Today, I was witness to a particularly heated debate on the internet about the use of the word ‘papoose’. Essentially, it was a discussion around whether or not the use of this word is offensive (the answer is yes and the reason is eloquently outlined here). It evolved into a discussion around Cultural Appropriation, and I was reminded of an article I wrote some months back. Earlier in the year, I was privileged enough to be invited to contribute to Baby Wearers Western Australia‘s spring edition of their e-magazine, Carried Away, discussing Cultural Appropriation in the Baby Wearing community, the link to which can be found here.
I’d like, however, to share it here also.
By Elizabeth Close
So, it’s late. Too late, really. Dead-of-night late. So late that most reasonable people are fast asleep. I’m breastfeeding my baby and facebooking, and someone has tagged me in a thread about cultural appropriation. A comment was made by an Australian babywearer, words to the effect of, “This is all so over the top! Why are we wasting time with this politically correct stuff? Isn’t babywearing about holding our babies close?! This is just a waste of time!” Deep breath, Liz. Deep breath. The fact is that I encounter this type of vague, privileged commentary often: middle-class white people who often can’t see past their white privilege enough to be able listen and learn from marginalised groups. And as an Aboriginal woman, babywearer and someone who has taught cultural competence, I aim to politely and succinctly share my perspective. Often it isn’t received well, but I figure I have to try, because that voice has to come from somewhere. Back to the matter at hand – so what is the problem with what she said? The inherent problem with dismissing cultural appropriation as a concept is that it comes from a place of privilege. It means that white people can ignore the effects of cultural appropriation because it doesn’t affect them because of the benefits afforded to white people through white privilege. For more information about white privilege, I recommend this article.
As a term, cultural appropriation isn’t widely understood. Often when people are accused of appropriating the culture of others, they automatically assume they’re being called racist, which just isn’t true. So what is cultural appropriation? In its most basic definition, cultural appropriation is “When someone adopts aspects of a culture that is not their own.” (Johnson, 2015). However, a far deeper understanding on how and when this becomes problematic is more to do with power imbalance: “When aspects of a culture that has been systematically oppressed, are adopted by members of the dominant culture that has oppressed them.” (Johnson, 2015). So how is this related to babywearing? Babywearing is an ancient practice, borne from necessity. Whilst there are examples of babywearing in early Europe, the overwhelming majority of babywearing happens in developing countries, and happens through necessity with whatever fabric they have to hand. It is learnt woman-to-woman. It is the antithesis of middle-class white women learning to double hammock with a $200 purpose-made woven wrap and a doll, while watching YouTube. And this isn’t to say that the developing world has ownership of babywearing, just that we need to be aware of, and acknowledge our position of privilege and pay homage to those women.
Regarding cultural appropriation in the natural parenting community in general, (Sian Hannagan 2015) sums it up perfectly: “When it comes to the physiological nurturing of infants, no one ‘owns’ that relationship you build with your baby. However, having an awareness of how we integrate elements of other cultural approaches into our day to day nurturing is important. Many people feel they are honouring a certain culture when they take traditions into their own cultural narrative. But this is not always based on a true and honest exchange.”
Cultural appropriation of designs and iconography in the babywearing world is another topic that has been hotly debated of late. Indigenous designs on woven baby wraps and whether or not they constitute cultural appropriation has been discussed with gusto. Scottish company Oscha recently released a woven wrap with a Maori design that was not designed by a Maori artist. Rather, it was a copy of a Maori design, drawn by a non-Maori woman. Oscha, after much discussion, pulled the release. Listening, learning, acknowledging and changing. People then questioned whether or not Oschas other designs such as their Japanese and Celtic designs constituted cultural appropriation. The answer is murky; whilst on face value one could say yes, one also needs to consider whether or not the culture at the source of the design is currently marginalised or oppressed. If the answer is no, then it’s far less likely that the use of the design will be viewed as theft of sacred cultural iconography. Hence, context is important. However, no cultural group is one homogenous group, there will always be differing opinions and those opinions must be listened to, and acknowledged. This coincided with my own collaboration with Oscha, one that was an excellent example of what using Indigenous art looks like when it’s done right. A true collaboration where the artist has creative control and is remunerated, credited and celebrated. It’s so wonderful to be able to work alongside babywearing companies that are truly ethical and strive for inclusiveness and diversity in their ethos. I’ve discussed these issues at length with Oscha and my opinion has been truly listened to and acknowledged. I’ve worked with Babes In Arms, the Australian distributor for Ergobaby, to get carriers to mothers in remote Aboriginal communities. I’m working with Ankalia, an Australian wrap company, to develop wraps woven in my designs. At all times I’ve felt valued, respected and celebrated. My artwork has been far more than an aesthetically pleasing design, it tells an important story. The point of all this? It’s not about making this issue go away, because it won’t; babywearing is inherently appropriative and we can’t stop that. But what we can do is listen. Rather than silencing marginalised groups by dismissing what they have to say – stop, listen, acknowledge and respect. Nothing is lost in doing this, and the potential to gain is exponential. So, let’s circle back, to 3am, in the cold darkness? Isn’t it about holding our babies close? It absolutely is. But I do not see how being receptive to the opinions of others, especially members of our community that are marginalised in wider society, detracts from the enabling of caregivers to carry their children. Let us not further marginalise them. Let us listen. And that brings me back to a saying that I’ve heard Elders in the APY (my people, the Anangu), use when they talk about the sharing of knowledge with pirinpa (white people): “Tread lightly, speak softly. Listen to the people around you. Respect them, and respect yourselves. Learning is never ending.”
References: Sian Hannagan. Maisha Z. Johnson.