A reflection on proper Cultural Appropriation by Ana Paula Markel

I love doulas and I love doulas hearts. I train doulas, meet these eager and willing individuals. I fall in love with them and witness their growth in their careers, many of them becoming change makers and giants in moving the doula movement and conscious birth forward. Doulas are fair and just in how they navigate information, diplomacy and negotiation between families and the medical industry. Doulas most certainly follow the Do No Harm oath. But it is time to also consider the harm we may unwillingly be causing to ancient culture and their knowledge, belief and skills in the perinatal period.

More and more, a lot of our time in doula trainings here at Bini has been invested in engaging in fruitful and yes, sometimes uncomfortable discussions about Cultural Appropriation in American and white culture birth settings. My first words about this is that most likely I will say something incorrectly and possibly stick my foot in my mouth, but not talking about it is not an option. I am still learning but feel it is my responsibility as a trainer and senior doula to plant this seed of awareness and respect from the first steps into doulahood. A wise old saying reminds us that “when we know better, we do better”. My ask in taking the risk to write this piece, is that as a reader, you take my words with grace and love, knowing they are coming with love and grace.

There are countless examples in how we have been using African, Caribbean, and other ancient civilizations’ sacred crafts in birth without knowledge and with immense disrespect. Worst, we don’t give proper acknowledgement, respect and resources to the people that really deserve and gave origin and legacy to such techniques. If you are still not clear what I am writing about, think belly binding, vaginal steam, baby-wearing, skin to skin, rooming in, kangaroo care and the use of squatting bars in the hospital are just a few examples. On this piece I would like to focus on the use of the rebozo in the perinatal period.

I remember learning about the rebozo for the first time from the incomparable Naoli Vinaver. I was immediately enamored by the use of the rebozo, but mostly I was enamored with Naoli herself and the way she taught us about the cultural symbol and use of the rebozo in Mexico. For example, Naoli taught me that in certain regions of Mexico when a woman wears a rebozo to town it projects the message that she is not single, but instead either engaged or married and that is sure to keep potential candidates at distance. She also explained and demonstrated the rebozo relieving benefits in pregnancy in regard to posture and back discomfort. As a birth doula I watched in awe all the possibilities of its use in labor and the incredible potential to assist in comforting the laboring person, malposition and its many second stage ways to facilitate descent. And finally, its meaningful and healing use in the postpartum period: physical recovery and in the closing of the bones ritual (which I sadly encounter white doulas offering). My most meaningful takeaway is that the use of the rebozo is intuitive, with deep historical and spiritual meaning. The rebozo is not a method, a technique or a one size fits all, because in birth we definitely know that one size does not fit all.

In the same way we should honor birth and adjust to each family, each baby, each labor we should honor ancient cultures and its traditions in birth. As birth workers, we hopefully apply skills with humility and use intuitive knowledge to tune in and serve each family. Why are we ignoring the source of these skills and knowledge? Perhaps ignorance, perhaps convenience, perhaps personal financial gain. Regardless, it is time to shift, to elevate our standards and mostly to not be part of practices that hurt people both financially and on a cellular level. Every time we dismiss and ignore cultural and historical knowledge, we are implicitly or sadly explicitly contributing to oppression, colonialism and patriarchy.

Most doulas don’t understand the pain and harm they cause when searching for a “cheaper” rebozo, many times made in countries that have no history, knowledge or respect for its proper use nor origins.
In more practical terms, non-authentic rebozo may also betray its efficiency by being made in the wrong fabrics, too stretchy or not 100% cotton. Mostly, it betrays where our money is going to.
Below are some practical steps loving, conscious doulas can take in order to be part of the solution and not the problem:
- Attend workshops taught by individuals who are from the culture of the subject you are learning about
- Only purchase products (rebozos) that benefit the original culture of its origin, even if it costs more. Most likely the individual or their family depend on it.
- Any time we use or apply skills and knowledge give credit where credit is due and share a word about culture appropriation and respect.
- Do not call out, but gently and consciously “call in” white birth workers benefiting financially from any and all practices that use ancient wisdom.
- Do not use cloths, shawls, or sheets and call it a rebozo.

My very first rebozo was gifted to me by a traditional Mexican midwife named Dona Irene. She blessed me and had a kind but serious look as of making sure I would understand she wasn’t gifting me a trendy tool, a cloth, a shawl. She was sharing her ancestors, her values and her history with me. It evoked a feeling of respect, love and humility. There has been many nights during a birth that I wrap my rebozo around me as I witness my client’s journey into labor and my mind and heart immediately goes back to Dona Irene, Naoli and all traditional midwives. I think that somewhere in this planet there is a wise midwife attending a birth. I honor their knowledge and allow their trust and knowledge to inspire me.

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