On Measles and whiteness or the freedom to choose

When I gave birth to my first child in 1992, I pretty much listened to and followed the advice of elders and healthcare professionals. It didn’t even dawn on me in the first act of my parenting career, that I had a choice when it came to things like getting my kid vaccinated. I had been vaccinated and turned out okay and by golly…my kid was getting his shots too!

Fast forward to the winter of 2004 when I found myself pregnant with the girl child while still grieving the loss of my beloved mother months earlier and craving, no, needing a community to ride with me on my parenting journey. Thanks to the interwebz and a knowledgeable midwife; I found myself diving into the natural parenting community, courtesy of the now defunct publication, Mothering.

So many ideas, so many suggestions when it came to parenting, many that had never crossed my mind in the first act of my parenting career. I was hooked. I wanted an all natural birth, cloth diapers, co-sleeping and yes, no vaccines. There was no way I was going to put those suspect ingredients into my precious new baby…fuck that shit! My bewildered husband chalked up much of my enthusiasm for natural parenting as a mix of pregnancy hormones mixing with my grief emotions.

In the end, I did end up using cloth diapers, I co-slept with my daughter for four years, I nursed for three and a half years and for many years our daughter was not fully vaccinated (we did vaccinate, but on a delayed and staggered basis, in part because of a harmless but significant reaction to one of her earliest shots).

In the early years of her life, not fully vaccinating was a non-issue; after all, she was with us all the time, she was fed the freshest and most organic food our shekels could buy, she was nursed for years…her life was good, so why did we eventually vaccinate her?

For starters, not vaccinating as non-white person is to invite extra scrutiny into your life, especially when homeschooling is not an option. While we were and are fortunate to have a healthcare provider who is well known in Maine for his acceptance of the non-vaccinated, even admitting that his own children are not fully vaccinated, we still needed to interact with a larger world.

Over the years, it became clear to me that my choice to not vaccinate could have reverberations further than our family. See, we don’t live in silos when it comes to public health and that point was illustrated to me when my daughter came down with the flu at the same time my father was knocking on death’s door. I lived in fear that week she was sick that I was going to need to fly back to Chicago and would be denied entry to see my dad in possibly his last moment due to having been exposed to the flu in my house. It was what I would later call a small aha moment…we are all connected.

Yet it was when I started to notice that the movement of choice when it came to parenting decisions could get a Black parent’s child taken away by Child Protective whereas a white parent hardly lived with such fears. Each year when we submitted a personal exemption at my daughter’s school, I tensed knowing that I could expect the call from the nurse. It became too much and over time we decided that she needed to be fully vaccinated even with the seemingly silly varicella vaccine. However, I probably shouldn’t say silly in our case; with a child who has some sensory issues, the idea of chicken pox (which both my son and I had weathered) started to seem like something akin to hell on earth for us potentially.

Perhaps it is because many non-white cultures are far less into the rugged individualism that is almost a defining trait of whiteness in Western white cultures but in my village; we care about all the children, not just the ones who belong to us. Maybe it’s because I know that as a non-white person and specifically a Black woman in America my decisions don’t exist in a vacuum and that I am not nearly as free as my white counterpart. In the end my decision to vaccinate was less about the medical implications and more about the unspoken social implications. All it would take is one “professional” deciding to challenge my uppity, Black ass and it would be on.

I have been sitting and watching the current measles outbreak and noticing that the anti-vax movement has a diversity problem and one that few will ever publicly discuss though I am not the only one to notice it. Too many times we would rather replace class for race but race and class are intertwined and to not acknowledge that painful reality is intellectually lazy at best. The current outbreak is primarily due to the increase in non-vaccinated children from financially comfortable, families who in most cases are white. Can you imagine if a measles outbreak was started in low-income communities of color? First off, the current way that race is lived in America, public health officials would not allow this to happen. The pushback from officials would be swift and people would be turned into examples. Families would be torn apart.

This is a hard post because as someone who didn’t vaccinate my youngest child for many years, I have many connections with people who still don’t vaccinate their kids and who are passionate in their beliefs about the dangers of vaccinations. I respect their right to be passionate but I can’t deny that their whiteness affords them the ability to be passionate about something that in many ways is larger than just their family. Right now the numbers may be small but we are talking about a disease that had been declared eradicated in 2000 that has now made a resurgence and whose implications are huge. In a comfortably middle class family, a child down with the measles might be a pesky inconvenience but to the single parent doing shift work, it is more than an inconvenience, it has the ability to derail that family’s very existence. Let’s not even talk about those with compromised immune systems or the most medically fragile in our midst.

To live in America is to live in a state where things are racialized and compartmentalized based off of who we are. Our freedoms are rarely free and rarely are they available to all. Yet the choices we make with our freedoms have the ability to affect all of us and our passion and inconvenience might be someone else’s crisis and tragedy. When making decisions, we often must decide if the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.

Note: At this moment, the matter of vaccinations is highly charged, so keep all comments respectful. 

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