What is Cultural Appropriation?
Before we answer the question “Is babywearing cultural appropriation?”, let’s clarify what cultural appropriation means and why it’s problematic. According to Wikipedia, “Cultural appropriation, at times also phrased cultural misappropriation, is the adoption of an element or elements of one culture by members of another culture. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures”. It is especially problematic if no credit is given to the original source while profit is made from the adopted element. Or if the action ridicules, exaggerates or trivializes the minority culture. As you can imagine, a cultural appropriation case can be complex. And it’s not always straightforward to understand it without some background in the specific cultures.
So Is Babywearing Cultural Appropriation?
There are definitely cases of cultural appropriation in the babywearing world like usage of certain designs, fabric patterns or names (more on that in a moment). But let’s look at babywearing as a practice first.
Are we being insensitive – or even oppressive and racist – by carrying our children using a baby carrier device?
How Come Babywearing Is Sometimes Presented as a New Discovery?
Our ancestors all over the world carried their children using various different baby carrier devices. Some of these resemble today’s baby carriers and wraps, but some seem to be strange to our modern eyes. Fact is, carrying our infants is the biological norm. However, as Western civilization developed, babywearing traditions – just like breastfeeding and birthing practices – became marginalized. After certain societal ideas became widespread, privileged families didn’t desire to carry their children. Carrying babies and children wasn’t the norm anymore. Baby carriers became devices for marginalized groups like minorities and the poor. We had to wait until the middle of the 20th century when people from more privileged backgrounds from the Western world started to rediscover baby carriers. It started out small by people who either took inspiration from traditional baby carriers or invented their own device. At first, babywearing parents were followed by strange looks, then carrying became a movement and even a mainstream trend.
After this brief overview, let’s get back to our original question “Is babywearing cultural appropriation?”.
Even though babywearing was mostly practiced by marginalized groups for centuries, being carried is such a fundamental need of human babies, that the practice itself cannot be cultural appropriation.
That said, there are several discussions about cultural appropriation in the babywearing world.
Cultural appropriation in the babywearing world
Since babywearing became more mainstream, there have been discussions and controversies of cultural appropriation in the industry. As I’m neither an expert of the affected cultures nor a member of them, I cannot fully judge how offending these cases might have been. My goal is simply to inform. That’s why I mention the most prominent cases as objectively as I can.
Didymos Indio, Orient, Inka and India
One of the most discussed cases is that of the Didymos India wraps. These popular woven wraps of the market-leading German manufacturer were admittedly inspired by the Mexican rebozo. The issues raised by the Latinx community were twofold: the similarity in the pattern of the design to the original rebozo pattern and the name of the wraps, Indio, which is a racist insult directed towards indigenous people. Eventually, Didymos apologized for using the offending name, adding that they have been unaware of its meaning. They also decided to change the name of the affected designs to Prima, but continued to sell the wraps. Besides, Didymos changed the name of their Orient design to Fairytale, and discontinued the Inka and India patterns.
Oscha Slings Okinami, Kasumi
The Scottish wrap manufacturer was also accused of cultural appropriation because of these Japanese inspired designs. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any public statements of the company on this matter.
The Didymos and Oscha controversies are heard of in the babywearing world. But of course, there are other lesser known brands out there knowingly or unknowingly producing culturally appropriated wraps and carriers.
Traditional East Asian Baby Carriers
Changing the Names of Asian Carriers
Some traditional Asian Carriers have became very popular lately. This includes the Meh Dai, Onbuhimo and Podaegi baby carriers. From my point of view, there’s nothing wrong with using these traditional baby carriers. However, several babywearing brands chose to rename their version of these traditional carriers. So instead of naming them “Brandname Meh Dai”, they came up with more creative names, which unfortunately isn’t respectful towards and doesn’t give credit to the original babywearing traditions these carriers come from. Similarly, shortening the names of the Onbuhimo to Onbu or Podaegi to Pod is also controversial.
The ‘Mei Tai’ controversy
Lastly, I’d like to mention the controversy around the name of the Meh Dai baby carrier. This traditional Chinese baby carrier has been known as Mei Tai in the Western world. However, Mei Tai is not a very good transcript of the Chinese word 背帶. Because of this, the English speaking babywearing community started to use the name ‘Meh Dai’ instead of ‘Mei Tai’. ‘Meh Dai’ is closer to the Cantonese Chinese pronunciation, but ‘Bei Dai’, the transcript of the Mandarin Chinese pronunciation is also used. So which version of the name shall we use to avoid (or minimize) cultural appropriation? In this case, my personal choice is to use ‘Meh Dai’. But as someone who learned Mandarin Chinese and has a basic understanding of how it differs from Cantonese Chinese, I know that most of us still won’t pronounce it correctly. Because even if we get the vowels and consonants right, there are 9 tones in Cantonese. Which means there are 80 ways to pronounce this two-syllable word wrong.
So why do I mention this, you ask? Because even if we haven’t analyzed this controversy very deeply, this already shows how complex cultural appropriation issues can be.
And despite our best intentions and efforts, there isn’t always one straightforward answer or ultimate truth.