Decolonizing Clean as a Woman of Color

Spring is here, an entire season dedicated to cleaning and organizing.


As an optimist who loves to clean, I love finding things that help us create meaning in our daily routines. As a woman of color, I have complicated feelings about Western representations of springtime renewal and homemaking bliss.


In my home growing up, my mother used vinegar to clean everything. Takeout quarts were used to organize drawers. Cookie tins held sewing supplies. Napkins were torn in half and conserved. Today, she would be considered low waste and eco-minded. Back then, she was scrappy and resourceful.


Spring cleaning à la capitalism is, in a lot of ways, the opposite of the immigrant experience. It prioritizes Western ideas of homemaking, encourages consumption, and perpetuates colonialism that exploits the work of women and BIPOC.

 1959 suburban housewife standing in a kitchen cooking by an oven

Image: Suburban housewife in pearls and a dress cooking with an oven, 1959.


In the same way that we need to decolonize design or our diets, we also need to decolonize cleaning.


For those new to this idea, decolonization is the process of deconstructing colonial ideas that sustain the superiority and privilege of western thought and practices. In this case, ideas giving civilized, wealthy, white societies the power to decide what is clean and who does the cleaning.


Here are some ideas to dismantle.


1. Cleanliness is just about being clean.


During the 19th century, British imperial advertising made whiteness synonymous with hygiene and civility. Soap empires were built on the promise of a better life in exchange for raw goods and slave labor from colonized countries.


Cleanliness was about being in control.


1950s suburban housewife blindfolded

Image: Suburban housewife blindfolded, 1950s.


Colonial ideas about cleanliness were reinforced by the science versus primitivism binary that implies that native people lack the scientific knowledge to care for their land or bodies. Giving colonial settlers the right to assume responsibility for both.


In conservation, settlers claim sovereignty over lands instead of respecting their caretakers. In health and wellness, they impose Western ideas of beauty and hygiene over cultures instead of respecting their traditions and values.


From the Far East to the West Indies, colonizers have weaponized science to maintain their own health and wealth. While extracting resources from stolen lands and labor from stolen bodies.


Nothing about any of this sounds clean, right? Right.


2. Being clean is an objective science.


Before our latest pandemic, of which there have been many, alcohol or bleach were never needed for household cleaning. Neither were harsh chemicals or plastic. All cleaning before the twentieth century required very few, if any, commodities. There was no multi-billion dollar industry there is today.


One thing people ask about our products is if they really clean, implying that products made from natural materials only work half as well.


That suspicion is not surprising, considering how most products in the cleaning aisle today are synthesized from toxic ingredients, petrochemicals, or both. We buy them anyway because their labels say that they are 99.99% effective.


But in reality, being clean is more of a social construct than an exact science.


1950s ad of a suburban housewife with her cheek pressed up against a can of Old Dutch cleaner smiling

Image: Old Dutch cleanser advertisement, 1950s.


Store-bought cleaning solutions often exaggerate the threat germs pose to our health and offer solutions that obscure what nature already provides. All living organisms have some form of hygiene, but we humans like to think we invented it.


Meanwhile, our lands have never been more polluted or our bodies more sick.


Should people stop buying cleaning products in stores? No. Some of them are great, including ours. But they are not the only solutions, nor are they necessarily better than what some people have access to or can make.


3. Housewives and homemakers do the cleaning.


By 1963, the U.S. government had drawn a hard line between suburban housewives and inner-city working mothers by anointing the stay-at-home mom as the American and Christian ideal. The myth of the suburban housewife was born, and upper, middle-class white women parading appliances came to define aspirational living.


After the wars, military factories were converted to manufacture commodities. Companies needed a way to convince people to buy things and get middle-class women to stay home. Admen created the first Betty's to sell dishwashers. While Black women did most of their cleaning.


1960s suburban housewives modeling the latest dishwashers on a carousel
Image: Suburban housewives modeling the latest dishwashers, 1950s.


Contrary to mid-century or even modern-day media, not all homemakers are white or women, and there is nothing optional about their work. This seems obvious, but like conservation, cleaning is a white-washed space. BIPOC doing housework or cultivating land exposes our colonial history.


The white, suburban housewife became a magical trope meant to lubricate the post-war economy while normalizing oppression from centuries ago.


Throughout history and across cultures, women and men do different things to manage their households. Often together, in multi-generational homes where aunts, uncles, and grandparents share in the work. There is nothing more mythical than the lone housewife fulfilling all the needs of her household. Women have always had help because it is simply impossible for any woman to do everything or have it all.


4. The West knows best.


Ironically, the area where the West was slowest to adapt was hygiene. Europeans were not known to care for their bodies to the extent that other civilizations did. Native Americans bathed in rivers and streams. Chinese people took baths in tea. Not even European kings bathed until the 18th century – and even then with their clothes on.

 1950s suburban housewife gasping in shock

Image: Suburban housewife, 1950.


If you look inside your family, culture, and the natural world, there is wisdom to gain.


A rule of every Asian household is leaving your shoes at the door – an ancient custom that we take for granted, like the idea that sometimes, the best way to clean involves no cleaning at all.


In a category where BIPOC are often misrepresented or invisible, I want to celebrate the stories outside western traditions. The ones that are not on morning shows or magazine pages but say a lot about our humanity.


So we asked four of our BIPOC friends what tips, memories, or experiences of cleaning, cleansing, or cleanliness were passed down in their homes or from their cultures. We hope that sharing their stories will decolonize cleaning and re-center the conversation around different cultural perspectives.


Stay tuned for more.


Special thanks to Kalo from Kalo Make Art Studio for her "Decolonizing Clean" brush pen calligraphy.