A few weeks into April 2020, a shocking truth started filling our timelines — Black women are five times more likely to die during childbirth in the United Kingdom than their white counterparts. Behind the greater visibility around this issue was the tireless work of affected mothers and activists, in particular of author and presenter Candice Brathwaite, who has shared her personal story of Black British motherhood since 2016, which resulted in a book about the sensitive topic, I am Not Your Baby Mother, in 2020. But when it came to casting a presenter for the Channel 4 documentary about the matter, Brathwaite was overlooked for Rochelle Humes, and the decision started a conversation around the role colourism plays in presenting stories of Black trauma.
This frequent casting choice by major media companies further encourages the erasure of dark-skinned Black women's voices from having control of the narratives around their identities and experiences.
"The truth is up until six weeks ago I thought I was going to present that documentary," Brathwaite shared on Instagram. "I had been contacted in March of 2020. It had been an ongoing discussion for the last 9 months of the year. I'm not sure what happened. But it's not meant to be. Although it will always be something I'm passionate about, I have to set my ego aside because it's not only I who tried to highlight the disturbing data when it came to black women dying in childbirth. It's a group effort. It always has been. So as gutted as I was the message remains the same and it's such a serious issue that we should hold space no matter who is narrating the story."
Brathwaite later clarified that she was contacted by a different production company — not Channel 4's team that are developing the show with Humes — and was commissioned to share her expertise on the mortality rate of Black mothers. "They had asked me to contribute my expertise but I declined as I don't want my trauma to be mined for a show where I have no control of the narrative," Brathwaite wrote. "My agent had asked a few weeks ago if there was a possibility I could co-present alongside Rochelle and was told there was not. At the end of the day I cannot overstate enough how important it is for this issue to be spoken about until we are able to save more black women."
The issue of maternal mortality rates for Black British women is not simply about race, it's also about the nuance of colourism that encourages the neglect of dark-skinned Black women's pain and trauma.
Although the rumour of Brathwaite being "replaced" by Humes to present Channel 4's documentary is false, the resulting conversations around colourism, Black trauma, and media representation are valid. Similarly to Little Mix's Leigh-Anne Pinnock's upcoming BBC documentary, Leigh-Anne: Colourism and Race, light-skinned and mixed-race Black women are often given the opportunity to narrate stories about racial injustice that disproportionately affects dark-skinned Black women. This frequent casting choice by major media companies further encourages the erasure of dark-skinned Black women's voices from having control of the narratives around their identities and experiences.
According to the 2019 report published by MBRRACE-UK (Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk Through Audits and Confidential Enquiries Across the UK), Black women are five times more likely to die during pregnancy and after childbirth in the UK than white women. Whereas women of mixed ethnicity are three times more likely, and Asian women are twice as likely. The argument around who should be telling this story to the public comes down to the fact that a documentary about the maternal mortality rates of Black women, which will show a majority of footage and testimonies from dark-skinned Black women while being narrated by a mixed-race Black woman, potentially filters the voices of the women that it represents and will profit from.
Humes and Brathwaite are great presenters, and we believe that they would both do an incredible job at bringing this issue to public attention. But the issue of maternal mortality rates for Black British women is not simply about race, it's also about the nuance of colourism that encourages the neglect of dark-skinned Black women's pain and trauma. It would have done more justice to the plight of Black motherhood if someone who was previously invested in this topic were fronting the documentary — but we have the utmost optimism that Humes's documentary will highlight how colourism has also contributed to the the deaths of Black mothers in the UK.