Some Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation in Birth Work
(A Draft-in-Process from ATNSC Doula)
Cultural practices taken and integrated as part of the birth plan for a birthing person who is not from that particular culture (or a culture not associated to the birthing person’s family system) is a missed opportunity to connect to and access actual traditions that are culturally specific during the birth process. Cultural appropriation is counter to the narrative about connecting to self while giving birth to one’s child. That is, everyone is indigenous to some location on the planet.
There is a connection between cultural appropriation and myths about birth. Romanticizing the notion of “motherhood” diminishes the role of the birthing person as a witness to another human being’s entry into our world—again, counter to the narrative that self-work and self awareness are keys to positive birth outcomes. It is the responsibility of the birth companion to assist the birthing person to unpack their concerns and assumptions about birth. Cultural competence then becomes a part of a skill set necessary in engaging in birth work.
When you take the rituals, stories and cultural practices from a community in which you are not a member as a foundation for a client’s birth experience, it frames the beginning of the child’s entry into our world as one of colonizer. Privileging their birth above the children of the particular culture stolen from. How we enter is important.
Indigenous ceremonies have a purpose; seen and unseen. Designing birth processes that engage with an unknown ritual without understanding can have real consequences for the birthing person and child. Even practitioners of a spiritual tradition not their own are initiated and given permission to engage in a particular ceremonial life; this is a life-long commitment and promise.
Cultural appropriation is not just about intellectual property. At its core, it’s about the missed opportunity to connect; part of the project of colonization, misogyny, racism, etc. is to detach the marginalized from their own sense of power—from their actual power (this includes birthing persons). Therefore, in many ways, cultural appropriation in birth processes and parenting is a form of internalized oppression. Doulas and other birth workers embody a duality of being both traditional and countercultural simultaneously. We have the responsibility to engage in behaviors and processes that are decolonizing.
Using cultural appropriation in birthing processes creates a barrier. When I say barrier I mean how one seeks knowledge and understanding about birth, breastfeeding and parenting becomes a form of power and control; an elitist exercise to separate the good parents from the bad. This objectifies the child and decreases the opportunities for bonding and contact (with self, child, family and community). We have the responsibility to create opportunities for birthing persons and families to choose differently. As birth workers in the absence of clients our work is to create the conditions for birth without barriers for our clients—yet to be born.