Live Through This

Keeping It Clean

My grandparents taught me that, as people of color, we couldn’t afford to be messy. Today, I’m thankful for that lesson.

Illustration by Ana.

Illustration by Ana.

A friend of mine recently retumbl’d photos of a house before and after being cleaned. I clicked on the link because I thought the name of the blog, Unfuck Your Habitat, was funny, and because I thought the site might offer some cool solutions I’d never thought of for how to keep your place clean in a timely fashion. I was right! UYH posts tips on keeping your morning flowing smoothly, regular reminders to make your bed, master lists of cleaning supplies, and cleaning checklists you can use to keep your space looking awesome. It also has a ton of before-and-after pictures submitted by readers—and some befores with no afters. This is where the site’s problem lies, for me. I’m really neat, and as I clicked and scrolled through these photos, my skin started to crawl—how is it possible for people to be so, so disorganized?

Why am I being so harsh and judgmental? Well, it started in childhood—I was never really allowed to be messy. I had chores when I was a kid, things like scrubbing the kitchen floor with a brush and a bucket full of soap, washing dishes every single night, washing my own clothes, and putting everything in my bedroom back in its place as soon as I was done with it. I dusted, vacuumed, and was expected to take the garbage out when it was full without being asked. My grandparents weren’t mean or strict, they just wanted my brother and me to learn how to take care of ourselves. (They were also raising us many years after they’d raised their own kids, and were probably too tired to deal with all the Nintendo cartridges and cassettes that came with us.)

Their plan worked: I knew how to clean and take care of my house from the minute I moved out, and I’ve always taken good care of most of the stuff I own. I’m not neurotic about it, and I keep a couple of messy piles of books and papers on the dining room table sometimes like everyone else, but for the most part you could come into my home any time of the day and it would be as neat as a picture in a magazine. I spend a couple of hours every Saturday morning doing a deep clean (bathroom, kitchen, sweeping under the bed, watering the plants, and dusting pictures and stuff), and the rest of the week just sort of tidying up as needed. When I’m busy with work and all the other stuff that happens during the week, I like not having the added agitation of a messy house.

Messiness stresses me out! The reasons for this are numerous, the heaviest being that, in my family, cleanliness was always intertwined with class and race issues. My grandparents always fed me the message that if I looked messy or unkempt, people would think less of me. “When you leave this house, you represent this family,” they would tell me on a regular basis. I think a lot of people of color get this message growing up. One byproduct of racism is that it gives people of color an inferiority complex as well as a very realistic fear of being hurt (physically and psychologically), so there’s extra pressure on us not to act “wrong” and draw negative attention to ourselves. In reality, if someone hates you because of your race, the way you present yourself is not going to change their mind, but I and other POCs I feel a certain amount of pride in looking fly in a culture that devalues us all the time. To my working-class grandparents, dressing their best and keeping their house looking nice was a way to show people that they—and by extension other black people—weren’t really so bad, and they passed this notion on to me and my brother. I came of age in the ’80s and ’90s, when ripped jeans, baggy everything, and thrift store goods were de rigueur—you can imagine my grandmother’s reaction to my of-the-moment wardrobe. If you can’t, I will tell you that she would suck her teeth and say, “People are going to think we can’t afford to buy you clothes!” In retrospect, she had a point: I looked like a walking trash heap.

But my bedroom was always organized and clean. I almost envy those of you who are like, “Who cares if my room is messy? It’s my space and I can do whatever I want with it!” You probably have time to sleep in or to play Flappy Bird while I’m busy dusting and scrubbing. Maybe your parents don’t have a reason to stress out about the condition of your room. Maybe they aren’t afraid of what people might think of them if everything in their house isn’t perfectly clean. Or maybe they can afford to have someone come to your house to clean it, so you’ve never had to think about it. I never had any of these luxuries. But most of me is glad I was raised the way I was. There are very few good things that come from a history of oppression, but I’m not mad that I work to make sure my house always feels comfortable for me. And I actually think that in the long run, not being messy saves me time, because I’m not wasting time searching through piles of junk for my keys or my glasses or what have you. I also buy so much less food, clothes, books, and stuff when I can see what I already have! If I know that I have three or four unread books on my nightstand, I’m not going to impulse buy a novel at the bookstore because I feel like I need something to read. It’s not a guessing game when I go shop for clothes—I know I already have the perfect outfit in my closet, because I just saw it hanging up this morning when I got dressed.

When the physical space around me is clean, it helps my mind feel clear and my thoughts flow more freely, which I need for my job as writer. I know it’s not this way for everybody, perhaps not even for most people: A recent study at the University of Minnesota found that people in messy rooms had more-creative thoughts. But it’s almost impossible for me to create anything when I’m in the middle of a mess, because it makes me think that what I’m creating is a waste of time—look at everything else I should be spending my time on! If it works for you to be messy and creative, that’s cool, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to promote messiness as necessary for being a good artist. I’ve been to artist’s studios that were a mess, and it always made me feel like they didn’t respect their materials—paint is so expensive, so leaving the cap off a $30 tube of the stuff and letting it dry out feels incredibly cavalier, and it makes me wonder how much respect they can have for what they’re making.

It probably sounds like I’m a rigid no-fun-haver, but I swear, I maintain this clean thing because I love having time to hang out and do nothing at all. It’s a lot easier to spend an hour knitting or watching TV when I’m not looking at a pile of things that need to be dealt with. I’m just not equipped to handle that kind of nagging guilt. I also like it when my friends feel comfortable in my house, which is easier to do when they’re not stepping on my old underwear and empty pizza boxes.

When I visit friends with messy houses, I try really hard not to be judgmental. I remind myself that I don’t have to live there or be in that space for more than a couple of hours. I’m still friends with my messy friends, and I’ve definitely noticed that a lot of people become less messy once they’ve lived on their own for a while. But it also makes me wonder what messages they got about cleanliness growing up, and what their childhoods were like. The idea of being comfortable living in chaos is so foreign to me. I see it as a sign of privilege. Sometimes I even ask people, “Did you ever have to clean your room when you were growing up? Were your parents ever concerned that you didn’t wash your jeans enough, or that you were wearing something with a hole in it? Were you worried about being called ‘trash’ or anything like that?” When they look at me like I’m crazy, I have my answer.

Obviously, this stuff is different for everyone. How much mess you can tolerate has as much to do with your upbringing as it does with your random individual predisposition. My grandparents’ need to be tidy came from a different place—an awful place—than mine, which came directly from them. But this is one custom I’m glad they passed down to me. ♦

20 Comments

  • Ozma March 13th, 2014 12:18 AM

    Both of my parents are super-duper tidy people (my mom does things like polishing the paper towel rack, their closet is organized by color etc.) but I’m a hot mess when it comes to organization. It’s actually a big source of shame for me; I know how disgusted my parents are by my habits and it makes me feel bad about myself. We fight about my messiness all the time. I wish cleanliness came more inherently to me.

  • peace.love.music.grows March 13th, 2014 12:26 AM

    Ah- thanks for posting this! I need to clean on the weekends, too, and cannot be productive or creative when my workspace isn’t my version of clean. Life has been super-busy lately, and I’m feeling like EVERYTHING is a mess. The first thing I do when I get to work tomorrow will be to bust out some tunes & get tidy!

  • delaxyannie March 13th, 2014 12:38 AM

    Saturday cleaning was always a routine for me, growing up. My mother would get frustrated to find the mess me and my 3 sisters would create in our cramped room after a week and she’d always yell in Spanish “Ustedes viven como los negros!” (“You all live like the negroes!”) It was such a casual saying in my house but so heavy with oppression. Even though we’re Domincan, my mom still had this attitude that POC are dirty and that we need to make every effort not to be. This saying, the way it seemed to 6th-grade-me, placed White people as the superior and cleaner group so I was surprised to enter high school and find that my POC friends were a lot neater than my White friends.

    Idk this piece articulated a lot of points I always thought about. I relate with it so much.

  • marineo March 13th, 2014 1:00 AM

    i’d never considered the racial aspect, at least for me it was always a class thing. My parents would yell at me for wearing my vans until they fell off my feet because they were worried people would think they couldn’t afford to give me new shoes. Same with thrifting. MY mother encouraged me to thrift, but only for things that looked “nice” ie “expensive”
    hm.

  • Crumpets March 13th, 2014 1:30 AM

    I have been known to clean people’s rooms when I visit their houses. Do not do this if you have just met this person you’re cleaning the room of, my fellow humans…

  • Lillypod March 13th, 2014 3:41 AM

    this is true, especially the part about being able to relax once things are in their proper order — I’m not obsessive but its good to have standards and a good routine. I reckon a lot of kids leave home with no.clue. of how to keep a space clean/tidy. i have friends in their 20s who are disgusting!! Each to their own, but to me it showed a lack of respect. They had a beautiful house with leaves piled up in the corners of the rooms, i mean whhhaaat!?

  • March 13th, 2014 9:19 AM

    I think it’s very unfair for you to link to specific people’s posts, and call them disgusting slobs, when you have no idea of why their spaces are in that state or what their lives are like. UFYH is a place where people can can get advice and help – they are attempting to ask how to fix the solution because they did not learn or don’t know how to implement the strategies your grandparents taught you.

    Laziness is a factor in messiness. But so is ill health, having to work long hours, mental health issues, living with parents and roommates who refuse to help you, and physical limitations.

    Messiness is not always a sign of privilege and lumping people in like that – everybody together, no lines drawn between “I can live like this because I can’t be bothered” and “I don’t know how to fix it this so I have to live like this” is unfair.

    This post seems to be treading very close to the line of either a bootstraps lecture, or a “everybody who can’t do it is just defective” in some way.

    • Amy Rose March 13th, 2014 1:36 PM

      Hey! Danielle emailed us that she recognizes that some of the original language in this post might be hurtful to some people and asked us to adjust it, and we’ve done so accordingly. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  • listen comma lady March 13th, 2014 11:50 AM

    There’s another dimension to why people are messy. (I mean, there are many.) But it’s more complicated than privilege. (Though that is certainly a part of it for many people!)

    One reason, for me, is that my mom was severely psychologically and emotionally abusive. One of the only ways that I had to resist her or to fight back or to try to protect myself was to refuse to do the things she wanted me to do, including keeping my room clean. Those strategies got ingrained, stayed with me long after they were necessary. Unlearning them has taken me many years.

    Another reason is that I have a chronic illness.

    People who have privilege also have stories. Sometimes those things align with each other. Sometimes they don’t.

    • onlykhenzo March 13th, 2014 3:04 PM

      I completely understand the rebellion thing. My mother and sister were also a fanatic about a (almost neurotically) clean house and we do not have the best of relationships. I always felt like forcing me to spend two hours on a Saturday morning scrubbing, scraping, shining was another way they were, I don’t know, trying to restrict me or control me. Especially because my sister tended to yell a lot of abuse at me when I didn’t do something just right. So I’ve made a point of keeping my room a mess to fight back, especially because I haven’t known how else to and now it’s kind of grown into who I am, I guess.

      • listen comma lady March 13th, 2014 3:22 PM

        YEP.

        But the surprise of my adult life has been that Danielle is, in fact, right: there’s more pleasure and happiness in living in a clean place. Taking care of myself and the spaces I live in feels good. It can come to feel corrective, compassionate–like the kind of care we deserved and didn’t get. If you don’t want it to be who you are, it doesn’t have to be. And you don’t have to be your mom or your sister, either.

  • Mikazuki42 March 13th, 2014 3:33 PM

    Honestly, I found this article a little judgmental. This is a really interesting topic in terms of privilege and race, but I think the article could have focused on that a little more instead of condemning messy people.

    My parents aren’t the neatest people, and neither am I. That doesn’t mean I don’t ever clean my room, and it doesn’t mean I don’t do house-cleaning chores. I clean the bathroom and the kitchen, vacuum, tidy up, etc etc. My room is usually untidy, but it’s not gross, and I clean it on a weekly basis. Both my parents are artists, and they have tendencies to space out, pile things, and be a little lax on the organization front.

    Certainly, we are privileged; I come from a middle-class white family. But I believe our messiness is more due to the personalities of the people in my family (artistic, a little spacey) and just a general feeling that there are more important things in life than cleaning instead of a general feeling of privilege and laziness.

    I don’t really know what the purpose of this article was, besides to shame people for messiness, but in my opinion it didn’t really seem to contribute much to the discussion of race and privilege.

    • Amy Rose March 13th, 2014 4:35 PM

      Hey! Thanks for letting us know how you’re feeling. Personally, I’m a walking human trash heap whose messiness comes from psychological disorders like ADHD and a super-fun case of intermittent depression, so I get the experience of being made to feel bad about untidiness. I know how frustrating and unfair it feels when people actually do blame me for it or chalk it up to laziness, even though it’s actually based in the chemistry of my brainzone. But I disagree that shaming people was Danielle’s motivation, intentionally or unintentionally, in this piece.

      I felt like the “purpose of this article” was Danielle showing us a very real and very racialized aspect of neatness and presentation, and I’m so glad she did. As I read this, D’s words did the double duty of explaining not only what that was like for her, but, in a secondary way, why it’s sometimes hard for her to keep her judgement about it in check. I respect that she’s trying to improve on that front, but way more so that she gave all of us a new way to think about cleanliness and class, even though our experiences and perspectives here are different. Mad love to all of you, and I’m glad we can talk about this SOMETIMES MESSY [rimshot!!] topic of conversation together.

    • creatr1x March 16th, 2014 6:28 PM

      one purpose of danielle’s article could be maybe to let people know that not everybody is privileged enough to say that “there are more important things in life than cleaning”. she’s saying that being clean, as a black person, is a statement. it’s proving yourself to people who are so quick to look down at you to point out all these negatives then use it to generalise and further oppress your whole people. nobody wants that, which is why it’s ~quite~ an important thing to danielle and people like her to be clean and presentable.
      i hope that helps you understand that danielle’s article actually does contribute to the discussion of race and privilege.
      x

  • Abby March 13th, 2014 5:48 PM

    I feel this man. I’m so neat and my roommate is kind of messy. It doesn’t bother me that much, but sometimes, I just want to be like, “SERIOUSLY HOW DO YOU FUNCTION.” But it’s also weird because she’s like a crazy germaphobe, and that also weirds me out a lot lol.

  • Raissomat March 13th, 2014 6:00 PM

    I am so messy. I SO wish I was like you.
    I was the only kid at school that had to help cleaning at home, and my mum used to take a trash bag and throw away all my mess out of despair, hoping I would not start over. I wouldn’t blame her, she tried! My partner is really tidy, poor guy. And god knows I try. But I don’t understand, it’s just SO hard for me to put away something after using it.
    And I really like order and cleanliness, I just can’t understand how someone can actually keep it up.

  • cassiekils March 14th, 2014 6:47 AM

    I see the connection the author is trying to make between race/class and neatness/cleanliness/presentation, but those important points get lost in the judgmental tone of the article. To simplify something as prevalent among humans as messiness to privilege is really frustrating to me as a reader, especially in regard to visiting her friends’ homes and having to “try really hard not to be judgmental” or artists’ studios that make her “wonder how much respect they can have for what they’re making” because of their relative levels of tidiness.

    I wish the author had focused more on her personal experiences than her negative reactions to how other people keep their environments. The best example of this is the whole second to last paragraph of the article. It does very little to help me understand the author and her perspective; all I gather is the implied assumptions that she makes about other people’s backgrounds/privilege based on their levels of tidiness, which would seem to be what her grandparents were trying to protect her from in the first place by placing an emphasis on cleanliness while she was growing up.

    Whew! First time comment, and a long one at that! I am a longtime reader of rookie but this is the first article that I had a really negative response to. I hope these points bring up further conversation! xoxoxx

    • creatr1x March 16th, 2014 6:42 PM

      your comment is interesting, because what i gathered from danielle’s article is that her grandparents, “by placing an emphasis on cleanliness while she was growing up”, were trying to teach her that your cleanliness or lack of it tells other people what kind of a person you are which is why it’s important to keep it up in order to give a positive impression of who you’re representing – for example your race and your family. and that’s probably why she seems judgemental; she’s been taught that people make assumptions about you based on your appearance and so she does the same.
      growing up with rigid ideas about stuff, it can be confusing to come across people with completely different ideals. that’s why i think danielle wonders about people’s upbringings. it’s not an intentionally negative or judgemental thing, but more that human curiosity about how and why people are so different to you and what causes it.
      x

  • Maradoll Mynx March 14th, 2014 9:09 AM

    Totally relating to this! Beautiful post about something I haven’t really heard people talk about before.

    “I also buy so much less food, clothes, books, and stuff when I can see what I already have!”…YES. People I know who have clutter, IMHO, seem to be trying hard to LOOK like artists b/c as you mentioned, there is this thought that chaos=art. I don’t agree. The truth is that art = discipline.

    Like some others, it was a class thing for me growing up too. We were white but had come from Kentucky and were poor. My mom was trying hard to “measure up” to what she felt others around us must be like (basically we all had an inferiority complex too; we had 6 kids and not much $/food to go around.) I, too, always felt kids who never had to clean were extremely privileged. They were so carefree; they had so much stuff handed to them they didn’t care about so they threw it down. It was and always will be alienating to me.

    Anyway ~ my thing is this: I need to be able to find things in my space. I want to not buy more than I need. I don’t agree that messy=art; messy just means you can’t actually figure out what your art is and you aren’t disciplined enough to get any direction in your work. You basically just have a bunch of stuff that looked like cool shit you found at the thrift store, and this makes it LOOK as though you have some sort of artistic vision; however art= structure, people. But productive artists have got this figured out.

  • Abs March 15th, 2014 1:07 PM

    i found this piece unfair and judgmental. there is a connection between class and cleanliness, for sure (and its a super interesting topic which hasn’t been discussed much), but the view of the writer is very narrow, and doesn’t deal with the issue with any real depth.

    i am super messy and its a real struggle for me. it makes my life so much harder, and i am not spoilt, privileged, or take things for granted. people are disorganized for so many reasons. apart from being (in some cases) a burden for the messy person, i don’t think it’s wrong or offensive. why is it being described as such a bad thing?

    and another thing: Danielle herself said the reason her family is so worried about always being tidy is because her grandparents were afraid of being wrongly judged because of appearances. why does Danielle keep on judging others relying on something that doesn’t mean anything about who you are or what you are worth?