Race and the Babywearing Community

kanga fabric

At a meeting a month or so ago, I heard a mama complaining  how often she got weird looks for wrapping her baby. Another mother commiserated: she too got stares, or side-eyes, or even rude comments about wearing her little one.

I was confused.  “No one’s ever said anything to me about babywearing,” I told them. People have been, if anything, positive and accepting.

I realized I was speaking to a Black woman and a dark-haired, brown-skinned Venezuelan woman.

“Then again,” I said, “I’m white.”

Some sort of tension broke suddenly, a tension I wasn’t aware of until it was gone. “Oh my gosh,” my South American friend said, “I get it all the time. ‘Is that how you do it in your country?'” She rolled her eyes and told me again how people just stare. 

My Black mama friend agreed. She had comments, too – things like, Is that how you do it in Africa? Getting back to your roots, huh? She had insinuations that wearing made her primitive somehow, a caricature or joke.

I have never experienced anything like that, in four years of wrapping.

Obviously, this is the experience of two women, and can’t encapsulate the experience of all non-white babywearers in every place in the First World. But in my place, in my time, to my friends: it happened.

Jennifer from Our Muddy Boots recently asked for help talking to her kids about race, and one response linked to a Salon article that suggested the single most important thing that white parents can do to promote tolerance is to talk about race and racism with their children. We can’t do that without talking about race and racism ourselves, about how it affects our own communities and what we can do to change it. These conversations are uncomfortable. They are hard. They can end with hurt feelings, with missed connections, and with shared connections, with bridges built, with ideas changed and exchanged. This work is not easy, but it is important.

Let’s start here: White privilege  means a person enjoys certain benefits, like seeing people of their race adequately represented in media, by virtue of their white skin. It exists, and I’m not interested in arguing about whether it’s real, or hear claims about reverse racism (an oxymoron, because, as this author says, “There is no system of oppression in America that actively works to subjugate and oppress white people”).  White people, including me, benefit from a system that rewards and privileges us because we are white.  Others may see my babywearing as hippie parenting. But never do they say it’s primitive. Never is it from “where you come from”. It’s just something I do. And as a white mama, married to a white dude, I obviously speak from a different place, with different experiences, than people of color (PoC) or the families that include them. So anything I say is shaded by my own experience.  And my position as a white person doesn’t mean I am less qualified or less able to speak about race. It means I speak from a different place. But it doesn’t mean I should be silent.

And from where I see it, even in my limited vantage point, babywearing gets perceived a whole lot differently if the wearer is white.

No one comments on my kangas.

No one comments on my kangas.

Upper-middle class, white women wearing? Society sees us as conscientious parents who have Done Our Research. Wearing is one parenting choice among many we make. People may ask where we learned it, especially if we’re wrapping, because there’s an expectation that someone taught us how, that we didn’t learn about it from our mothers or grandmothers. There may be an assumption that we have the resources to seek out that instruction, and along with a boatload of others: we’re attachment parents, we eat organic food, we co-sleep and drive hybrids, we  judge parents who choose differently than us. We deal with these assumptions every day. But they are often not the same assumptions wearers of color deal with.

If I wear a kanga, people might think my baby’s going to fall off, but no one thinks I’ve gone native. If a black women walks down Main Street in a kanga, passersby assume she’s African, as in Not From Here. Or perhaps people assume she’s making a radical political statement.

A white woman in a kanga is privileged: she does not field questions about where she’s from.

This is to say nothing about the comments and assumptions PoC may get from other PoC. In Latin America, society sees people who wear rebozos as people too poor to afford a stroller. African-Americans may feel the pressure of their legacy as caregivers of white children, both as slaves and afterwards (I know people who had black nannies they called Mamie; these people are my age. This did stuff didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation). The simpler the carrier – a wrap as opposed to an SSC – the more they may feel that pressure.

I am privileged not to worry that my older relatives will think I’m embarrassing my race when I wrap my kids. They may not like that I wrap. But they do not worry that wrapping could look like a political act.

Speaking of politics, where does wearing come from? We know that Europeans wore their babies in many ways. But we also know that the vast majority of babywearing today happens in Third World countries, and it happens out of necessity. Babywearers usually ignore these ethnic roots until they want to learn a kanga carry and hit youtube. Suddenly, uncomfortably, they see African women tossing their babies on their backs, speaking a non-European language, using whatever cloth they have at hand. Clearly, these videos are usually posted by First World visitors. This is an instructional video. This is necessity. But we learn it for fun.

Using a rebozo

Using a rebozo

We need to acknowledge the babywearing community’s cultural appropriation. Yes, babywearing has been around for thousands of years, we say. But we conveniently leave out the wearer.  “Traditional Babywearing” too often posits an Other – someone removed from us, whom we are content to keep alien –  who wears or wore somewhere in the vague global South. It’s often code for “non-white babywearing”, or “poor-people babywearing”, or “babywearing out of necessity”. Many of us on thebabywearer forums have delved into the roots of babywearing. And we come up with histories of non-white women, of necessity and class.

European mamas wore their babies in many different ways. But as the First World has moved on economically, it’s left its babywearing behind. Can we claim Germans “invented” modern wrapping when women in Mexico have used rebozos for centuries? When we call it a Tibetan tie, do we realized the carry itself comes from Tibet?

This isn’t to say that the Third World has exclusive ownership of babywearing. It isn’t to say that we should not wear our babies, or that we don’t have the right to. But it means we need to acknowledge our debt to those mamas who wore because they had to, with whatever they had.

And we need to acknowledge that babywearing in America is a predominately white, predominately middle- and upper-class phenomenon. Our babywearing community, especially our babywearing community online, is all-white by a far, far, far majority.

If we truly believe that every baby has a right to be worn, and every parent has the right to know the benefits of babywearing, we can’t let that whitewashing stand. BWI has recognized the need for more multicultural voices and spaces; the keynote speaker for this year’s conference is Sherry Payne, who’ll speak on Headwrapping and Babywearing: Using African Traditions to Build Health Equity.

We need to follow that lead. As a community and as individuals, we need to ask some hard questions.

We have booths at Natural Parenting Expos. Do we have babywearing booths at Juneteenth celebrations or Black Heritage festivals? Do we send educators to Cinco de Mayo parades? Do we speak to African-American pastors, offer classes at their churches? Do we actively seek out leaders who are PoC?

We put our flyers up in Whole Foods and Trader Joes. Do we put up flyers in regular grocery stores, in neighborhood tiendas? In places not frequented by mostly white, mostly upper-middle class mamas?

We hold our meetings in the suburbs. Do we have meetings downtown for people without access to a vehicle? Do we hold them in diverse parts of town?

Do we have educators able to speak something other than English? Do we have educators willing to learn, or access to translators?

We flyer the pediatrician’s office. What about the Health Department? What about WIC?

When a PoC comes to our babywearing meeting, how is he or she greeted and made to feel welcome?

Do we demand that companies use models of different races?

These are all hard questions. This is a hard conversation, an uncomfortable conversation. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable, angry, or sad. And remember this isn’t about individual people – it’s about systems. No one’s calling you, personally, a racist. But we need to stop whispering about the racial realities of our community. We need to start talking about them.

Because once we start talking about them, we can start changing them.

Want to join the conversation or share your experiences? Like Manic Pixie Dream Mama on Facebook so you don’t miss the next part of the conversation: babywearing across class.