Among the many recent trends on TikTok, Instagram, and elsewhere online, there may be none as ostensibly benign as the shared excitement over home organization. This faddish preoccupation is shared by people of various races, creeds, and nationalities. However, they apparently also share one major blind spot in common.
An American academic at Loyola University Chicago has seen what others have failed to: Clean kitchens, immaculate cupboards, and nicely organized provisions are the makings not just of an orderly home. They’re racist. What’s more, an aversion to slovenly living and chaotic kitchens is also rooted in sexism and classism.
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Jenna Drenten is a pronoun-providing associate professor of marketing in the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago. Her past scholarship includes a critique of “masculine dominance” in video gaming and an examination of “how lipstick reflects contested feminist politics of choice.”
In a piece published Tuesday in the Conversation, Drenten attempted to answer the following questions: “How did the perfectly organized pantry become so ubiquitous in the digital age? And what does it say about the expectations of being a good homemaker?”
Whereas originally, the pantry was a hidden place to store food, over time, it has made its way into plain view. Greater visibility has made the pantry less of a utility closet for food and more of a status symbol, suggested the associate marketing professor.
Much in the same way that popular personalities on social media make a show of their meals in “food porn,” people have similarly taken to parading images of their stocked shelves and organized kitchens online.
Rochelle Stewart is one such kitchen exhibitionist.
This Christian influencer routinely shares videos documenting her organizational prowess to her over 440,000 followers, as seen in this post:
Drenten wrote, “Storing spices in coordinated glass jars and color-coordinating dozens of sprinkles containers may seem trivial. But tidiness is tangled up with status, and messiness is loaded with assumptions about personal responsibility and respectability.”
The associate professor did not go so far as to say slobbery is anti-racist, but Drenten did note that the “anti-messiness, pro-niceness stance” taken by people like Rochelle Stewart, a black mother, is built upon “a history of classist, racist and sexist social structures.”
To make this grandiose accusation, largely unsubstantiated in the article, the associate professor links to three academic papers in passing.
The hyperlinked claim that the pursuit of cleanliness is “racist” takes readers to a 2003 paper in the “Journal of Women’s History,” which claims black women promoted “temperance, cleanliness of person and property, thrift, polite manners, and sexual purity” in part to evidence to white people “that African Americans could be respectable.”
It is unclear from Drenten’s piece whether she is insinuating that non-whites participating in “pantry porn” are trying to prove something to their white peers.
The hyperlinked claim that the pursuit of cleanliness is “sexist” takes readers to a 2006 paper in the same journal detailing the impact of the washing machine on perceptions of women and gender roles in Chilean society during the 20th Century. The paper similarly takes up the buzz word “respectability” and insinuates a perceived link between cleanliness and progress.
Finally, the hyperlinked claim in Drenten’s piece that the pursuit of cleanliness is classist references a paper in a leftist activist publication, which suggests that “many working-class people have aspired to respectability – maintaining cleanliness in the home, presenting an image of ‘niceness’ through neat modes of dress, or speaking ‘proper’. This respectability is intended to show those in power that working-class people are worthy of their attention and assistance.”
The class-focused paper intimates that boorishness and disorderly conduct might prove threatening to “the white bourgeoisie,” particularly as “respectability was linked to white nationalism.”
The three external bases for Drenten’s argument all appear to presume the function of cleanliness and niceness is respectability, and that respectability necessarily is a means of satisfying the expectations of perceived racial and class betters.
“Cleanliness has historically been used as a cultural gatekeeping mechanism to reinforce status distinctions based on a vague understanding of ‘niceness’: nice people, with nice yards, in nice houses, make for nice neighborhoods,” wrote Drenten.
Drenten is not a standout on the left when suggesting that the pursuit of higher standards of living and being are racist or racially-linked.
The Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History similarly raised eyebrows in 2020 with a flier suggesting that rugged individualism; self-reliance; the nuclear family; rational linear thinking; quantitative emphasis; an emphasis on hard work as being key to success; punctuality; a preference for Christianity; decision-making; and the “Winner/loser dichotomy” were all aspects and assumptions of whiteness and white culture in the United States.