I Am Not a Crack Baby: Reproductive Justice and the Politics of Resistance
Sept 6, 2018 at 10:30am
IMANI GANDY: Well, hello. My name is Imani Gandy. I'm Senior Legal Analyst at Rewire.news. I'm also co-host of the "Boom! Lawyered" podcast. You may know me as @AngryBlackLady on Twitter where I'm known for my hilarious recaps of “Supernatural,” my biting political commentary, and my mission to expose big spinach for the lies that it has been telling the public for decades. [audience laughter]
Seriously. Google it. Google my name and “spinach.” It’s a whole thing.
But there's something else that you might not know about me. When I was about 12 years old, I convinced myself that I was a crack baby. Now, I know that's kind of a big bombshell to drop at the beginning of a speech, but I’m gonna drop it. And I'm gonna just leave it there for a while, like a big elephant in the room, like a big pink elephant that’s high on crack cocaine. [audience laughter]
But I will get around to telling you how reproductive justice essentially saved me from myself.
Loretta Ross, who is one of the founders of reproductive justice, once said that, “Storytelling is a reclamation project of reclaiming your voice, yourself, your truth, helping you to discharge all of the negative things that you've internalized about those things so that you can use your fullest and best thinking to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life.”
Those words ring true for me as an adoptee who didn’t know who her birth parents were. And despite being a very curious child and very serious about Harriet the Spy and Nancy Drew — thank you very much — I never really bothered to investigate. I simply made something up – “crack baby” – and went with it. No further discussion, no need to ask my mom or dad who my bio parents were until more than 30 years later, when I got an alarming call from my doctor. “We found a mass in your brain,” they said. I know. It's amazing the shit that will go through your head when you hear the words “mass in your brain.” And I did a lot of self-reflection as I contemplated whether or not I was going to die. I'm not. Don't worry. It’s benign. Well, I am, but we all are, right? So eventually. [audience laughter]
But this tumor's not gonna kill me. Hopefully.
But I began to reexamine what I thought I knew about myself, which led to a startling discovery that completely changed how I viewed myself up to that point. That discovery made me angry, it made me sad, and it also made me laugh because it made me realize how absurd I had been. And finally, it made me resolute. It was then – [baby in audience starts crying]
Exactly. [all laugh]
It was then that my commitment to doing what I could to ensure that no Black child has to grow up believing that she is less than or other than or worse than due to stereotypes that are foisted upon us by history, history written by white people primarily, by the way, who relied upon Black women to give birth to the economy of this nation before deciding that they were done with us.
And since I believe in the power of storytelling, I'm going to tell you the story that led me to become resolute, that led me to here, ultimately, that led me to leave the private practice of law so that I could start my recovery process, that led me to my place within the reproductive justice movement, and to make common cause with all of the social justice issues that RJ encompasses.
But first let me explain what reproductive justice is. Simply put, reproductive justice has three core values: the right to have a child; the right to not have a child; and the right to parent the children that we have in a healthy and safe environment. The term was coined back in 1994 by a group of women of color who felt like the white, cis pro-choice movement didn't speak to their needs, that the pro-choice movement’s primarily singular focus on abortion rights didn't speak to the ways in which social, economic, and environment justice issues converge to shape the lives of women of color.
Loretta Ross, again, describes reproductive justice as the following: “a positive approach that links sexuality, health, and human rights to social justice movements by placing abortion and reproductive health issues in the larger context of the wellbeing and health of women, families, and communities. Because reproductive justice seamlessly integrates those individual and group human rights, particularly important to marginalized communities.”
Now, reproductive justice was borne out of a need for Black women to tell their own stories and to talk about their own reproductive health without judgment, to connect to their community and to their ancestors, and to rid themselves of stereotypes that society has burdened us with. Reproductive justice attacks stereotypes and gives voice to Black women as individuals. It recognizes that every human being has human rights, but not all of us share the same oppressions. Sometimes the oppressions that we face intersect, but an RJ framework recognizes that Black women's lives are a sum of our experiences and that our experiences are not a monolith. So myriad issues converge to shape Black women’s reality, issues like affordable health care, contraception, funding for food assistance and welfare, funding for housing, funding for childcare, funding for quality education, and funding for school lunches for kids who can't afford it. Public funding for abortion, opposing stand your ground laws, strengthening environmental laws so that our children aren't exposed to environmental toxins or dirty drinking water like the people of Flint have for years now.
These issues converge to shape the reality of other marginalized communities as well, and I don’t intend to suggest that they don’t. But that's the beauty of reproductive justice, right? It was borne partly of Black women's historical struggle against racism, sexism, and poverty. But it was also borne of the historical struggle of Native and Indigenous women against settler colonialism. And it has expanded since then to include the struggle of marginalized people, all of whom seek reproductive liberation, whether they're a person of color, whether they’re trans, disabled, or any of the myriad identities that exist among us. The fight for reproductive justice is resistance at its essence. We resist efforts to control or bodies, and we refuse to cede that control to anyone.
So now that I've given you a quick primer about what reproductive justice is, let's get back to that big crack baby elephant in the room. Because up till now, you’ve been thinking, “Well, this is all well and good, but can she get back to that crack baby business? ‘Cause that shit sounded weird.”[all laugh]
So, let me start off by filling you in on a not-so-little secret, one that you may already know if you follow me on Twitter or have heard me talking about this elsewhere. I’m a Black woman raised by a white woman. My white woman is a very, very pale Jewish woman. Love her to death! I had access to all the white privilege that I could get my hands on through my mother. She's like my white privilege Pokémon, right? [audience laughter]
When teachers would refuse to put me in gifted classes, it was my mom who would walk into the school administration office and set them straight. “I challenge you!” she would say.
Now, here's a little anecdote that's a real kick in the pants. When I was in the 4th grade, I got accused of poisoning my teacher. Now, that actually happened. This woman—Mrs. Clay; I will never forget it—literally thought that I was trying to kill her. All I was doing was writing something down off the blackboard. I was in the school room a little bit earlier than I was supposed to be ‘cause I was just writing stuff down. But no matter what I told this woman, she was convinced that I was trying to put poison into her coffee and wouldn't relent until I had to haul my mother into school to talk to the principal. And once they saw my mother's white skin, and once my mother had given them her best, “Bitch, really,” everything was magically fine.
The point of all of this is that I haven’t had a rough life. And despite the fact that I grew up white privilege adjacent, I still couldn't escape the stereotypes that burden Black women in this country. I've had doctors ask me on a first visit how many children I have. Not whether I have children, but how many. And it’s those stereotypes that contribute to the reproductive oppression that Black women face.
But back to that crack baby elephant in the room. So it’s a funny story, and really, don't feel badly about laughing. But underlying this story is a real element of tragedy that gets to the heart of what it’s like to grow up as a Black girl in this country even if you have almost all of the advantages that a white kid has, which I absolutely did. So, let me explain. I was adopted when I was 3 months old. I always knew that I was adopted. My parents never hid that fact from me, but they didn't have a whole lot of information about who my birth parents were. I didn’t know where I came from. And so during my angsty pre-teen years – and let me tell you, I was a real pain in the ass back then – I made up my own origin story for myself. Now, origin stories are supposed to be fun, you know, like “Peter Parker got bit by a radioactive spider!” Or “Superman was launched from the planet Krypton.” And you know, “Thanos maybe had a point.” OK. Maybe not that last one. [audience laughter]
That might be going a bit too far.
But my origin story wasn't quite so glamorous since I had convinced myself that I was a crack baby. It was the 80s, and crack babies were all the rage. The media was going nuts over crack babies, which the media called—and this is a quote—“a permanent bio underclass, a generation of physically-damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth.” So 1989 was the year that I started high school. I know I look a lot younger than I am. [audience chuckles]
But I started high school in 1989, and it was a hard year for me, what with puberty and all of that nonsense. I was really trying to figure out who I was, and I had landed on crack baby years early, based really on nothing at all but media nonsense. And the ramp-up in the news in the late 80s and the early 90s only cemented what I knew in my heart to be true. So here are some actual headlines from back then. “Disaster in the making, crack babies start to grow up.” So I felt like I was a disaster when I was 14, so I had to be a crack baby, right? Here’s another headline: “Crack babies, born to life of suffering.” Well, I felt like I was suffering. You know, like my mom wouldn't let me go see The Cure when I wanted to, so clearly, I was a crack baby. [laughter]
So this is a true story. I actually read these headlines, and I thought that they were talking about me. I had behavioral challenges growing up. I have ADD, I was hyperactive, I was unruly, but it never occurred to me that I was just kind of an asshole and not a crack baby. But that’s how saturated the media was with the talk of crack babies. And there were so few positive images of Black motherhood on TV aside from power lawyer and Black mom extraordinaire Clair Huxtable. And I figured, if I was born to a Clair Huxtable type, I wouldn't have been put up for adoption in the first place.
But as I mentioned, in 2007, I got that phone call from my doctor: “we found a small mass in your brain.” Never something you wanna hear a doctor say. And at that moment, I knew it was time for me to start putting those Harriet the Spy skills to good use. I’d ignored them for so long. It was time to just really get into it. And that basically just meant calling up my mom and saying, “Hey, do you know anything about my bio parents?” Real spy skills there, right? [chuckling]
But guess what I found out! I found out that I wasn't a crack baby after all. Turns out, I was born to a Clair Huxtable type, a Clair Huxtable type who was too young when she was pregnant with me. So my bio mom was upper middle class. She got knocked up by her boyfriend in high school and decided that she just wasn't ready to become a mom. She wanted to go to college and then to law school to become a lawyer like her dad. Now, when I heard that, that kind of freaked me out because at the time, I was in private practice as well. So it’s like, oh my god. Maybe I've met my mom in court! This could be bananas. [audience laughter]
But far from being a crack baby, I had come from a mother that anti-choicers would probably hold up as is a hero, right? A middle class Black teenage girl who made a choice to put her kid up for adoption rather than getting an abortion. Now of course, anti-choicers always hold up such young women as heroes even as they ignore the fact that adoption is a choice that they made and not a fate that they were consigned to. And that I was lucky because there aren't a whole lot of couples out there in the market for Black babies. That’s just the truth. Black babies tend to wallow in foster care, and that rarely turns out well.
So, it's a funny story, but it's also a sad story. It’s sad that I, a privileged, young Black kid who by all standards had everything going for me, would internalizing the racism underlying the crack baby craze to such a degree – And by the way, the crack baby craze turned out to be a myth. It was a myth. And I think the first articles started to come out about that in 2013. But I had internalized these stereotypes to such a degree that I would assume that I was an “unwanted crack baby” rather than a “desirable.” That I would assume I came from the stereotypical Black mother who was breeding and tossing unwanted babies by the wayside willy nilly and leaving them for good, upstanding taxpayers to take care of. Or worse, having babies by the bushel so that they can collect money from the state, which they will, of course, spend on frivolous shit. Because white supremacy insists that Black women are inherently bad mothers. But these are the stereotypes that pervade.
Black women, Black mothers in particular, are routinely blamed for this country's ills. Black women are blamed for so much, even as this country tells us that we are not worth helping. We are blamed for the economic destruction of a country that we built with our wombs. We are called lazy. We are called unfit. Far too many of us live in crushing levels of poverty or in communities plagued by environmental toxins. The infant mortality rate for Black women is double that of white women with the same level of education. In fact, white women without a high school degree have better pregnancy outcomes than Black women with graduate degrees. We are imprisoned at rates that far exceed our white counterparts. We are disenfranchised. We are stripped of our right to vote by onerous voter ID laws or voter purges in a country that managed to convince itself for a while that it was post-racial because whoo! We have a Black president! But managed to quickly backslide into outright white supremacy. And if we’re keeping it 100, orange supremacy, ‘cause seriously, what's with that guy's complexion? I don't understand it. The election of the mandarin menace is probably one of the worst experiences of my lifetime. [audience laughter]
We are called welfare queens and moochers even though we don’t even make up the largest recipients of welfare. We are told that the welfare system — which wasn't even built for us; it was built for white women and flat-out excluded Black women until decades later — we're told that that system is really a system of handouts for Black women. We are told that abortion – which Black women practiced during slavery in order to avoid bearing children that would be doomed to a life of slavery immediately – were told that that's “Black genocide” being perpetrated by “racist baby-killing Planned Parenthood,” which is duping Black women into murdering their babies and then probably selling their parts on the black market for pennies on the dollar.
This, of course, implies that Black women are too stupid to know what's good for us or that we are easily gullible and that we are falling prey to Planned Parenthood’s evil machinations. They say that the most dangerous place for a Black child is in the womb. This is what billboards erected in Black neighborhoods around the 2010s were screaming. The most dangerous place for a Black child is in the womb. When in reality, the most dangerous place for a Black child is wherever a trigger-happy cop is, and that’s literally everywhere. The most dangerous place for a Black child in this country, which views Black lives as expendable and which refuses to examine the racist policies which contribute to the reproductive oppression that Black women face, the most dangerous place for a Black child is in a country which consigns Black children to inadequate health care, inadequate housing, and inadequate education, because Black children are seen as unworthy of help.
These stereotypes lead to Black children being fed directly from schools into prison systems because Black children are seen as unruly and unworthy of fair treatment. Certainly, teachers throughout my schooling saw me unruly, and to be fair, I was. But no more unruly than any white kid who was given multiple chances and the benefit of the doubt while I was hauled off to the principal’s office.
These stereotypes preclude giving Black kids like me the benefit of the doubt. Now, stereotypes also precluded me from creating an origin story for myself that was positive because I had internalized those stereotypes without even knowing that I'd done so. And the more I thought about this absolutely offensive origin story that I’d created for myself, the angrier I got. I got angry at myself for being so pliable, at the media, the government and scientists for propagating these lies about crack babies, and at the teachers who accused me of poisoning them because they saw an 8-year-old Black girl as a threat. But that was the beginning of my awakening, of my personal resistance, really.
Finding out about my family history— And if I'm being perfectly honest, I had a full-on identity crisis in my mid 30s. And to calm it, I did what any sensible person does: I quit my job and changed careers. OK, I was laid off my from job, but to-may-to/to-mah-to. I did switch careers, though. I used the opportunity to burn through all the blood money I had made as a lawyer working for banks and other nonsense, and I decided I that I was gonna change my career and try to do something to help people. So after a brain tumor diagnosis and digging through some old family records, I found my passion for reproductive justice. And reproductive justice did this for me. It allowed me to be here. It gave me a reason for waking up in the morning, and it gave me something to fight for, something to resist.
I decided that I wanted to do what I could to make sure that no other child would have to grow up believing the worst about her community or her upbringing simply because there were no narratives available to counteract the noxious ones. Through my writing and speaking out, I would do what I could to push back on the stereotypes that burden Black women and denigrate us as less than and as other.
Through the stories that I read of enslaved women sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate sacrifice to save their children from becoming the property of white supremacists, I read stories of Black women brave enough to stand up and say, “I had an abortion, and here’s why.” Reproductive justice gave me a perspective on Black women’s agency and reproductive autonomy that a singular focus on reproductive rights simply doesn't provide. And I found a way to incorporate reproductive justice as praxis into my writing. So I write articles like, “No, abortion isn't like slavery.” “No, Margaret Sanger wasn’t trying to exterminate Black people.” “No, abortion isn't Black genocide.” Pushing back on these narratives that strip Black women of their agency became what I was going to be about. Reproductive justice became what I was going to be about. And reproductive justice not only gave me perspective about Black women's agency and their autonomy, but it also keeps me personally from getting too lost in the legal sauce. And I'll explain what I mean by that.
As a lawyer, the reproductive justice framework has allowed me to look beyond the law. I work in a decidedly reproductive rights framework, which is one that is concerned with legal rights, OK? So what does Roe say about abortion? What does Planned Parenthood v. Casey say about abortion? When does Roe say that pregnant people can get an abortion? When does Casey say that a particular regulation like a waiting period or a forced ultrasound, when does Casey say that that is not an undue burden on a pregnant person's right to abortion? So Roe says you have the right to an abortion up to the point of fetal viability. Planned Parenthood v. Casey says that states can't unduly burden the right to that abortion by placing substantial obstacles in the path of a person seeking an abortion. And that's all great. That's all well and good. It's very, very important to know, for purposes of legal rights, what these cases stand for. But a reproductive justice framework complements a reproductive rights framework by placing reproductive rights in the context of human rights. Because quite frankly, legal rights aren't sufficient.
Focusing on the legal right to abortion is not sufficient for most pregnant people. It's sufficient for rich, white folks. But a legal right is nothing without access. And then what happens if a person decides to give birth? Where is the support? Where is the public funding? In fact, even saying that there's a legal right to abortion isn't entirely accurate. Robin West, who's a legal scholar and a professor at Georgetown Law School, says that what we have right now is not a legal right to abortion, but, “a negative right against the criminalization of abortion in certain circumstances.” And that negative right is couched in legal terms as a right to privacy. And what that means is a right to be left alone, in certain circumstances, under certain conditions. And so that's what the state of the law is, right? You can't just go out and get an abortion whenever you want to, although you should be able to. But Roe v. Wade prevents that. Roe tells us that reproductive liberty is a fundamental right against government interference up to a point, up to the point of fetal viability. And it's that "up to a point" that's a problem. Why should a state have any interest whatsoever in a pregnant person's reproductive choices? They shouldn't, but they do as a matter of law. And that's why states get to impose these moralistic judgments on pregnant people's choices. They get to force pregnant people to listen to state-mandated scripts about how awful and traumatic abortion is, and how you’re likely to kill yourself if you get one or get breast cancer or suffer from “post-abortive trauma syndrome,” which is a nonsense syndrome that people made up.
And that's why healthcare providers and hospitals get to refuse to perform abortions because they have “a conscientious objection” to it or a “religious objection” to it. Our legal rights are being chipped away because legal rights are subject to change. They are subject to the whims of the Supreme Court, as we're seeing right now with the ongoing confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh. Human rights, on the other hand, are static. When we talk about abortion as a human right, then we’re talking about it as a positive right. Negative rights permit inaction. Negative rights permit states to leave you on your own. Positive rights, on the other hand, compel action. Declaring abortion to be a positive human right would require public funding for abortion, for example. And a reproductive justice framework focuses on these human rights in a way that a reproductive rights framework does not. An RJ framework will get us closer to getting rid of the Hyde Amendment, which prevents public funding for abortion. A reproductive justice framework will get us closer to widening abortion access to pregnant people who can't afford it and to people who are living in states that are closing clinics and leaving pregnant folks without any reproductive recourse.
So, if we view abortion rights through a reproductive justice lens, the right to raise healthy children and have healthy families or not becomes a human right and one in which the government not only should, but must, interfere to provide assistance, financial assistance specifically.
So, great, you may be thinking. You're not a crack baby, and legal rights are disappearing right before our very eyes. This is the most depressing keynote speech in history! [audience laughter]
And maybe you're right, you know. We’re living in depressing times, I have to be honest. But the question is, what are we gonna do about that? That's what you may be thinking: what are we supposed to do? And I propose that you figure out what your story is and find a movement that speaks to you, and then make some fucking noise, you know. Cause some disruptions. Talk to other people who are fighting for similar things and ask them what their story is. And don't be discouraged if you feel like you should’ve been protesting earlier or that you're late to the protest game because to be honest, I was late to the game. I was really late, as a matter of fact.
I talk to young folks who, in terms of their personal political awakening, are so much farther along than I was at that age, and I find it really impressive. I also talk to some people who are new to the work, new to the movement, and that makes me feel a lot better about putzing around in private practice for a decade.
I came to terms with feminism and what that meant for me much later in life, probably later than most people, actually. And it’s not that I hadn't always believed in equality or believed in feminism or even studied feminism. But my entrance to feminism was a Women’s Studies class at school where we studied capital White, capital F Feminism, right? And then we were told that we would get to bell hooks at the end of the semester if we had time. [audience groans]
And you know, that seems to be the theme that pervades feminism and the reproductive rights movement in relationship to Black women: we'll get to your issues if we have enough time. Just go sit down and be quiet. But there never seems to be enough time because it’s always one crisis after another. And reproductive justice demands that we make the time for Black women, for marginalized women, for trans women, for lesbian and gay women. And after hearing that “we will get there if we have enough time” phrase so frequently and constantly being reminded that too often, being a Black woman means solving your own problems and ignoring the time constraints that others try to place on your liberation, this idea that you need to wait until we get there for other people, it means feeling disconnected from the bra burnings and the wire hanger iconography of the second wave or the slut walks or concerns about whether feminists should wear make-up or whether feminists should change their name when they get married, which seems to be a concern of whatever the hell wave we’re on right now.
And none of that stuff felt really relevant to me. My lived experience was just different than what these women were talking about. And so I just tuned out, just as I suspect many women of color have tuned out White Feminism (capital W, capital F), have tuned out that narrative. But reproductive justice can unite us, can unite all of these disparate groups, if we are willing to listen to one another and accept one another's differences without judgment.
Now, Loretta Ross — as you can tell, I think she’s a total boss, ‘cause I keep quoting her — but she once said that, “Storytelling is a core aspect of reproductive justice practice, because attending to someone else's story invites us to shift the lens, that is, to imagine the life of another person and to reexamine our own realities and reimagine our own possibilities.” So if we continue to tell our stories and to listen to one another, we can collectively resist the stereotypes that face all marginalized people. And through my writing and my work, I hope to dismantle the stereotypes that plague Black women.
So the question becomes, what is it that you do? What sparked your resistance? What negative stereotypes have you battled — whether internal or external — to become what you are or what you wish to become? And how can you work to dismantle those stereotypes so others may not have to face them in the future? That's the task that falls down to you. That's the task that I took upon myself when I decided to do this work.
But I also make sure to remember that on days when it's all just too much, you know, when battling stereotypes and demanding recognition of my humanity seems exhausting, when I can't face another anti-choicer yelling at me about Black genocide or saying that, as a Black woman, I should support laws that prohibit race-selective abortion – as if there’s a single Black woman that’s ever walked into a doctor and been shocked that they were having a Black baby. [laughter] On the days when I can’t even imagine getting out of bed and facing the world, I tell myself that in a world that really just wants me dead or at a minimum, doesn't give a shit if I'm alive or not, just being alive is a revolutionary act. Existing is resisting. And I think that applies to all of us, especially in these times. Sometimes existing is resisting, and there's really nothing wrong with that. Thank you.
[applause and cheers]
Imani Gandy is a recovering attorney, Senior Legal Analyst at Rewire.News, founder of Angry Black Lady Chronicles, and a rabble-rouser for reproductive justice.