When Black and brown people are marked as dirty, we pay for it in ways that white people sulking on Twitter will never understand.
By Gloria Oladipo
The amount of shit white people can get away with is amazing, like being unwashed and unapologetic about their stink. Despite having sufficient resources and abilities to clean themselves properly, there is a number of white people defending their subpar cleanliness. Twitter is inundated with white people claiming they have no need to wash their legs. There are white people refusing to wash their face. White people have been claiming for years that swimming in a pool counts as a bath. Obviously, this is hilarious; it’s another riff on the classic subject of white people—a group with more power, privilege, and access than everyone—staying messy. However, underneath the shock, disgust, and hilarity of it all is another glaring example of white privilege.
The concept of cleanliness is not race neutral; “clean” and “dirty” are racialized terms that have been used to demean people of color and justify their mistreatment. Historically, an understanding of Black people as “unclean” was used to justify de jure anti-Blackness such as segregated drinking fountains, bathrooms, and public spaces. Medical communities tried to scientifically prove that Black people were carriers for diseases, ones that further demanded their isolation from society. Non-white Latinx people have been characterized as “dirty” and lazy. Accusations from white people that minorities are “unclean” have always been used as tools of dehumanization.
Furthermore, the stereotype of people of color being dirty continues to be commodified for profit, proving the marketability of anti-Blackness. Countless anti-Black commercials for soap, detergent, and other cleaning agents have come out; in these advertisements, Black people are used to represent filth and dirt while white people symbolize cleanliness only the advertised product can achieve. Not only are these stereotypes used to sell products (to Black and white consumers alike), but they help spread the false belief that there is something inherently dirty about people of color.
Even when Black and brown people go to extraordinary lengths to prove our cleanliness, it is never enough. A commonly shared experience among Black people are memories of our caretakers calling for us to be extremely clean: use extra soap, wash at least twice a day, keep yourself well-groomed, among other commands. This shared quality wasn’t germaphobia, but rather a response to Black and brown children being labeled as dirty in a white world. When I was parented this way, my parents weren’t trying to call me dirty. Rather, they were trying to be preventative about my cleanliness so white people couldn’t question my grooming. We can scrub our bodies raw, trying to shower our way into dignity, but “clean” and “dirty” has always been defined by white supremacy in ways to terrorize people of color.
When Black and brown people are marked as dirty, we pay for it in ways that white people sulking on Twitter will never understand. We pay for it with our jobs, discriminated against at work for being “unkempt”. We pay for it with our education, as racist educators throw us out of school, claiming we need to be more presentable. We pay for it with our lives, as the same reasons used to justify our dehumanization in history come full circle. The mere fact that white people getting called dirty draws such vast media attention proves the entitlement white people have. No one defends people of color against stereotypes of our filthiness; meanwhile, white people will continuously have people justifying their supposed superiority.
It is hard for me to conjure sympathy for the privileged in general. Imagine how deficient my sympathy is for white people with working bathrooms who refuse to bathe properly by choice. If white people want to continue not washing their legs, go for it. If white people want to believe that a light drizzle counts as a shower, who am I to stand in their way? However, the ability to do this and retain their humanity is built around a myth from white supremacy that white people are the standard for “clean”. Black and brown people have never had the ability to be anything less than extremely hygienic, and even that is not enough to stop overt and covert forms of racism. As white people continue to believe shaving cream counts as soap, people of color will continue to bathe thoroughly. We don’t have the luxury of being able to smell bad.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a sophomore at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on instagram at @glorels.