Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How to Catch Yourself Before Enacting Privileged, Ignorant Assholery*

Just now I was thinking of how unappreciated our university janitorial and cleaning staff is, at least in my building. They are largely invisible--they come in in the middle of the night, clean the place, replenish goods, and leave before most students, faculty or staff get here. And the state of our building is something, then, we just take for granted.**

I'd imagine as cleaning jobs go, a job cleaning at a university pays more and offers more benefits than most, though I only imagine that--I don't know. Still, we are very fucking privileged to have people who clean up after us, who sweep our floors and dispose of our trash, who buffer the floors so that they are shiny at the beginning of the semester. Since the workers come at night, though, we find that things are magically clean and disposed of, and we are so used to it we barely think of it unless some anomalous uncleanliness presents itself.

"We should all appreciate and be cognizant of the work of our janitorial staff," I thought. "I could put fliers up in this building," I thought, "telling everyone to appreciate the janitorial staff they take for granted, to be mindful that the work they do in the middle of the night gives our lives ease." "Maybe just for a day, or a few minutes, people would remember to think about the people behind their tidy campus lives."

Now, let me say that those are not bad thoughts. All the intention there is good. But this is precisely why I try to get my students to separate intention from effect.

In a moment of clarity, I then thought, "Hmn. I wonder if the janitors would want that? What would it be like for them if I did that? Would they want me to do it? Would they want that attention? Would people think my signs represented their unhappiness or resentment? Would that attention result in harassment or foster negative attitudes toward them? Would it create a hostile work environment?" Heightened visibility can be a powerful and good thing, but it can also create harm, particularly if it's not chosen visibility.

Now, maybe it wouldn't do harm. Maybe my signs would bring about a joyous appreciation of janitorial staff and people would value the work that they do and the way in which it improves their every day lives and that would catch on throughout the whole campus and the whole nation and the whole world and janitors would be respected and paid more and given more benefits.

Probably not.

But that's also not the point. First of all, my idea for janitorial appreciation signs assumes that in their lives, it's lack of appreciation and recognition that needs improvement. Some happy-go-lucky sign-hanging recognition day is a nice gesture, but would it be what they most needed? Would it create change that would most improve their lives? It's not that easy things to do (like hanging signs) never make a difference or are unimportant, but it's about whether it can make a difference and is that difference the difference that's needed?

Second of all is an important reminder for me that I cannot speak for other groups of people. Not having experience as a janitor--here or anywhere else--I don't know what the work life is like...and therefore, I can't really predict whether appreciation signs would be meaningful or whether they would do much more harm in the lives of the janitorial staff than they would good. Separation from the janitorial staff, which allows myself and others to take them for granted, is exactly why I shouldn't "help" them, at least not without getting well-acquainted with their needs by talking with them or by having them state their needs and suggested solutions. I don't have their lived experience, therefore I can't speak for them OR do for them. It also assumes they need help. Maybe they have recognized a problem and are organizing to fix it. Either way, I am not savior of the janitors.

While it's fine to have good intentions, if you don't consider the lived experience of others, you are bound to harm them. So before you go about saving anyone or helping anyone...before you think you have some brilliant idea:

1) Think about yourself in relation to the people you want to help.
2) Question whether your actions have the potential to do more harm than good.
3) Importantly, question whether your actions would address the self-determined needs of the group of people and whether, really, they need your "help" at all.
4) Humble your damn self.

*Alternative Title: On How I Checked My Own Savior Complex--How You Can too!

**Now, in my old building, on my old floor, we have a daytime janitor. The fact that we see him heightens our awareness and, perhaps, appreciation of him. He becomes a person, a visible part of our lives. He also regularly interacts with other staff, and sometimes faculty and students. However, in his experience--for all I know--his co-existence with faculty, staff, and students might make his life more stressful...might highlight the class differences that exist between janitorial staff, administrative staff, students, and faculty. Again, I am not him, so I simply don't know.


  1. A few things strike me about this. First, that I generally agree, and think it's a useful heuristic for watching oneself.

    Second, that I have taken fairly recently to saying thank you to the janitor at work (whom I see if I work a little late) and to public employees whom I see doing cleaning jobs. In general, it seems to please most of the people I talk to, though it also confuses some (which says something).

    In the Bay Area, thanking bus drivers seems to be catching on. I learned it from an Afro-Caribbean friend and I enjoy doing it (now there's a point; what do I get out of these thanks?).

    The one thing that I don't see in this post is the diversity of the other side. To me, it's an article of faith that there are janitors who would deeply appreciate your campaign, if you were to do it, others who would hate it, and others who would be neutral (and confused and all kinds of other reactions) and that the people who appreciated it or hated it would all have their own reasons. I see just a tiny flavor of "what do these people want?"

    I agree that not embarking on the campaign is probably the best choice. If it were me, I'd probably find some way to ask the daytime janitor if he likes the interactions or not. Or I might just bake him cookies one day.

  2. I think you are probably arguing from the right perspective. Generally if folks really want help or to be rescued, they seek it out. That said, I think it's good that you recognize the power and attention disparity that the janitorial staff is experiencing. Maybe this indicates that there are things you could do, just maybe your bright idea isn't a good idea?

    Usually union organizers and other activists spend a lot of time trying to discover ways to be genuinely helpful, not just ways to be self-congratulatorily helpful. This would include having to really integrate yourself into the community/subculture before just unilaterally deciding what would be best.

    This brings to mind the misguided attempts that Western 2nd wave feminists made to banish clitoridectomies and infibulation in African cultures because it was (and I think rightly so) an abomination they perceived and could wrap their heads around. It was something unconscionable to most of us and we couldn't understand the cultural referents and interactions that helped create an environment for having those surgeries/mutilations okay in any culture, so we figured something was screwed up and we were just the Westerners to fix it.

    So we did all sorts of outreaches and interventions and some, arguably, worked and some didn't, and the majority of African cultures that had a tradition of doing those things kept on doing those things. And none of us took the time to understand or really appreciate those surgeries'/mutilations' overall place in the total culture. We didn't realize that that action had very strong cultural meanings that went well beyond anything we could then imagine. We didn't realize that forcing folks not to do it (without giving them some replacement that would serve in the place of that within the culture and community) would leave folks with no choices. And we didn't care. The way we felt about the act was so totally over the top that most of us just wanted to stop it.

    And I think struggles are still ongoing about infibulation and clitoridectomies but I do think that we're a bit more aware of the cultural context and are less white-knighty about the whole thing, which is an overall good thing.

  3. I agree with your overall post and summary points and think egalitarianism should be a guiding principle in considering how to help or show appreciation. I make a point to be friendly with the janitors where I work and to avoid being carelessly messy. Beyond that, I think gestures of appreciation can backfire or be perceived as patronizing if not discussed with the people involved.

    This discussion reminds me of when I used to work as an administrative assistant and hated Secretaries’ Day (as they called it back then) because it reinforced my separation from, and subordination to, the “team”, of which I normally considered myself an integral part. As a new college grad at the time, I wasn’t thrilled about working as an assistant but I took pride in my work. Being singled out for special recognition when I was just doing my job like everyone else hurt my pride and made me feel “less than”. I’m sure the intentions behind Secretaries’ Day were good, but if someone had asked me how they could best express their appreciation of my work, I would have preferred sincere thanks when I had gone above and beyond, recognition of my strengths with specialized assignments that might have helped me advance and maybe a bonus once in a while. I would also have liked a stop to the general attitude that the job was “woman’s work” and the condescension that I frequently faced, but my co-workers weren’t miracle workers!

  4. Thank you all for your really thoughtful comments!

    @Debbie Somehow I find that--in a general sense--thanking bus drivers is common practice where I live. Not everyone does it, but I understand it as just common courtesy.

    I have been trying to keep my office cleaner, and I might just leave some cookies there one day with a note.

    @Malcolm This--> "Maybe this indicates that there are things you could do, just maybe your bright idea isn't a good idea?"

    Also, yes, the self-congratulatory thing. That really kills me when other people do it, and though I think feeling good is part of why people try to do good things, good things shouldn't just be another badge for your sash.

    Yes, I agree with your example. When I talk about the politics of genital cutting in my class, I really try to get my students to understand the complexity of it and try to get them past their initial reactions. And I try to talk about how Western feminists have (largely) recognized the need to change their approach.

    Coming off as patronizing is really my main fear if I were to directly address our janitorial staff. And I feel like it could make them feel awkward because there is this imaginary social barrier.

    I love your Secretaries Day example! I might even use that in class some time.