In Defense of Cleaning the Dirty Laundry

published on Aug 06, 2020


This piece was written in response to those who decry protesters as "provocateurs" and other names, and is an apology on behalf of those who do that work. (N.B., the definition of apology which means "a reasoned argument or writing in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine."

Soap doesn’t get things clean.

I tried to explain this to the 12 year-old for what felt like the millionth time. As he is wont to do, he argued the point with me. Now, me being a homeschooling parent, this turned into a bit of a lesson in elementary chemistry, with me waxing about acids and bases, surface tension, etc.

Dirt gets trapped in fabric by oils, which are clinging to the fabric. The detergent loosens the oil from the fabric* thereby letting the water wash away the oil and dirt together.

But some of the oil and dirt is also held in the fabric by regular old tension, stuck in between the fibers of the cloth. You have to rub the fabric together to get the dirt and oils out, the detergent just makes that process easier. A shirt sitting in soapy water won’t really get clean. You have to actually do the action of washing.

We went over to the washing machine. It has a mechanism to work the articles of clothing against each other and with the water, the action of washing.

“What’s it called, the piece in the middle that actually does the washing?” he asked.

It’s interesting, isn’t it: how frequently we use cloth metaphors for life. We talk about the tapestry of our communities. The 3 Greek Fates (Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos) were weavers, measuring out the individual threads of a person’s life.

Someone may be “cut from the same cloth” as a parent or friend. We might call someone a “stuffed-shirt” or “well-heeled”. Gossips air other people’s “dirty laundry”. If we are excited about a big project we might be “bursting at the seams” to get it done, but still barely finish “by the seat of our pants” before “falling apart at the seams” from anxiety and exhaustion.

Like clothing, Life gets dirty from use.

It’s one of those disappointing realizations about existence — no matter how hard we work to keep things pristine, life will find a way (with apologies to Dr. Malcolm).

And so it goes: our tapestries — the communities, large and small — that we are a part of get dirty. They get grimy. Sometimes, they get downright disgusting. And it’s not always our fault.

But even when we’re not responsible for (all of) the dirt in the cloth of our lives and our communities, we do have a responsibility to clean it from time to time. To really get in there and do the work of getting that dirt out.

We can rely on the soaps and detergents of the world to help. We have leaders who guide and instruct us in our moral understanding, to identify the places where dirt and grime have accumulated. Our churches and mosques, temples, synagogues and secular organizations can do a lot to loosen up the dirt, to push us as a collective to understand deeper, to strive to more, to not accept as sufficient what once was radical.

As a society, we rely too much on the work of others.

When I hear people say things like “racism doesn’t exist anymore” — or any of the myriad other ways of saying the same thing, like “all lives matter” or “that was a long time ago” — what they really are saying is that soaking in the detergent ought to be enough. Loosening the dirt and grime ought to be sufficient.

“This has made us clean enough.”

We know it’s not clean enough. Dirt and grime still cling to the fabric of our communities. Just like a shirt that’s only been soaking in detergent, it’s not always obvious right away, just from looking at things from a distance, that the shirt isn’t clean. But put that shirt back in the water and work it, and you’ll see more dirt come out.

This process of working the fabric to get the stubborn stains and dirt out. This is necessary work.

Like that shirt that appears clean enough from just soaking, it’s too easy to become complacent about our communities: to declare them not racist, that we are not troubled by the same issues that plague other places. But once we start working the fabric a little bit, the dirt that was hidden within starts to come out.

I’ve seen this happen in my town over the past few weeks. What started as a complaint in an ice cream store blew up into street protests, riot police and snipers, unnecessary and illegal arrests of Black people… dirt.

As the dirt started coming out, people began asking “How could this happen here?” The entrenched systems of power — like my 12 year-old wanting very much to not have to deal with it all — believed things were clean enough. When they saw the dirt come out, they blamed those who were working the fabric.

“If you don’t work the fabric, no dirt would come out,” they said. “Stop working the fabric.”

We know, we all know at a deep and spiritual level, that things aren’t clean enough. We don’t like to see the dirty water, though, and so we blame those who are still trying to get the dirt out.

We call them names, blame them for creating the friction which dislodges the dirt, throw them in jail for doing nothing but making the water dirty.

All of the great moments in history that we idolize were brought about because people created friction in the status quo, specifically because they provoked the authorities: Jesus in the temple, Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-five theses to the church door, colonists dumping tea into Boston Harbor, Rosa Parks saying “no” to moving to the back of the bus.

But that part of the washing machine, the one that really works the clothing in order to get out the dirt?

It’s called an agitator.

And yes, Jesus was an agitator. Gandhi was an agitator. Dr. King was an agitator. They all pushed and rubbed and wrung the fabric of their societies in order to get the dirt out. To show people just how much there was trapped in their communities.

Irritation of the systems of power is a political act.

Agitation of the community is a moral stance.

Thank you to everyone all those who are working to dislodge the embedded dirt from our communities. Thank you for your loud mouths, your anger, your passion, your confrontational attitude. Thank you to all who, like Plato’s gadfly, “sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth."

Here’s to the agitators.


*As an introductory lesson, the more precise description of dual hydrophobic / hydrophilic properties of detergents wasn’t necessary.

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Abigail Head

Improv nerd, geek girl. She/her.

Theater owner, actor & improviser, writer, filmmaker, minor league humorist, and generally-opinionated scuttlebug.

Lover of the em dash, proponent of the serial comma, and staunch defender of "literally" literally meaning "in the literal sense". 

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