structural rather than individual remedies.

We probably need to start with privilege – what does that term mean?

McIntosh identified how she had obtained unearned privileges in society just by being White and defined white privilege as:

an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I am meant to remain oblivious (p. 1).

Her essay prompted understanding of how one’s success is largely attributable to one’s arbitrarily assigned social location in society, rather than the outcome of individual effort.

“I got myself where I am today. Honestly, it’s not that hard. I think some people are just afraid of a little hard work and standing on their own two feet, on a seashell, on a dolphin, on a nymph-queen that are all holding them up.”
“I got myself where I am today. Honestly, it’s not that hard. I think some people are just afraid of a little hard work and standing on their own two feet, on a seashell, on a dolphin, on a nymph-queen that are all holding them up.”

From: The Birth of Venus: Pulling Yourself Out Of The Sea By Your Own Bootstraps by Mallory Ortberg 

McIntosh suggested that white people benefit from historical and contemporary forms of racism (the inequitable distribution and exercise of power among ethnic groups) and that these discriminate or disadvantage people of color.

How does privilege relate to racism, sexism? Are they the same thing?

It’s useful to view the ‘isms’ in the context of institutional power, a point illustrated by Sian Ferguson:

In a patriarchal society, women do not have institutional power (at least, not based on their gender). In a white supremacist society, people of color don’t have race-based institutional power.

Australian race scholars Paradies and Williams (2008) note that:

The phenomenon of oppression is also intrinsically linked to that of privilege. In addition to disadvantaging minority racial groups in society, racism also results in groups (such as Whites) being privileged and accruing social power. (6)

Consequently, health and social disparities evident in white settler societies such as New Zealand and Australia (also this post about Closing the gap) are individualised or culturalised rather than contextualised historically or socio-economically. Without context  white people are socialized to remain oblivious to their unearned advantages and view them as earned through merit. Increasingly the term privilege is being used outside of social justice settings to the arts. In a critique of the Hottest 100 list in Australia Erin Riley points out that the dominance of straight, white male voices which crowds out women, Indigenous Australians, immigrants and people of diverse sexual and gender identities. These groups are marginalised and the centrality of white men maintained, reducing the opportunity for empathy towards people with other experiences.

Do we all have some sort of privilege?

Yes, depending on the context. The concept of intersectionality by Kimberlé Crenshaw is useful, it suggests that people can be privileged in some ways and not others. For example as a migrant and a woman of color I experience certain disadvantages but as a middle class cis-gendered, able-bodied woman with a PhD and without an accent (only a Kiwi one which is indulged) I experience other advantages that ease my passage through the world You can read more in the essay Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.

How does an awareness of privilege change the way a society works?

Dogs and Lizards: A Parable of Privilege by Sindelókë is a helpful way of trying to understand how easy it is not to see your own privilege and be blind to others’ disadvantages. You might have also seen or heard the phrase ‘check your privilege’ which is a way of asking someone to think about their own privilege and how they might monitor it in a social setting. Exposing color blindness and challenging the assumption of race-neutrality is one mechanism for addressing the issue of privilege and its obverse oppression.  Increasingly in health and social care, emphasis is being placed on critiquing how our own positions contribute to inequality (see my chapter on cultural safety), and developing ethical and moral commitments to addressing racism so that equality and justice can be made possible. As Christine Emba notes “There’s no way to level the playing field unless we first can all see how uneven it is.” One of the ways this can be done is through experiencing exercises like the Privilege Walk which you can watch on video. Jenn Sutherland-Miller in Medium reflects on her experience of it and proposes that:

Instead of privilege being the thing that gives me a leg up, it becomes the thing I use to give others a leg up. Privilege becomes a way create equality and inclusion, to right old wrongs, to demand justice on a daily basis and to create the dialogue that will grow our society forward.

Is privilege something we can change?

If we move beyond guilt and paralysis we can use our privilege to build solidarity and challenge oppression.  Audra Williams points out that a genuine display of solidarity can require making a personal sacrifice. Citing the example of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, where in challenging the director of a commercial about the lack of women with speaking roles, he ends up not being in the commercial at all when it is re-written with speaking roles for women. Ultimately privilege does not gets undone through “confession” but through collective work to dismantle oppressive systems as Andrea Smith writes.

Cultural appropriation is a different concept, but an understanding of privilege is important, what is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that is not their own (Nadra Kareem Little). Usually it is a charge levelled at people from the dominant culture to signal power dynamic, where elements have been taken from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by the dominant group. Most critics of the concept are white (see white fragility). Kimberly Chabot Davis proposes that white co-optation or cultural consumption and commodification, can be cross-cultural encounters that can foster empathy and lead to working against privilege among white people. However, an Australian example of bringing diverse people together through appropriation backfired, when the term walkabout was used for a psychedelic dance party. Using a deeply significant word for initiation rites, for a dance party was seen as disrespectful. The bewildered organiser was accused via social media of cultural appropriation and changed the name to Lets Go Walkaround. So, I think that it is always important to ask permission and talk to people from that culture first rather than assuming it is okay to use.

What is the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?

Maisha Z. Johnson cultural appreciation  or exchange  where mutual sharing is involved.

Can someone from a less privileged culture appropriate from the more privileged culture?

No, marginalized people often have to adopt elements of the dominant culture in order to survive conditions that make life more of a struggle if they don’t.

Does an object or symbol have to have some religious or special cultural significance to be appropriated? 

Appropriation is harmful for a number of reasons including making things ‘cool’ for White people that would be denigrated in People of Color. For example Fatima Farha observes that when Hindu women in the United States wear the bindi, they are often made fun of, or seen as traditional or backward but when someone from the dominant culture wears such items they are called exotic and beautiful. The critique of appropriation extends from clothing to events Nadya Agrawal critiques The Color Run™ where you can:

run with your friends, come together as a community, get showered in colored powder and not have to deal with all that annoying culture that would come if you went to a Holi celebration. There are no prayers for spring or messages of rejuvenation before these runs. You won’t have to drink chai or try Indian food afterward. There is absolutely no way you’ll have to even think about the ancient traditions and culture this brand new craze is derived from. Come uncultured, leave uncultured, that’s the Color Run, promise.

The race ends with something called a “Color Festival” but does not acknowledge Holi. This white-washing (pun intended) eradicates everything Indian from the run including  Holi, Krishna and spring. In essence as Ijeoma Oluo points out cultural appropriation is a symptom, not the cause, of an oppressive and exploitative world order which involves stealing the work of those less privileged. Really valuing people involves valuing their culture and taking the time to acknowledge its historical and social context. Valuing isn’t just appreciation but also considering whether the appropriation of intellectual property results in economic benefits for the people who created it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar suggests that it is often one way:

One very legitimate point is economic. In general, when blacks create something that is later adopted by white culture, white people tend to make a lot more money from it… It feels an awful lot like slavery to have others profit from your efforts.

 

Loving burritos doesn’t make someone less racist against Latinos. Lusting after Bo Derek in 10 doesn’t make anyone appreciate black culture more… Appreciating an individual item from a culture doesn’t translate into accepting the whole people. While high-priced cornrows on a white celebrity on the red carper at the Oscars is chic, those same cornrows on the little black girl in Watts, Los Angeles, are a symbol of her ghetto lifestyle. A white person looking black gets a fashion spread in a glossy magazine; a black person wearing the same thing gets pulled over by the police. One can understand the frustration.

The appropriative process is also selective, as Greg Tate observes in Everything but the burden, where African American cultural properties including music, food, fashion, hairstyles, dances are sold as American to the rest of the world but with the black presence erased from it. The only thing not stolen is the burden of the denial of human rights and economic opportunity. Appropriation can be ambivalent, as seen in the desire to simultaneously possess and erase black culture. However, in the case of the appropriation of the indigenous in the United States, Andrea Smith declares (somewhat ironically), that the desire to be “Indian” often precludes struggles against genocide, or demands for treaty rights. It does not require being accountable to Indian communities, who might demand an end to the appropriation of spiritual practices.

Go West – Black: Random Coachella attendee, 2014. Red: Bison skull pile, South Dakota, 1870’s.
Go West – Black: Random Coachella attendee, 2014. Red: Bison skull pile, South Dakota, 1870’s by Roger Peet.

Some people believe the cuisines of other cultures have been appropriated – is this an extreme example, or is it something we should consider?

The world of food can be such a potent site of transformation for social justice. I am a committed foodie (“somebody with a strong interest in learning about and eating good food who is not directly employed in the food industry” (Johnston and Baumann, 2010: 61). I am also interested in the politics of food. I live in Melbourne, where food culture has been made vibrant by the waves of migrants who have put pressure on public institutions, to expand and diversify their gastronomic offerings for a wider range of people. However, our consumption can naturalise and make invisible colonial and racialised relations. Thus the violent histories of invasion and starvation by the first white settlers, the convicts whose theft of food had them sent to Australia and absorbed into the cruel colonial project of poisoning, starving and rationing indigenous people remain hidden from view. So although we might love the food we might not care about the cooks at all as Rhoda Roberts Director of the Aboriginal Dreaming festival observed in Elspeth Probyn’s excellent book Carnal Appetites:

In Australia, food and culinary delights are always accepted before the differences and backgrounds of the origin of the aroma are.

Lee’s Ghee is an interesting example of appropriation, she developed an ‘artisanal’ ghee product, something that has been made for centuries in South Asia.

Lee Dares was taking the fashion world by storm working as a model in New York when she realized her real passion was elsewhere. So, she made the courageous decision to quit her glamorous job and take some time to explore what she really wanted to do with her life. Her revelation came after she spent some time learning to make clarified butter, or ghee, on a farm in Northern India. Inspired, she turned to Futurpreneur Canada to help her start her own business, Lee’s Ghee, producing unique and modern flavours of this traditional staple of Southeast Asian cuisine and Ayurvedic medicine.

The saying “We are what we eat” is about not only the nutrients we consume but also to beliefs about our morality. Similarly ‘we’ are also what we don’t eat, so our food practices mark us out as belonging or not belonging to a group.So, food has an exclusionary and inclusionary role with affective consequences that range from curiosity, delight to disgust. For the migrant for example, identity cannot be taken for granted, it must be worked at to be nurtured and maintained. It becomes an active, performative and processual project enacted through consumption. With with every taste, an imagined diasporic group identity is produced, maintained and reinforced. Food preparation represents continuity through the techniques and equipment that are used which affirm family life, and in sharing this food hospitality, love, generosity and appreciation can be expresssed. However, the food that is a salve for the dislocated, lonely, isolated migrant also sets her apart, making her stand out as visibly, gustatorily or olfactorily different. The resource for her well being also marks her as different and a risk. If her food is seen as smelly, distasteful, foreign, violent or abnormal, these characteristics can be transposed to her body and to those bodies that resemble her. Dares attempt to reproduce food that is made in many households and available for sale in many ‘ethnic’ shops and selling it as artisanal, led to accusations of ‘colombusing’ — a term used to describe when white people  claim they have discovered or made something that has a long history in another culture. Also see the critique by Navneet Alang in Hazlitt:

The ethnic—the collective traditions and practices of the world’s majority—thus works as an undiscovered country, full of resources to be mined. Rather than sugar or coffee or oil, however, the ore of the ethnic is raw material for performance and self-definition: refine this rough, crude tradition, bottle it in pretty jars, and display both it and yourself as ideals of contemporary cosmopolitanism. But each act of cultural appropriation, in which some facet of a non-Western culture is columbused, accepted into the mainstream, and commodified, reasserts the white and Western as norm—the end of a timeline toward which the whole world is moving.

If this is the first time someone has heard these concepts, and they’re feeling confused, or a bit defensive, what can they do to understand more about it?

Here are some resources that might help, videos, illustrations, reading and more.

White privilege

Cultural appropriation

“Kiwi food is okay for Kiwis, but it isn’t okay for us”: Special food in the perinatal period for migrant mothers

I attended the 5th International Conference on Nutrition and Nurture in Infancy and Childhood: Relational, Bio-cultural and Spatial Perspectives from Wednesday, 5 November 2014 – Friday, 7 November 2014.

Those who know me or follow my work will know that I am deeply interested in eating and thinking about food. I’m interested in how food structures our days and our lives,it nourishes and sustains us, reminds us of people, events, history, all in a mouthful.

Birthday cake
A special birthday cake, made for a surfer on his special birthday.

I’ve written elsewhere about how migrants perform identity through food preparation and consumption. I’ve also written about consumptive multiculturalism. I’m also interested in the provision of food in (monocultural) institutional contexts such as health where people are racialised by the foods that they eat and how the processes of hospitalisation strip people of their cultural and social identities and often lead people into being unable to access culturally appropriate food. This presentation brings those ideas together.

Abstract

Food, its preparation and ingestion, constitutes a source of physical, emotional, spiritual and cultural nourishment. Food structures both daily life and major life transitions, including the transition to parenthood, where food is prepared and consumed that recognises the unique status of the mother. However, the reductive focus of hospitals where efficiency, economy and a focus on nutrients dominate and where birth is viewed as a normal event can mean that there is a mismatch between the cultural and religious dietary needs of migrant mothers with the food that is available from Western instititutional environments. In this paper I outline a research study, which examined the transition to parenthood among new migrant groups in New Zealand. Based on a number of focus groups with mothers and fathers, the data were analysed using a postcolonial feminist lens and drew upon Foucauldian concepts to examine the transition to parenthood. The findings show that Asian new migrant parents construct the postnatal body as vulnerable, requiring specific kinds of foods to facilitate recovery from the trials of pregnancy and delivery and optimize long term recovery from pregnancy. This discourse of risk contrasts with the dominant discourse of birth as normal, and signals the limitations of a universal diet for all postnatal mothers, where consuming the wrong food can pose a threat to good maternal health. Paying attention to what nutrition and nurturing might mean for different cultural groups during the perinatal period can contribute to long term maternal well-being and cultural safety. Health practitioners need to understand the meanings and significance attached to specific foods and eating practices in the perinatal period. I propose that institutional arrangements become responsive to dietary needs and practices by providing facilities and resources to facilitate food preparation.

I’m hoping that the written form of the paper becomes part of an edited book about mothers and food. Fingers crossed, it’s under review at the moment.

Happy Mothers’ Day

I’ve written a lot about maternity, an interest  derived from my clinical nursing practice and an interest in the intellectual and political ways in which women’s bodies have been mobilised in nationalist state interests. My interest in ‘maternity’ (the initial life-changing journey of being pregnant, giving birth and nurturing and the corporeal processes of the transition to motherhood) is supplemented with an interest in ‘mothering’ (the work of meeting the needs of and being responsible for dependent children) and ‘motherhood’ (the context where mothering occurs). All of which are shaped by the historical, the cultural, the political, the social and the moral.

Mother’s day is one of mixed emotions for many. It brings sadness for those who have lost their mothers, mothers who were never there and for mothers who were present yet absent, who didn’t fulfil the sentimental fantasy. It’s also a day when particular idealised mothers are invoked while others are made invisible as Ali Smith points out in her collection of 40 portraits of mothers in the act of mothering, Momma Love:

I am sick to death of the blandness of the “family mystique.” We all know that every family has cracks in it, and that some of those are profound. Silence, secrecy, disillusionment, lies, in my experience, are the most poisonous ingredients in any family and can exist in traditionally picture perfect households too.

I can’t stomach the lack of diversity in pop culture. I can’t stomach one more TV show that has a single character “of color” on it being considered ethnically diverse. I can’t stomach another public discourse about whether or not members of the LGBT community are complete human beings who deserve the same human rights as straight white men. I can’t stomach these things and so, I chose not to participate in them. I went the other way. I portrayed the world I see, which includes challenges and love in a variety of situations.

The ironies of celebrating this day are also pointed out in Ann Lamott‘s powerful essay about how mothers are simultaneously exalted and vilified. Her critique of mother’s day extends to the ways in which women who mother are viewed as superior and more evolved for having ‘chosen’ a  more challenging path. More importantly she points out how the focus on individual mothers means that the sociality of mothering is forgotten:

But my main gripe about Mother’s Day is that it feels incomplete and imprecise. The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering them; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat. I am the woman I grew to be partly in spite of my mother, and partly because of the extraordinary love of her best friends, and my own best friends’ mothers, and from surrogates, many of whom were not women at all but gay men. I have loved them my entire life, even after their passing.

So with these two beautiful pieces in mind, I thought I would acknowledge the gaps and silences in the pop culture version of mothering and acknowledge those who mother on the margins, without acknowledgement, without the support of the State or who mother while vilified by the State.

Happy Mother's day chilout

I dedicate this day to those who have birthed and brought into being projects and works that were a labour of love into the world in forms other than flesh. I acknowledge those who grieve for their mothers, for those whose mothering is painful, for those who can’t be mothers but contribute to their communities and families. I acknowledge fathers, extended family, grandparents and “other” mothers that mother. I pay tribute to those mothers who mother against the odds, who mother while in detention, under occupation, in war, in poverty, in prison, in marginalised spaces and places. I salute the mothers whose mothering knowledges have been marginalised by colonisation, by assimilation, by racism, by the medicalisation of the body. I bless the animal mothers we share this earth with, I give thanks to our Earth mother who nourishes and sustains us all. Let us all acknowledge those who create and bring to life, those who nurture and sustain life and those who plant seeds, care for and protect.

Mother's day

Dedication: This blog is dedicated to both my grandmothers who died in May 1965 and who I never met, but whose presences have been with me. For Joyce and Kadogo Ayagwe, always in my heart.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Rosemarie North for reminding me of the plural, to Alison Barrett for reminding me of Anne Lamott’s great piece and to Danny Butt for sharing the Momma Love link.

Korean migrant mothers on giving birth in Aotearoa New Zealand

Cite as: DeSouza, Ruth. (2014). One woman’s empowerment is another’s oppression: Korean migrant mothers on giving birth in Aotearoa New Zealand. Journal of Transcultural Nursing. doi: 10.1177/1043659614523472.  Download pdf (262KB) DeSouza J Transcult Nurs-2014.

Published online before print on February 28, 2014.

Abstract

Purpose: To critically analyze the power relations underpinning New Zealand maternity, through analysis of discourses used by Korean migrant mothers. Design: Data from a focus group with Korean new mothers was subjected to a secondary analysis using a discourse analysis drawing on postcolonial feminist and Foucauldian theoretical ideas. Results: Korean mothers in the study framed the maternal body as an at-risk body, which meant that they struggled to fit into the local discursive landscape of maternity as empowering. They described feeling silenced, unrecognized, and uncared for. Discussion and Conclusions: The Korean mothers’ culturally different beliefs and practices were not incorporated into their care. They were interpellated into understanding themselves as problematic and othered, evidenced in their take up of marginalized discourses. Implications for practice: Providing culturally safe services in maternity requires considering their affects on culturally different women and expanding the discourses that are available.

Keywords: focus group interview, cultural safety, Korean women, maternal, postcolonial, Foucault.

Introduction

A feature of contemporary maternity is the notion that birth can be empowering for women if they take charge of the experience by being informed consumers. However, maternity is not necessarily empowering for all mothers. In this article, I suggest that the discourses of the Pākehā maternity system discipline and normalize culturally different women by rendering their mothering practices as deviant and patho- logical. Using the example of Korean migrant mothers, I begin the article by contextualizing maternity care in New Zealand and outlining Korean migration to New Zealand. The research project is then detailed, followed by the findings, which show the ways in which Korean mothers are interpellated as others in maternity services in New Zealand. I conclude the article with a brief discussion on the implications for nursing and midwifery with a particular focus on cultural safety.

You can read the rest at: Journal of Transcultural Nursing or download DeSouza TCN proof.

I wish we cared about every new baby, the way we care about the Royal baby.

Sleeping beauty fairies

As a child I was enchanted by the idea of princesses and fairy godmothers and obsessed with the story of Sleeping Beauty. I even directed classmates in a play version of it in the playground of my Nairobi primary school. In case you aren’t familiar with the story, three good fairies arrive to bless the infant princess. Using their magic wands, one gives her the gift of beauty and the second the gift of song, but before the third can give her blessing, an evil fairy appears and curses the princess because she wasn’t invited to the christening ceremony. The curse is that the princess will die when she touches a spinning wheel’s spindle before sunset on her sixteenth birthday. Luckily the third fairy who was interrupted from her wish making uses her blessing to weaken the curse so that instead of death, the princess will fall into a deep sleep until she is awakened by a kiss.

Since the Royal baby was born, there has been a lot of fanfare with landmarks in London and all over the world lit up to celebrate the birth of the Royal baby. Many in both red and blue leading up to the birth and then blue upon confirmation of the baby’s gender. Former colonies have also got in on the act with almost 40 buildings in New Zealand partaking in the lighting frenzy. This baby has certainly had the Royal treatment in the media:

Daily mail Royal delivery
Daily mail Royal delivery

Led to creative gestures like this one from the crew of the HMS Lancaster based in the Caribbean:

Crew of HMS Lancaster
Crew of HMS Lancaster

I’ve loved the idea of being able to bestow wishes, fancying myself as a fairy godmother even if I haven’t had a magic wand. Working on a postnatal ward in the 90s, I would wish every infant and their family a wonderful new life. The birth of the Royal baby has rekindled my desire for godmothership, so this is what I wish for every infant, mother,  and family:

  • I wish the arrival of every infant in the world was greeted with the same sense of anticipation and enthusiasm as the Royal arrival.
  • I wish every mother, infant and family could receive the same “care” as the Royals will.
  • I wish “we” cared as much about maternal and infant mortality around the world.
  • I wish “we” cared as much about “other” mothers who aren’t supported in their mothering and against whom active measures are taken to regulate and surveil their bodies merely because of the accident of their own circumstances.
  • I wish we could remember the resources that have been extracted globally to maintain the Royal Family in the lifestyle they are accustomed to and that these could be redistributed.

Oxfam babyHowever, all babies are not created equal and neither are all mothers. Regulating the reproduction of those considered to be a burden on society has been a way to secure and control the well-being of the population, leading to the surveillance and management of women’s bodies. The quality and quantity of the populations been an enduring concern of governments, a concern which has seen two kinds of policies, the ones that encourage some mothers to procreate (pronatalist) and others that discourage or even coerce other mothers from reproducing (antinatalist).

Our recent colonial history is emblematic of these concerns, reflecting a shift from Malthusian anxiety about over-population and the inability of the environment to support growth to a concern with the quality of the population. In white settler nations pronatalist movements often had nationalist overtones, equating international prominence with demographic strength, requiring both productive and reproductive capacity. For example in the United States, Republican motherhood was a site of civic virtue, demonstrated through bearing arms if you were a man and producing and rearing sons if you were a woman. These sons would embody republican virtues, even if as a woman you were excluded from citizenship.

1789 Charles Willson Peale 1741-1827 Mary Gibson (Mrs. Richard Tilghman) & sons. Maryland Historical Society.
18th-Century American Mothers & Their Children By Charles Willson Peale

Fears of ‘race suicide’ arose in early 20th Century Australia, New Zealand and the United States and made motherhood a political duty for white women in the interests of the nation and the health of the race. Reproducing white citizens in the colonies was a patriotic duty for women superseding involvement in public affairs. The concern about ‘race suicide’ was attributed to middle class women neglecting their duties by not having children while ‘other’ women (migrant, indigenous or working class) had too many in white settler societies. Anglo-Saxon middle class’ individualised mothering contrasted with shared child rearing that was more common in other societies. This resulted in women from those communities, for example immigrant and indigenous women, being labelled as bad mothers. Evolutionary theory played a role in demarcating good and bad mothering: Anglo-Saxon and Northern European women were positioned on the top of the hierarchy of the ‘races’ and were the only women capable of being good mothers irrespective of what other mothers did. Such women bore the responsibility for ensuring the well-being of their families, the future of the nation and the progress of the race. Anglo-Saxon mothers were thus both exalted and pressured.

Market Court, Kensington High Street, London
Market Court, Kensington High Street, London

It has always been easier to focus on the management of mothers rather than politically challenging public health issues. Schemes to address maternal malpractice such as health visitors (whose job it was to keep surveillance and intervene to educate women) were initiated to ensure that the British working class mother was subjected to the imperatives of the infant welfare movement and became a ‘responsible’ mother. A proliferation of organisations to promote public health and domestic hygiene among the working class thrived, assisted by upper or middle class women. This class-based maternalism in Europe and North America reflected a race-based maternalism in the colonies, where Europeans challenged and transformed indigenous mothering in the name of “civilisation, modernity and scientific medicine” (Jolly, 1998, p.1). Similarly, in colonised countries the ‘cleaning up’ of birth was achieved through both surveillance and improved hygiene and sanitation. Sadly, interventions have involved the removal of children, most notably in the Stolen Generation in Australia, where Aboriginal – and some Torres Strait Islander – children were forcibly removed from their families by Australian Federal, State and Territory government agencies, and church missions, from the late 1800s to the 1970s and children sent either to institutions or adopted by non-Indigenous families.

Slightly late..
Slightly late..

A grassroots campaign calling for a national apology led to the first national Sorry Day on 26 May 1998 marked by ceremonies, rallies and meetings. Sadly, Australian Greens leader Bob Brown’s move to amend the sorry motion by offering “just compensation to all those who suffered loss” – was voted out by all the non-Green Australian Senators.

Australia Day 2008. The ‘Sorry’ writing was commissioned by a private person. Photo: Michael Davies, Flickr
Australia Day 2008. The ‘Sorry’ writing was commissioned by a private person. Photo: Michael Davies, Flickr

Forced sterilisations without consent occurred as recently as between 2006 and 2010 where prison doctors sterilized 150 California women. The targets of Golden State prisons were people with a mental illness or who were poor. The practice was eventually banned in 1979, but even by 1933, California had subjected more people to  forceful sterilization than all other U.S. states combined. This eugenic programme spread to Nazi Germany where extreme anti-natal racial hygiene doctrines were implemented against ‘unfit mothers’. Anti-natalist ideologies have often occurred concurrently with pronatalist ones. Women with mental or physical impairments or ethnically ‘other’ women such as Jews, Gypsies and Slavs were forcibly sterilised and abortions conducted, while Hitler simultaneously supported initiatives for the growth of a strong German Nazi Volk through a virtuous German motherhood. Breastfeeding in Nazi Germany was obligatory and women were awarded the Mutterkreuz medal (Honour of the German Mother (Ehrenkreuz der deutschen Mutter) for rearing four or more children.

MothersCross

So how will the other children born in the UK on 22 July 2013 fare? Emily Harle in The new Prince and his 2,000 birthday buddies paints a bleak picture. To summarise, 226 children of the 2,000 will live in overcrowded, temporary or run down housing, 11 will be homeless. 540 children will live in poverty. 8 children will die before their first birthdays and poor housing and low quality healthcare will be contributing factors.13  children will be taken into care during their childhood and have around five different sets of carers and nine of them will leave school with no qualifications. 120 will have a disability and 40 will have difficulty accessing services, support and activities that their able-bodied friends can. 25 of the 2,000 will be young carers who look after ill or disabled family members. Eleven of the children born on the same day will suffer from severe depression during their childhood, and 500 will experience mental illness during their lives, half of whom will have reported that the problem began before they were 18.

State handouts

Seumas Milne contends that the monarchy embodies inequality and fosters a “phonily apolitical conservatism”. The hypocrisy at the heart of the celebration of the monarchy is seen in the British government’s preaching of democracy globally, whilst supporting an undemocratic system at home through an unelected head of state and an appointed second chamber giving the monarchy significant unaccountable powers and influence aside from the more visible deferential culture and invented traditions.

The festivities to mark the Royal baby’s arrival are likely to continue for some time but let’s not forget the ‘other’ mothers, infants and families for whom there are no celebrations and for whom there will never be. Let us not forget that not all lives are equal, there are those whose lives are valued and those who aren’t. Most of all, let’s do something about it.

Niagara lit blue
Niagara Falls turns blue to celebrate the arrival of the royal baby.

Regulating migrant maternity: Nursing and midwifery’s emancipatory aims and assimilatory practices

I’ve just had the first paper from my PhD published: DeSouza, R. (2013), Regulating migrant maternity: Nursing and midwifery’s emancipatory aims and assimilatory practices. Nursing Inquiry. doi: 10.1111/nin.12020

In contemporary Western societies, birthing is framed as transformative for mothers; however, it is also a site for the regulation of women and the exercise of power relations by health professionals. Nursing scholarship often frames migrant mothers as a problem, yet nurses are imbricated within systems of scrutiny and regulation that are unevenly imposed on ‘other’ mothers. Discourses deployed by New Zealand Plunket nurses (who provide a universal ‘well child’ health service) to frame their understandings of migrant mothers were analysed using discourse analysis and concepts of power drawn from the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, read through a postcolonial feminist perspective. This research shows how Plunket nurses draw on liberal feminist discourses, which have emancipatory aims but reflect assimilatory practices, paradoxically disempowering women who do not subscribe to ideals of individual autonomy. Consequently, the migrant mother, her family and new baby are brought into a neoliberal project of maternal improvement through surveillance. This project – enacted differentially but consistently among nurses – attempts to alter maternal and familial relationships by ‘improving’ mothering. Feminist critiques of patriarchy in maternity must be supplemented by a critique of the implicitly western subject of maternity to make empowerment a possibility for all mothers.

 

 

Refugee women in New Zealand: Findings and recommendations

Today on International Women’s Day, it seems apt to share this article that I wrote on behalf of our research team for the Women’s Health Action Update, volume 16, Number 43, December 2012. Women’s Health Action is a charitable trust, that works to “provide women with high quality information and education services to enable them to maintain their health and make informed choices about their health care”. Their focus is on health promotion and disease prevention and they are particularly supportive of breastfeeding and screening. Their vision is ‘Well women empowered in a healthy world’.

More than 80 per cent of the world’s refugees are women and their dependent children. Often women of refugee backgrounds [1]are constructed within deficit frames as having high needs. This representation is problematic as it deflects attention from considering broader historical, social, systemic and political factors and the adequacy of resettlement support.

Little is known about the experiences of women who enter New Zealand through the Women at Risk category identified by The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This category constitutes up to 75 places (10%) of New Zealand’s annual refugee quota of 750. Refugee Services worked with AUT University and the three Strengthening Refugee Voices Groups in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to undertake a project to examine the resettlement experiences of women who enter New Zealand through this category or become sole heads of households as a consequence of their resettlement experiences. This project was funded by the Lotteries Community Sector Research Fund.

The project was important not only for its findings but also for the research process, which focused on strengths, social justice, community development and transformative research. This transformative agenda aimed to enhance the wellbeing of refugee background women by focussing on the roots of inequality in the structures and processes of society rather than in personal or community pathology (Ledwith, 2011). Within this frame we were committed to constructing refugee women as an asset rather than deploying a deficit model of refugee women as a burden for the receiving society (Butler, 2005).

Focus groups were held in 2009 and 2010 with women who entered New Zealand as refugees under the formal category ‘Women at Risk’ or became women who were sole heads of households once they arrived in New Zealand. Women that took part had lived in New Zealand from between five months to sixteen years.  Lengthy consultations were held with the three Strengthening Refugee Voices groups in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch prior to undertaking data collection, in order to scope and refine the research focus and process. These groups were subsequently contracted to provide services and support.

Key findings

Although support needs are similar to all refugees arriving in New Zealand, there were unique and exacerbated gender issues. Refugee background women experienced a double burden of stress with half the support, especially as they parented on their own. This is despite the tremendous unpaid and voluntary support provided by faith and ethnic community members. Women frequently postponed their own aspirations in order to assure the future of their children. When they were ready to take up further education (including English language classes) or employment, limited assistance was then available (given the focus on early resettlement) leading to women feel disadvantaged.

We have made several recommendations based around several specific themes. More broadly we recommended that:

  • More intensive and longer term instititutional support be made available from agencies such as Refugee Services.
  • Subsidised practical help be made available.
  • Assistance to broaden sources of support and networks is goven.
  • Subsidised English language lessons and childcare are available.
  • That a one stop shop/holistic support from culturally and linguistically skilled refugee community insiders be provided.

Parenting

Raising children in New Zealand brought new stresses. These included concern about the loss of culture, values and language and losing their children to less palatable values including the consumption of alcohol and drugs, gender mixing and loss of respect for elders. Women addressed these issues in a range of ways that included trying different less hierarchical styles of parenting, attempting to spend more time with their children, engaging them in broader supports eg mosque. However, a few women had the experience of losing their children through the intervention of CYFS and felt disempowered in their interactions with CYFS and with schools.

  • Programme for parenting for Refugee women, particularly around issues such as discipline, inter-generational gender issues
  • Programmes for young people.
  • Cultural competence training for CYFS.

Family reunification

Living in New Zealand is difficult for women who are conscious of their own comfort while other family members struggle. However, the cost of bringing family members over is prohibitive and the costs involved in providing support in the form of phone calls and remittances add a burden to already stretched lives of the women. The importance of extended family is highlighted for women on their own and the kinds of help that could be provided by family members. Additional stresses are the requirement that refugee women are able to support their families once they arrive in New Zealand. The process is also made difficult by the lack of transparency in the immigration process.

  • Prioritise the reunification with family for women who are here on their own.
  • Provide financial support to women.
  • Increase transparency of the processes and decisions that are made.

Health system

Women encountered a different health system that at times was difficult to navigate. Many women felt that their health concerns were not taken seriously and that the health system created new problems. In terms of some health beliefs and stigma there was value in having more culturally appropriate services available. The surfeit of refugee background health professionals was a potential resource that was not being used.

  • Train and employ a more ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse health workforce at all levels
  • Develop culturally responsive services.
  • Examine the affordability of services.
  • Develop cultural competence of staff working in health services.

Education

The cost and availability of day care for Refugee women on their own is prohibitive in some cases consuming the lion’s share of their income/benefit. Taking up loans in order to finance their own educations is also a problem. This prevents women from achieving their own goals such as learning English, driving or further education, which would assist them in the long term with employment and independence. Women generally considered their own advancement as secondary to their children. If women were resourced financially to gain an education this would assist them to also be a resource for their children. Having long-term support to enter the workforce would also be of benefit.

  • Subsidised day care for women on their own.
  • Mentoring.
  • Scholarships for further education.

Employment

Women were concerned that their children were not getting employed despite tertiary qualifications. Barriers to employment included: ‘lack’ of New Zealand experience, language barriers, their perceived difference (clothing, culture, skin colour) and paucity of appropriate childcare, poor public transport. The impacts of unemployment included losing their dignity, health impacts of taking inappropriate jobs, boredom

  • Subsidised driving lessons, support with transport
  • More work with employers to destigmatise refugee workers
  • Work mentoring/brokering services
  • Support for family members who come into New Zealand through the reunification category to obtain further education

Racism

Refugee women and their families experienced a range of racism related harms that were instititutional and interpersonal taking physical and verbal forms. Their clothes and accent marked them out, and verbal altercations saw stereotypes being invoked particularly around Islamophobia and discourses of war on terror. Women deployed a range of strategies to cope with racism including minimising the racism and helping their children to cope with it.

  • Social marketing campaigns
  • Community education
  • Addressing structural racism
  • National conversation on racism
  • National campaign against racism

The research team hope that this research provides a snapshot of the role and value of various sectors in enabling or constraining the resettlement of refugee background women. This could contribute to better informing theory, practice and policy in order that the self-determination and resilience of refugee background women and their communities is supported.

 


[1] Note that terms like ‘refugee background women’ and ‘communities’ refer to highly diverse groups of people (Butler, 2005). In capturing the experiences of refugee women as sole heads of households, we were mindful of the potential that using a category could imply a “single, essential, transhistorical refugee condition” (Malkki, 1995, p.511).