Of Privilege and Belief


Sharon, at Casaubon’s Book, wrote of Myths of Incompetence:

“But this isn’t just about men. This is about privilege – and privileged women do it too. ‘Oh, I just never get the floors as clean as Maria does!’ ‘I don’t have the patience to be with my kids all the time, plus I didn’t spend so many years in graduate school to wipe noses all day.’

There’s a kind of willful incompetence that is endemic in our society, and it is the territory of privileged folks who characterize basic, functional human work as something you need a special gift for. And this serves them well As long as you don’t know how to do something, and can naturalize your ‘flaws’ as just how you are made’ you don’t have to apologize for the fact that you are sticking someone less privileged with your work. In fact, you can totally sympathize with them, and totally care about justice for people just like them – at the same time that they get paid badly or treated badly for doing work you could do too.”

I’ve heard that same type of sentiment about keeping at home and homeschooling, very often. “I can’t imagine staying home with little Johnnie all day. There’s no way I could teach him!” “Staying home and keeping a house running? I wouldn’t be very good at that. I’d go crazy.”  I don’t think it’s JUST about privilege, though.

I think a large part of it is privilege – we’ve been conditioned to have everyone else do everything for us. Someone else watches our kids for the majority of the waking hours. Someone else prepares our food (via restaurant, fast food, or Hamburger Helper). Someone else cleans our homes, or at the very least, prepares the chemical concoctions to do it. Someone else makes our clothes. Someone else does… well, everything for us.

However, I believe there’s also an genuine underlying belief in people that they’re unable to do things, and that they aren’t quick enough, smart enough, or able enough to learn to do things for themselves. It boils down to laziness, a laziness steeped in a cultural mindset that I’ve seen several times in folks, that they are just too stupid to get how to do something for themselves. Sharon states it is “willful incompetence,” and I agree in a lot of cases, but there are other folks I’ve met who belittle themselves so much that they don’t believe they can do much of anything.

I do realize that we are one person, and we cannot do everything on our own. However, we can do a lot more than what we choose to do, most of the time. Many a women from yesteryear shame us into that knowledge. Women who: made the clothes for their large family, spent the whole day with and taught their own kids, cooked their own food, gardened, made their own soaps, and washed their clothing by hand. And still had time to visit with neighbors. Those same women raised up children to help them around the house, and everyone knew it was for the best of the family, no one beneath another. It just got done because someone has to do it.

“Except that not liking domestic labor does not mean your family stops making use of domestic labor – in fact, all of us use a whole lot of it. And it always has to get done by a person – there are no robot maids. Holler would rather die than lactoferment her own cucumbers, but there’s no evidence that she and her family don’t eat pickles. She doesn’t want to make bread, but she presumably eats it. She can’t keep a basil plant alive, but she speaks of salad caprese in way that suggests she likes to eat basil.

By framing this as a purely personal issue ‘some people are just made in a pickle-making kind of way’ and as a matter of competence ‘I couldn’t possibly grow a cucumber, that must be the territory of other people, raised on farms, whose social status is already determined…’ we led implicitly to assume that the pickles that she then eats will be grown and made by people who just love growing cucumbers and making pickles – that there is a natural sorting into ‘pickle people’ and ‘nonpickle people’ in the world, and that this is good and just and everyone is happy. Except, of course, that’s bull.”

She goes on:

“Moreover, it might not be an issue of competence, personality or affluence at all. Sometimes it is a matter of right and wrong For example, I don’t like to sew. Given a choice, frankly, when my kids rip a pair of jeans, I’d like to throw them out and buy a new one, rather than spend fussy hours repairing them. But those jeans came from cotton, grown in the third world, heavily sprayed by chemicals that contaminate the soil. They were made by shop workers who were also tired, and also put in long hours. If I go buy another one, I support the industry, I support the cotton spraying and the child labor and the sweatshops. I know that. So let’s think – whose pain and suffering is more important, mine or the 15 year old girl in the sweatshop? Mine or the peasant farmer in Benin spraying toxics without even a mask? I might have to spend a whole half hour doing something I really hate – obviously, it is me who needs liberation. Besides, I suck at sewing.

Of course, that’s because I’m allowed to suck at sewing – this isn’t rocket science, but because no one ever made me learn (ok, I’m pretending that I never had my seventh grade home ec teacher, bless her), it is just too hard for me. Never mind that there are plenty of things that I’m not particularly talented at that I’ve somehow managed to learn to do over the years. Never mind that we assume that everyone, barring a disability, regardless of mathematical talent, needs to learn things like arithmetic and basic algebra, and that even people with disabilities that make it hard for them need to learn to read and write. We never ask ‘are you talented at these things, honey…no, ok, pass.'”

I enjoy doing a lot of things for my family. I enjoy knowing it was my hands that sewed something, baked something, tilled something, cleaned something…. that my family used. The things I am not willing to do, I want to really examine my reasoning, my heart about the matter.

  • If I think I cannot do something manual because of lack of experience – why don’t I become a little daring, and try it out?
  • What holds me back, truly, from learning to make or do certain things for my family? Is it because of time constraints, being busy with manual things in other areas, or is it because I feel I am above the new activity?
  • Do I think the Lord made me too stupid to learn something new? Too good to do the dirty work?

I want to remember these questions the next time I face something new to do or make for my family and I balk at it.

What about you? Do you find yourself willfully incompetent at times, unwilling to learn to do difficult things? What do you think of Sharon’s article about the myth of incompetence? I’d love to hear your thoughts, even opposing ones. Share nicely, please. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s