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. 

8 thoughts on “On Measles and whiteness or the freedom to choose”

  1. ^^^WSS

    Shay, thank you for bringing this point up. Being a health care provider and also a believer in natural parenting I found myself looking into every aspect of parenting in hopes to find exactly what is best for my child before his birth. Vaccines were one aspect I felt strongly regarding where benefits greatly outweigh risks. I have had countless conversations with anti-vax parents, anti-vax and pro-vax boards, and no matter what facts were out in the open or what research was presented, it always came down to the right to choose. And what is always missing, I find, on the anti-vax side is the explanation of how their right to choose is greater than an infant’s or an immunosuppressed persons right to choose to be protected and also the fact that many (even people in America) don’t really have this choice. More and more I am starting to find articles and blog posts discussing this issue and white privilege. There is a lack of responsibility and accountability for others in our society and at the end of every debate or conversation I will usually hear more than one person state that it isn’t their job to keep other’s safe, just their child. Maybe this is extremely frightening for me to hear as I have grown up believing that we are responsible for one another and in my travels to South Africa and experiencing my significant other’s Congolese family, this sort of thinking is a privilege and those who are privileged will take for granted their choices. I could go on and on about the many levels of the anti-vaccination movements and race as well and socioeconomic status but I thank you for bringing this topic up.

  2. Dear Ashley, I tried to write a response to your cruel words many times. In the end I decided just to post my comment registering my sadness that you think these things.

  3. Can’t help but notice that you capitalize “black” and do not capitalize “white.” Is there a reason besides racism? I realize that one race typically is made of single parents who work shifts, but also realize that many of these parents pay NEGATIVE income tax, so they receive MORE than 100% of what they earn. They have opportunities for healthcare, education and assistance due to their decision to have children without being able to support them. I think it is time to have an honest conversation about why one race can’t seem to make progress. Asians do not have these issues, and Hispanics also work hard to make better lives for themselves instead of blaming others. I just do not understand it. With affirmative action, blacks have better chances than anyone.

    • Ashley, you’re saying it’s time to have an honest conversation about why one race can’t “seem to make progress.” Well… has anything happened to the Black (capital “b”) race that hasn’t happened to Whites, Asians, and Hispanics? Think hard. Maybe a 300+ year period of enslavement, segregation, lynching, Jim Crow, and systemic racism? Is that ringing any bells? It’s almost as if oppressing people for centuries can have negative impacts on them! That’s probably why you left Indigenous (Native) Americans off your list. The relative few that are left aren’t doing so great either.

      “Black” is capitalized because it’s a place holder for nationality, since most Black Americans don’t know what country their ancestors were dragged from, unlike White Americans. And ftr…. More White people get affirmative action than Black people.. because Women (including White women) are the biggest minority group in the country and are eligible for it too. They’re the #1 recipients. Blacks are largely disadvantaged in the United States, and face disproportionate racism and discrimination. They don’t benefit from White privilege like the majority of the country does. Every racial group has different obstacles to overcome. That’s why Indigenous Americans and African Americans are in such a dangerous situation.

  4. I never thought about it in the way you’ve described. You’re right and that’s terrible.
    My youngest daughter had delayed vaccinations because she had a reaction to one and because I’m allergic to one, both my girls had to be tested before they could have some of the vaccines.
    I walked into the doctor’s office and told the doctor we were putting off the vaccines and that when my daughter no longer had a reaction we would continue. No one ever questioned me.
    How do we live in a country where I can get away with it and others can’t based on skin color? How do we change it?

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