Why celebrities like Kristen Bell and Ashton Kutcher saying they rarely bathe their kids is being called 'privilege'

Think dirty kids are cute? That likely depends on your perspective.

Following a recent couple of stories about white celebrities who cheekily shared that they don’t bathe their children very often, many have taken to Twitter to call out the “privilege” involved in such a boast.

First, spouses Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis sparked controversy by admitting on Dax Shephard’s Armchair Expert podcast on July 19 that they do not wash their 6- and 4-year-olds daily. "If you can see the dirt on them, clean them," Kutcher said. "Otherwise, there's no point."

Then, in a conversation on The View on Tuesday between Shephard and wife Kristen Bell that was prompted by Kutcher’s comment, Bell said she agreed with infrequent bathing when it came to their 2- and 8-year-olds, noting, “I'm a big fan of waiting for the stink. Once you catch a whiff, that's biology's way of letting you know you need to clean it up.”

But many resented the parenting gloats, as it became clear by Thursday.

“Celebrity white folks bragging about not showering have the privilege of not worrying about stereotypes they’re inherently ‘dirty.’ Black folks don’t have that luxury. *Most* of us were raised to be obsessively clean because we always have to ‘present well’ for white folks,” tweeted writer and podcast host Jemele Hill, prompting a response from cable host Joy Reid, who mused, “So when did it become rich kitsch to brag about family filthiness?”

Plenty of others weighed in as well, most in response to a Page Six tweet of its coverage of Bell’s “stink” comment. “i don't think they'd share they nasty habits if they had to deal with mandated reporting,” noted one commenter. Another added, “Poor Black and Brown [children] who have negligent hygiene issues get child protection service called on them.”

“What this boils down to is, throughout the history of this country… there has always been a sort of policing of Black families that does not exist for white parents… and we’re so aware of that surveillance — we’re so aware of the potential to have a mandated reporter call it in if our children and lives are not perfect according to the standards held by white America,” says Shereen White, director of advocacy and policy at Children's Rights, a national nonprofit with a mission to fix broken child welfare systems through advocacy and legal channels.

According to the nonprofit’s May 2021 policy report about racial disparities at the front-end of those systems, while Black children represent only 14 percent of the general child population, 22 percent are in foster care. That’s a result of other systemic inequalities, the report found: that, in 2019, 18.2 percent of removals of Black children from their homes were due to alleged physical or sexual abuse — while 63.1 percent of removals of Black children were due to “neglect.” In fact, for all children in foster care in 2019, the majority were removed for alleged neglect, rather than physical or sexual abuse.

Black families are also more likely to be reported on and almost twice as likely to be investigated for child abuse or neglect as compared to white families, the report found, while half of all Black children will at some point experience a CPS investigation.

Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, seen here in 2020, said they don't bathe their kids until they can
Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, seen here in 2020, said they don't bathe their kids until they can "see the dirt on them." (Photo: George Pimentel/Getty Images)

“Black families are more likely to be called in for abuse and neglect than white families, so we think about that in everything we do — it’s always hanging over your heads in a way it’s not for white families and parents, who don’t have that threat, of having [kids] removed because they’re dirty, which is a real reason,” White tells Yahoo Life.

In a recent Children’s Rights expert panel discussing the findings of the report, Kathleen Creamer, managing attorney of the family law unit for Philadelphia Community Legal Services, noted that the child welfare system, “in policy and practice, has created a system of surveillance, control and separation for Black families. I see that play out in my practice every day.” She points to laws that drive systemic inequality, including those of mandated reporting, which require certain figures — education staff, medical personnel and law enforcement, for the most part, though it varies by state — to call in their suspicions of neglect or abuse to a hotline.

“The standard for suspicion is ‘reasonable,’” Creamer explains, adding it's important for people to “reflect on the way the term ‘reasonable suspicion’ invites our bias.” In Pennsylvania, for example, child welfare can intervene “if a parent has failed to provide child with ‘proper care,’” she adds. “The standard is ‘proper care.’ I would invite our audience to reflect on the term ‘proper.’”

Bottom line, adds White, what’s triggering for Black parents when they see moms and dads like Bell and Shepherd being flippant about their family bathing practices, is that it’s a reminder of “living in a country with systems that don’t value Black parents or don’t believe Black people have what it takes to care for their children. That just goes back to this whole notion of poverty issues and poor people not being suitable parents and wanting to ‘save them.’ It’s all so rooted in the history of this country and the ways in which white supremacy has revealed itself in the child welfare system.”

And while White and Children's Rights and many other advocates are working to attack the problem on a myriad of fronts — advocacy, legislation, education — it can often feel like an uphill battle.

“People have been talking about this disproportionality for decades, but for some reason, the general public can’t seem to grasp it,” she says. “And the fact that white people can [share] something like that without realizing their privilege just shows there’s so much that needs to happen on an educational front about what [the child welfare system] does, and how it impacts Black families and Native families in a way that white people would never have to think about.”