Purity and Danger Revisited: Dirt and Racism

Mary Douglas defines ‘dirt’ as “matter out of place.[1] In revisiting her work in the context of my current research and the protests of professional athletes, it made me consider this definition, its implications, and the lengths to which we go as a society to “reorder” the world and cleanse. “Dirt offends against order. Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organize the environment[2]”— at least, this is the perception of our behaviors. Understanding racism in the United States is to understand it as the result of “matter” being perceived as out of place. That is to say, racism occurs in times when the social order is being disrupted by people of subordinate races being out of place. This can be seen by examining language and policy.

First, this is illustrated by the rhetoric employed by Whites to denigrate non-Whites. The classic example is the “uppity negro” slur that was employed against Blacks in America since the post-reconstruction era. The idiom was first written in the controversial Uncle Remus stories[3] (1881) to refer to a rooster that had stepped out of his place. The word has been used to refer to Black Americans who “didn’t know their place” and stepped outside of their class station. Failure to show sufficient reverence for Whites, or working or living outside of the expected means of “Black-ness,” was met with “uppity”. The presidential tenure of President Obama was met with a reignition of “uppity” as a Black man was seen as well beyond his bounds. In 2011, Rush Limbaugh, (in)famous conservative mouthpiece, said that First Lady Obama was booed at a NASCAR event because she exhibited “uppity-ism.” Since then, “uppity” has undergone a new transformation but still carries with it the same message—”know your role and shut your mouth.”[4]

Professional athletes since Colin Kaepernick have been kneeling during the National Anthem in solidarity and to protest the structural racism that disadvantages Blacks and other People of Color in the United States. While this is not the first time Black Americans have protested structural racism in the US (see: Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the ’68 Summer Games), it does reignite the conversation about the place of Blacks in a White-dominated society. The protests have been met with “ungrateful,” “son of a bitch”, and many other smears. This is simply a repackaged “uppity negro” (see the excellent article by Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker). The castigation for disrupting the social order is obfuscated by an appeal to reverence for the flag; “they are disrespecting the people that gave their lives for the flag!” is the common trope. This functions as a strawman while obscuring the reality that Blacks demanding justice and fairness is a disruption of the White-dominated narrative—it’s matter out of place. This impurity is only cleansed through ritual emasculation of the people that are perceived to be stepping out of place.

While language is the readiest example, purity is enforced through policy. One example is redlining, the practice by which services and resources are denied to certain areas based on racial composition. This practice began with the National Housing Act of 1934, which allowed the FHA to discriminate against home loans to predominantly Black neighborhoods because they were not deemed “desirable”. Discriminatory lending and renting practices still occur as People of Color are commonly charged higher interest rates, charged higher rents, and denied loans altogether.[5] [6] Due to the discriminatory policies of the past, White Americans were able to accrue wealth through the property while neighborhoods remained segregated. A more literal example of racism as “matter out of place” is the anti-miscegenation laws that persisted in the US until found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1967.[7] These laws dealt with the preservation of “racial hygiene”, that is, maintaining the social hierarchy. Racial hygiene was first proposed by Arthur de Gobineau[8] and later formalized by Francis Galton as eugenics.[9] Douglas argues for degrees of purity, where one that comes into contact with someone that is “impure” also becomes impure. However, people that marry outside of their ascribed race can’t be “ritually purified” in the sense that Douglas discusses it. Instead, people who violate the social order get ostracized and become social pariahs. Laws that banned interracial marriage purported to maintain the social hierarchy—keeping matter in its place.

While this blog post merely scratches the surface of the application of Douglas’ concept of ‘dirt’ to racism, it does provide a framework for understanding where racism may come from. Enculturation into a society with a racially-divided hierarchy comes with a certain mechanism by which the expected social order is maintained, and disruptions in the social order can be very jarring to people that benefit from it.

  • Other examples:
    • Immigrant workers, people seen as placeless[10], become scapegoats and are accused of “taking our jobs” and driving up crime.
    • Black men often get harassed by police for appearing to be in the “wrong neighborhood.”
    • When Black people drive nice cars, it is assumed that the money used to pay for it was not attained legitimately.

[1] Douglas, M. (2003). Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge. 36.

[2] Douglas, M. (2003). Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge. 2.

[3] Harris, J. C. (1983). The complete tales of Uncle Remus. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 447.

[4] The Rock

[5] Sasha Rodriguez & Cathelyn Gregoire on Behalf of All Persons Similarly Situated vs. Sallie Mae (SLM) Corporation. https://ecf.ctd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2007cv1866-205

[6] Immergluck, D. (2002). Redlining redux: Black neighborhoods, black-owned firms, and the regulatory cold shoulder. Urban Affairs Review38(1), 22-41.

[7] Loving v. Virginia. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/388/1

[8] comte de Gobineau, A. (1884). Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (Vol. 2). Firmin-Didot.

[9] Galton, F. (1906) Restrictions in Marriage and Studies in National Eugenics. American Journal of Sociology, 10(1), 1-6.

[10] Douglas, M. (2003). Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge. 96.

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