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A Critique of the Colonial Cleanliness Crusade

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  1. NaraVara
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    I think this author is laboring under some pretty dicey readings of history. The idea that Europeans only bathed a few times in their lives kind of dramatically overstates the point. They only had...
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    I think this author is laboring under some pretty dicey readings of history. The idea that Europeans only bathed a few times in their lives kind of dramatically overstates the point. They only had full baths a handful of times, but it's not as if they weren't cleaning themselves otherwise. It's just that it was a pain in the butt to have to haul a bathtub's worth of water to somewhere private enough to take a bath. People like being clean. They take dips in rivers and lakes, in part, to wash themselves off.

    Cleanliness, and especially ritual cleanliness and purity is also a major factor in plenty of non-White societies. As a Hindu I am obliged to bathe before doing any praying and, on certain holy days one of the key elements of observance is to wash your hair. The traditional way to greet a respected guest in your home was to wash their feet, and one of the ways we show respect to elders is to ceremonially brush the dust off their feet. Muslims are obliged to make wudu before praying, if possible, which is something they have to do five times a day. This involves rinsing the parts of their bodies most likely to get dirty, namely the hands, feet, face, and pits. Throughout Asia there are fairly strict cultural norms around not bringing "outside" dirt "inside." This is where the norm of not wearing your shoes inside the house comes from. Many will also not wear "outside" clothes in the inner parts of the house, particularly bedrooms.

    I know less about customs in traditional (pre-Islamic) African cultures, but I would be willing to bet money that they have plenty of cleanliness norms as well. It's even in Christian cultures. Christ isn't Jesus' last name, it means "the Anointed one" with the act of anointing being to bathe someone in oil. This was the normal way people cleaned themselves in Roman times, by having oil applied to them and then scraped off with a sort of squeegee.

    Part of colonial myth-making certainly was to depict the others as inherently dirty and grimy, but it's not as if the people in question didn't see value in cleanliness, their material conditions didn't permit them to access the same tools of hygiene as middle-class, industrial civilization with access to running water and cheap detergents and soaps, could. Part of the reason people in colonized regions participated in being colonized was because they liked those things too on some level. It wasn't like Euros were exporting cleanliness, they were exporting and trying to universalize all of a European set of values and lifestyles, from diets, spirituality, language, clothing, craft and farming practices, legal systems, art and architecture, etc. Cleanliness was just another culturally bound norm that they decided was the universally correct way to be and attempted to impose on the rest of the world.

    But critically, that doesn't mean nobody else wants to be "clean" in the same way it doesn't mean nobody else values having art or spirituality or culinary tradition. Everyone has norms around cleanliness and ritual purity that are based on their cultures and traditions. European norms and traditions on the exact same things are depicted not as a tradition or as a culturally bound practice, but as the outcome of some sort of 'rational' decision-making process to colonize others or oppress women. The fact that White people tried to impose their cultures on others (including specific ways of thinking about cleanliness), doesn't mean the idea of cleanliness or the value of it is inherently White. It's actually very very difficult to disentangle which things were a consequence of White supremacy and colonialism and which were natural consequences of the processes of industrialization, the spread of print culture, globalized and international trade, and a host of other social and cultural transformations that were coincident with the age of colonialism.

    I find analysis that flattens historical narratives into a straightforward account of Whites acting upon non-Whites to be frustrating because it seems to just reproduce Eurocentric perspectives in which White people were and are the only meaningful agents of history and everyone else is just kind of a prop in their morality plays. It's really quite dehumanizing to see all the cultures and histories of the rest of the world be reduced to "stuff White people did to them" rather than as a series of choice and decisions they made, internally, based on their own social norms and values. It also makes it seem as if European cultural norms somehow exist "outside" of normal historical and anthropological forces that impact everyone else. It's like that joke about "What's the difference between anthropology and sociology? Well it's sociology when it's about White people."

    15 votes