Credit: Ben Hovland | (c) 2020

As a woman of color living and attending school in an overwhelmingly white area, I face a lot of racism, especially from classmates and educators. I am called a terrorist, told to go back to my country, and much worse. This constant ridicule leaves me with a lot of pain, which I channel into advocacy. I want to shield as many people from bigotry as possible. So I fight against discrimination in all forms, as best I can. 

Throughout my work on the Minnesota Youth Council and the Governor-appointed Young Women’s Cabinet, I have come across a multitude of problems that need addressing. However, there is one issue that is detrimental—even deadly—to people of color across Minnesota, yet is rarely discussed: Racial bias in our state’s healthcare system. 

Hundreds, if not thousands, of women and children from Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color die annually across the country due to implicit biases in the medical field. Although it has been going on for decades and many experts have offered solutions, our society has failed to protect women of color and their families. A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report about racial disparities in pregnancy says that to lower rates of birth-related deaths and impairments, implicit bias needs be addressed in our hospitals and healthcare system.

As a state, we must institute the standardized protocols the report recommends, especially in areas that see the greatest disparities. Taking these simple steps would help save the lives of women and children of color, and increase well-being for our communities. 

Crucial legislation being considered in Minnesota this legislative session (Senate File 877 and House File 660, the Dignity in Pregnancy and Childbirth Act) would establish anti-racism and implicit bias training as continued education requirements for medical professionals. It also mandates expansion of maternal death studies to include maternal morbidity—diseases related to pregnancy or childbirth. To begin reversing the fatal effects of systemic racism in our state’s healthcare system, the Minnesota Legislature must pass this bill. I encourage every Minnesotan who cares about the welfare of BIPOC Minnesotans to call or email your state representatives and senators about this bill to make our beloved state a safe place for all mothers.

In Minnesota, Black women are 2.3 times more likely to die of pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than their white counterparts. For Native women, this rate is approximately four times higher. In addition, nearly half of all maternal deaths in the state occur in greater Minnesota. From these statistics, we know a majority of these deaths, more than 60 percent, are preventable. 

Recently, a study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information reports that implicit bias of healthcare professionals influences their actions and attitudes.

These biases were statistically significant in the areas of patient–provider interactions, treatment decisions, treatment adherence, and patient health outcomes. In fact, in all but one of the 15 samples collected, low to moderate levels of racial bias were detected among healthcare workers. These scores are consistent with the greater population, which reveals how pervasive biased attitudes are in the medical field.

Implicit bias is outside of our conscious awareness, yet it can be reversed. Our inaction on bias within the healthcare system has meant life-or-death consequences for women of color and their families. 

Medical professionals operate as if women of color have a higher pain tolerance, minimal bodily understanding, and are all-around incompetent. The effect: Women of color are more likely to have birth factors that contribute to infant mortality and the long-term physical and mental impairity of their children. White women are five times more likely to receive prenatal care than Pacific Islander women and two times more likely than Latina women.

Additionally, Black and Asian women have a higher share of preterm births for which they received no prenatal care compared to their white counterparts. Native women report the lowest rates of prenatal care in the first trimester (55.1 percent). We can no longer turn a blind eye to this blatant discrimination and inequity; it’s clear that the repercussions are devastating, and even fatal. 

Minnesota has one of the top healthcare systems in the country, if you are white. But when you disaggregate the data, our state offers some of the worst health inequities for people of color. We desperately need change, and a solution; otherwise, fellow Minnesotans will continue to die in vain. For the sake of black and brown mothers, I plead: Dear Minnesota, please start caring about women of color. 

Trinity Hanif is a freshman at Carleton College and a former member of the Minnesota Youth Council. She helped a state representative's campaign this summer with policy research and speech writing.