To be honest, I’m angry.

I’m a 48-year-old Black woman. There, l said it. It is how people see me regardless of my accomplishments. It doesn’t matter that l have three degrees, now seeking my fourth. I am not recognized as an entrepreneur with an emerging business that helps families bring healthy babies into this world while maintaining the health of birthing individual. The fact that the mortality rate of Black women during childbirth is two to three times higher than any other demographic in Virginia is what pushes my organization to address the root causes of these tragedies while providing culturally appropriate care; still, my advocacy efforts mean nothing. It doesn’t even matter that l work in one of America’s most trusted professions. I’ve saved more lives with this Black face than the person sitting next to me, yet what matters first to most is that l am Black.

Sweatpants and Zen (because I don’t drink coffee) just isn’t working for me right now.

To the misinformed, being Black in white America means that l am unable to speak articulately, that I am from a one-parent household, and that I am a product of affirmative action. Furthermore, my successes must be a mixture of favors and good luck versus hard, pride swallowing work. It means that because I don’t meet these criteria, I must be from another country or don’t proprietarily own my success. “You are not from here, where are you from?” White America probes as they have already written my narrative before I tell my story.

The preconceived notions that many think about Black Americans don’t match my resume. I identify as a Black, college-educated, middle-class female entrepreneur. The look of shock and horror displayed when I open my mouth to speak the words that hold both my truth and the reality of my ancestors is surprising. My unsolicited judges attribute my successes to the fact that I am a “token.” “You must have grown up with articulate parents,” they say as they continue with “compliments” such as “I’m glad you don’t do what they do”, “you’re too beautiful to be Black”, and “you must have had someone help you to get where you are because I just don’t see how you accomplished all of this.” The word “they” having been thrown around loosely as though I somehow belong yet don’t belong to the group that I self-identify with. Nonetheless, I am me.

These words, intended for pragmatic consumption, did not feel positive or comforting. Every speaker stood proudly as they believed they had boosted my confidence. I’m BETTER than them, their words seemed to convey. Little did they know, these words held daggers that pierced my heart. Despite the fact that statistics continue to show that Black women are the highest educated group in the United States, the feeling emerged that I could not own and celebrate my accomplishments because, based on society, my successes weren’t my own. My story speaks for itself.

Being a Black female entrepreneur means that your achievements and ideas go unnoticed, copied, or given to others with the backing of the very funding you were seeking. Your knowledge used and copied by those who have the financial means to move your vision forward with no credit given for your life’s work. It means that to start your vision, you must ask repetitively for mentorship in fields that you know you must understand in order to help your people. It means if you ask for too much or not in the right way that you are shunned or ridiculed. So, instead, you resort to books and expensive courses to get to the knowledge you need. Being a minority within a group of thousands means you may have to divulge that you need help but then subsequently have to endure the deafening silence related to the preconceived assumption that you want something for “free” or can’t afford the service you are requesting. Being Black means that you must do four times as much as the average entrepreneur and worry every day that your hard work will be destroyed because someone decided that on a particular day, they would work to dismantle everything you’ve worked to achieve. This simple thought keeps me up at night because starting over isn’t as simple as sinking another $30K into a business venture, it means adverse maternal health outcomes and inevitably more unnecessary death. The color of my skin helps us to lose donors and critical funding that would help us to grow exponentially. Funding that would help to put more individuals of color to work in a field that they love. Strangely enough, the double entendre of saying that I am thankful for my vision and success in achieving the goals set before me leaves me even more conflicted. When society tells me to “pull myself up by my bootstraps”, a phrase commonly misrepresented by those who feel they understand what Dr. Martin Luther King was saying during the Civil Rights movement, I consciously choose to carry the injustices dealt to my community. My feet are tired, and my heart is heavy.

The price we pay for being Black means we fight for justice at a considerable cost. The cost is being marginalized and ignored, talked down to, and denied critical funding, all while being pitted against other Black businesses. Black entrepreneurs are approached by white “allies” wanting to do good work, but many times partnership comes at the detriment of Black companies when said allies choose to endorse negativity and division amongst Black counterparts instead of supporting the mission of creating a more just society. The heavy lifting is done by the black entrepreneur, while the ally gets recognition for supporting the cause. Ally-ship can even transform into White organizations moving into predominantly black communities, pushing out the very businesses that the community built, which affects jobs and community self-sufficiency. Do l have something to lose? ABSOLUTELY. The words of our last potential donor before shutting our doors to a longstanding branch of our operation rings in my ears as I remember us looking for space and paying five times what our white counterparts paid. “You should be thankful that they let you stay here.” As if staying there and paying thousands per month for the entire building for over eleven years was a “gift.” How can you walk away from those words unscathed, and yet the disrespect ensues?

The Black narrative could be so different. My story would be completely different if our predominantly white society would take the initiative of educating themselves and eliminating the systemic intricacies created to maintain a status quo of black inferiority. This process would require each individual to use introspection to recognize overt, covert, and sometimes subconscious biases that lie within themselves, their associates, and at the precipice of the systemic oppression that exists in America today. The reason? Justice and equality for all. It is almost impossible to experience this kind of pain without the chance to live in my shoes, so when society finds themselves unable to fully relate and understand my struggle, they must remember that it is empathy and not sympathy that will promote change. If I fail in this message to add that I have been helped along the way, I am by society’s standards selfish. So let the record show, I have had some fantastic angels who deeply believe in this cause. Even still, I walk a thin line and remain conflicted because I am thankful yet still know that addressing systemic issues that hold marginalized populations down must be a top priority.

In 400 years, the world has developed an “unequally yoked” society where the lack of dismantling racist policies coupled with depicting Black people as inferior has obliterated the Black image. The system that currently exists states that changes to policy for the betterment of others is somehow less worthy of recognition and isn’t considered “newsworthy’ unless the world is rioting. The capitalistic view of success is about comfort. This definition of “success” allows us to gloss over necessary policy changes such as the lack of affordable and accessible medical care, food, and housing. Things such as low wages, poor living conditions, and environmental stressors are low in priority when individuals are not subjected to its effects. It somehow matters less that human rights are being violated when tables are full and society lives in a safe environment with excellent school systems, high-paying jobs, and big box stores nearby. Sometimes, the individuals who benefit from privilege can’t see this suffering because they aren’t suffering personally. The system displays the Black community’s pain as ignorance in need of a handout while simultaneously exploiting what it believes to be our best attributes, like athleticism and culture. It consistently fails to address the root cause of the issues behind our pain: SYSTEMIC RACISM and the dehumanization of hard-working, Black Americans who remain invisible in the American story. In lieu of my accomplishments, I, too, feel both invisible and completely seen because of the color of my skin.

As I sit reading this morning, I come across words that remind me that we have so long glossed over privilege in our society. It’s a privilege for you to read my words and not worry about the backlash that may occur. Despite my notoriety, I walk in fear, and yet again, my lack of privilege shows. Black birthing families and their babies continue to die every day, BUT I am fighting for their rights to live healthy and productive lives in world that is compassionate, just, and humane. This is the story of my Black sisters and brothers and every marginalized population across the world.

I’m angry, and l have a right to be.

Stephanie Spencer is known and respected by the maternal and newborn health community in the Richmond and Hampton Roads areas. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Urban Baby Beginnings (UBB) and holds several roles in promoting safer motherhood and newborn health.

Through her work, Stephanie has been a vocal and consistent advocate for improving maternal health equality and reproductive justice. She seeks ways to provide access to high quality maternal and newborn community support for all mothers and their children while addressing systemic issues affecting families across the state. As a member of state and local teams, her voice has been at the forefront of initiatives implemented to address disparities such as employment, health, nutrition, and education. Stephanie piloted a safe sleep initiative that lead to the formation of a state-level safe sleep committee that brought awareness to dangerous sleep practices and the lack of affordable bedding for newborns. Through the Urban Baby Beginnings Community Doula workforce innovation program she spearheaded, Stephanie highlighted the importance of creating jobs for families. She prioritized the initiative to put mothers, who were trained as maternal health advocates, to go back to work with a sustainable living wage at the forefront of her work. Urban Baby Beginning’s program is one of the first Doula programs in the state of Virginia to focus on making culturally appropriate doula and nursing support accessible to all. Under her leadership, Urban Baby Beginnings has been recognized as an innovative and supportive maternal health model throughout the state.

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