Figure 2. F.C. Hunt after drawing by E.F. Lambert, 'Rare specimens of comparative craniology: an old maid's skull phrenologised', c.1815 hand-coloured etching,  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Racism
16th August 2023
by Andrew Kettler
Created at:
16th August 2023
Creator:
Andrew Kettler
Citation:
[click to copy]
Figure 2. F.C. Hunt after drawing by E.F. Lambert, 'Rare specimens of comparative craniology: an old maid's skull phrenologised', c.1815 hand-coloured etching,  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Noses

Race in a social construct. However, even as a social construct created within intersectional discourse race exists in the cultural structures of modern societies and cultures since the rise of more formal aspects of modern racism during the Early Modern Era. In human societies there had always been beliefs concerning the insiders and outsiders of diverse human communities. Sometimes these attitudes about insiders and outsiders were informed by the “odour of the other” that was frequently believed to enter cross-cultural encounters and which permeated discussions about outsiders. 

Such beliefs about the smell of other races can be motivated by fear, ignorance, prejudice, or a desire to maintain a sense of superiority. Often, those stereotypes are based on cultural differences, such as different food preferences or hygiene norms. In modern forms of polygenetic racism, cultural forms of odour shifted to more concerns with biological othering. Odour was central to the rise of Scientific Racism in this discursive space, as black bodies were marked as inferior due to smells that many in European and Anglo-American thinking believed to be significations of both disease and inferiority.

Smells

Sensory experiences of the body often work to create and maintain oppressive language that alters the biological function of the senses whereby the odours, tastes, and sounds of the other are perceived not only through the linguistic meaning, but also in traces imprinted upon the body before language articulated those perceptions into words (Ngo 2017; Shotwell 2011). These ideals, whether from discourse or biological learning, related frequently to false sciences about the thickness of black skin, the curliness of black hair, and the oils emanating from specific bumps on the epidermis. In more modern spaces, these false sciences have been deconstructed, but many still believe in these racial ideals and smells related to concepts of race, biology, and cleanliness (Smith 2006).

Most prominently, common ideas of smell and race were published in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). In this work, future American President and author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote about his belief in the inferiority of African Americans and Native Americans, while making several observations about their physical characteristics. Taking much from the earlier writings of Richard Ligon on the bad smell of ponds used by Africans in Barbados and the scientific treatises on skin and hair from Royal Society member and earlier fellow Virginian John Mitchell, Jefferson relayed the racial thinking of his time that tied the supposed smells of Africans to different bodily functions. Jefferson generally related these supposed differences to the kidneys, when writing that African Americans had a "strong and disagreeable odor," which he attributed to their diet and lifestyle, while also speculating on the role that the biologies of different races in causing these supposed smells (Jefferson 2001; Mitchell 1756; Ligon 1657: 75-76).


This supposed smell of Africans in the Americas was believed so potent by later slaveholders that they believed in building specific homes for slaves at a distance away from the master’s house, as found within the guidance on running slave plantations produced by Monsieur Du Pratz from Louisiana in 1758. Du Pratz advised that African housing “ought not to be placed so near your habitation as to be offensive” (260-262). Later in the colonial world of the 1770s, British surveyor of Jamaica Edward Long created a supposedly scientific system of classifying African peoples by smell that related to their specific ethnic background on the ‘Dark Continent’. His general conception of African smells often related to traditions associated to ethnicities, including a tale of ancient and mythical smells meant to attract goats supposedly used by more savage groups of African peoples (1774: 352-353, 425-426). These types of linking between supposedly lower races and the use of the sense of smell became common in modernity and it also linked both Africans and Native American groups to the use of smell as a mode of detection (Classen 1997).

Such classifications of smells based on African ethnicities grew with the work of early polygenetic scientists like Lord Kames and Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon. Buffon specifically discussed the smells of different ethnicities as causal for his understandings of the ethnic derivations of particular smells that arose when in Africa or encountering Africans (1797: 275-277). Pseudoscientific theories of racial classification, which emerged in this stinking 19th century, posited that different races had fundamentally different biological traits, including body odour.

Places

For many in Europe of the Early Modern Era, race emerged as a concept based on an expansion of genealogies related to ancestry and the bloodlines of royal houses. As specific cultural traits became encoded in specific bloodlines through discourse, those traits, often called particulars in cultural theory, led nations and racial thinkers to begin to change their typologies more towards biological ideas related to zoology and the Great Chain of Being. Cultural aspects of a specific nation or people, as particulars, were coded as universals within later stereotypes that were made into scientific thinking of the Enlightenment.

The shift from insider/outsider beliefs systems to the concepts of modern racism occurred in Western Europe during the Renaissance and Reformation that led to the formalization of concepts of racism in the Enlightenment. Many of those concepts retained the ideology of the “odor of the other” and concluded that different supposed races of the world smelled differently due to biological differences more than cultural beliefs and practices that were central to the previous insider/outsider understanding of difference (Classen 1992). 

Representing such growing ideals among the educated and aristocratic classes of the Atlantic World, selected publications of the early nineteenth century work of French biologist Julien-Joseph Virey were printed within Natural History of the Negro Race (1837). In many of these literatures earlier monogenetic racial ideals were shifted to polygenetic beliefs of early Scientific Racism. These selections categorized different African nations through their odours, increasingly tied to an objective language of science and medicine on the eve of Social Darwinism. Virey specifically noted that when all “negroes sweat, their skin is covered with an oily and blackish perspiration, which stains cloths, and generally exhales a very unpleasant porraceous smell” (44-54).

As part of these increasingly professional, racist, and scientific languages of pro-slavery and colonialist discourse, academic Josiah Priest’s Slavery, As It Relates to the Negro, or African Race (1843) used the inherent “strong odor of the negro’s body” to similarly justify numerous unsubstantiated beliefs regarding how African slaves digested complex or raw foods easier than Europeans. With few limitations to the dreadful social constructions of racial thought during the Antebellum Era, Priest argued that slave bodies included both a pungent odour and smoother alimentary processes because African groups had frequently ingested human flesh while living as cannibals during their extraordinary organic past (228-229).

Figure 1. Jean-Baptiste Debret, 'Botocudos, Buris, Patachos et Macharis', from Voyage Pittoresque et Historique au Brésil,1835, chromolithograph, 33.4 x 51.4 cm, Brasiliana Itaú Collection, 1979905.16.

These polygenetic ideals became the most common way that racial odours were discussed from the middle of the nineteenth century onward. In Edward Burnett Tylor’s Anthropology: An Introduction to the Study of Man and Civilization (1881) numerous references scientifically portrayed the smells of other races came from specific biological differences. For Tylor, the African smell was “rancid” and the “brown” persons of the Americas include a smell that often had to do with a “liability to certain fevers” (69-70). Tylor’s work shows a deep aspect of the idea that other races smelled related to ideas of differential immunity and specific diseases that harkened back to ideas of the appropriateness for labour under colonialism and Atlantic slavery. He also offered, as with many other scholars of the time, that some peoples were advanced in the sense of smelling in their cultures and lives because of their supposed racial inferiority when compared to white persons, as the “savage hunter” needed that sense of smell for environmental protection (207).

In his 1892 book The Races of Man: An Outline of Anthropology and Ethnography, anthropologist Joseph Deniker also concluded that the odours of the skin varied according to race. He described the supposed body odours of various racial and ethnic groups, including Africans, Native Americans, and Asians. Like Tylor, he also offered that “half-civilised” people, supposedly like the Andamanese, had powerful senses of smell, as the powers of vision, to Deniker, was directly related to the level of civilization of different peoples (1900: 110). The Western modernization process asserted its own history as praxis, through types of ethnographical and religious history that each state used to define their power to rule through a legitimacy narrative that increasingly linked race and nation in these supposedly scientific texts.
Practices

Cultural biases and stereotypes within the practice of science have played a significant role in shaping ideas about body odour and racism. For example, historical portrayals of certain racial and ethnic groups as "dirty" or "uncivilized" have led to assumptions that they have an inherently unpleasant body odour. In some parts of the world today, people from certain regions or ethnic groups are still believed to have distinctive smells, which can be used to justify discriminatory attitudes and behaviours (Lazakis 2021).

Throughout history, different races have been associated with certain smells, often based on stereotypes and cultural biases. In ancient Greece, the Persians were often described as having a strong and unpleasant body odour. In the Middle Ages, people of African descent were often described as having a sweet, pungent, or musky odour, which was seen as a sign of their supposed sexual promiscuity and moral corruption. These smells often were based in cultural differences prior to modernity and only shifted to concerns with different biology in the modern world (Reinarz 2014; Kettler 2020; Classen 1994). 

During the medieval period, Jews were specifically and often accused of emitting a foul odour, which was thought to be caused by their supposed association with witchcraft and evil spirits. This often was also associated to blood libel, and the idea that Jews consumed the blood of Christian children (Heng 2018: 181-256). In the early modern period, European explorers and colonizers often described Indigenous peoples in the Americas and Africans as having a distinctive and unpleasant smell, which was also often attributed to ideas of cultural inferiority related to ideas about diet, spiritualisms, clothing, and hygiene practices (Tullett 2016; Kettler 2020). 

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Africans and African Americans were increasingly associated as having the most distinctive smell, which was attributed to their supposed biological inferiority and, for others, a lack of hygiene. Much of this arose from ancient ideals, as with the phrasing “To Wash a Blackamoore White” as an analogy for striving in vain. Originally from a fable from Aesop and akin to biblical traditions of not being able to change a leopard’s spots, the fable was commonly used in the Early Modern Era, and reinforced ideas of cleanliness, climatology, smell, and race in diverse manners (Kettler 2020: 68-72). 

The practice of medicine often concluded much about the smells of other races, often related to ideas of hygiene that sometimes moved from cultural concerns to the biological ideas of differential immunity related concepts of labour, animality, and inferiority (Brown 2009). In many writings from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, American Founding Father Benjamin Rush offered that African Americans smelled differently, possibly due to ancient leprosy, and were more susceptible to certain diseases than white people, and that they had a lower tolerance for alcohol. Rush's views on race were shaped by the prevailing attitudes of his time, which were often based on false assumptions and stereotypes related to ideas differential immunity often tied to working in diseased fields of the cotton South (Rush 1800, 298-301).

Feelings and Noses

Race is never inherently and distinctly about skin colour. Rather, racism breaks down categories of identity in order to create stereotypes that make pecuniary relationships more controllable for those in power. These powerful discourses often relate to separating races within intersectional language also meant to control genders into domesticated spaces at the outset of capitalism. Shakespeare’s sonnets to the “Dark Lady” can be instructive here, as the character, considered by many to be an African woman, was believed to have a bad breath at the same time as many in England, as with John Stafford, were associating white female beauty with floral scents that emanated as “odoriferous art” (2009: 268-269; Stafford 1665: 30-32).

Recovering the roots of otherness in the imagination, as exclusion through legal structures, as difference through cultural means, and as caused by other material factors that have no basis in biological reality, is an essential aspect of materialist history that exposes identity construction relates to the making of the self through the categorization of diverse construction others. The construction of race is one form of this construction of the other, which is simply for many scholars the construction of the alienated self, or what the ego attempts to abject as alien. Many scholars have discovered such identity formation in literature, often through the multi-racial and possibly multi-species attributions to the character of Caliban in Shakespeare’s Tempest (1610) who was said to smell of specific fish species related to market changes in London of the seventeenth century (Byrd 2011: 55).

Much of this imagining of the self through othering peoples the world over began with advancing colonialism of the Early Modern Era. Borrowing from earlier pre-texts like the Mark of Cain and the Curse of Ham, the Enlightenment informed the colonies to order the world through many universalizing concepts of race and racism. Colonialist writers, even those traveling to encounter actual, rather than imagined, bodies were increasingly virulent in their racist sentimentalities. Informed by the previous centuries’ emergent attribution of different inferiorities of culture and biology to odour, colonial writers offered little objectivity to their racist ethnographies.

Part of the general construction of race and racism in the protection of the identity of the self frequently emerged out of those colonial writings and into the polygenism of the nineteenth century. Race scientist Arthur de Gobineau, in multiple publications from 1853 to 1855, argued that the supposed body odour of non-white races was evidence of these supposed aspects of inferiority. He also asserted that Africans, as with other supposedly lesser races, were specifically better equipped to detect harsh tastes and smells, and had much greater tolerance for smells that Europeans would generally deem to be overpowering. For de Gobineau “smell” in these societies of Africa and other Indigenous regions was “developed to an extent unknown to the other two races” (204-205). Such definitions came from and led to later perceptions that Africa itself smelled of diverse odours related to savagery, including of animals and often miasmic and sulfuric atmospheres. 

Bourgeois culture of Western imperialism asserted both the equality of all men while judging classes and races as inherently different. The opposition between these two poles created both mechanisms for control and spaces for subversive resistance. In European nations, ethnic homogeneity increased throughout the Early Modern Era due to increased border controls, and the rhetorical construction of European nations as ethnically standardised created the African other as a stinking and dejected diametric opponent to ideas of European senses of purity. Africans resisted these narratives of odour through asserting that Western distastes for odour were absurd and did not allow for the increased knowledge that could come with cross-cultural knowledge about herbs, rituals, and medicine. 

Smelling became a discursive arena for discussions of religion, race, and capital throughout the Early Modern Era and moved into later eras of Scientific Racism with the viral force of media, which spread the lies of racial odours to many larger groups of the reading and hearing public. These publics took on great feelings of hate and disgust related to fearing the other that transferred often into literatures and sciences related to Native Americans, immigrant populations to diverse nations, Jewish populations and Asians.

Arthur Parker, a scholar of Native America in the early twentieth century, claimed that “every race has its own peculiar scent.” For Native Americans, Parker noted a great diversity between the regions of the Americas, noting that the smell came mostly from cultural aspects, as with the more “oily” smell of those in the Pacific Northwest and the more deodorized smell of Mexican populations. For Parker, body odours in Native American were generally not biological, and no special smell could be detected beyond cultural differences (1927: 117-118). In earlier encounters with Native American, some negative religious smells were believed to change due to conversion, especially concerning the “odor of sanctity” attributed to converted bodies in the Catholic traditions of proselytizing Jesuits (Kettler 2017). However, by the early twentieth century of Parker most of these ideas of possible religious change had fallen in favour of more polygenetic ideas related to racial smelling.

Many of these racial ideas of modern science emerged alongside the common belief that the lower classes smelled, in part due to their labour and supposed lack of hygiene. In the nineteenth century, Irish immigrants to the United States were often associated with a distinctive body odour, which was attributed to their poverty, living conditions, and lack of access to proper hygiene that also tide many to conceptualization of existing as a different race. In the early twentieth century, Mexican immigrants to the United States were also sometimes described as having a different smell, which was associated with their diet and cultural practices and led to racial terminology related to specific foods and specific harshness of labour (Sullivan 2006: 66-68).

Jews have consistently been considered to smell throughout history, from the medieval era until the more modern ages of Social Darwinism and Nazism in World War II, wherein concentration camps contained an olfactory complexity that included anti-Semitic smelling of Nazis, the stench of unhygienic torturous labour, and the constant smell of death (Smith 2012; Rindisbacher 2006). These antisemitic moments of smell were not new in the twentieth century. In the 1630s, theologian John Weemes offered that The Mark of Cain, like the Curse of Ham, implied that a religious act of the past, as with Cain’s murder of Abel, marked specific races to suffer upon the earth. For Weemes, as a “judegment upon their bodies” for their ancestor’s mortal action, God specifically marked the “posteritie” of Jewish populations with a “leprosie” that provided a perpetually “loathsome and stinking smell” and an associated “stinking breath” (1636: 329-331). These traces have continued into the deep anti-Semitic conspiracies of the modern world, as social regression into antisemitism consistently rises in complex spaces of the public sphere.

Asian Americans have also often faced considerable othering through smell, especially related to changing markets and maritime and coastal lifeways. During World War II, Japanese soldiers were sometimes accused of having a distinctive and unpleasant odour, which was used as a means of dehumanizing and demonizing them. In the twentieth century, Japanese and other Asian populations people were sometimes described as having a fishy smell, which was attributed to their diet related to squid-drying in open fields and general fishing labour (Callow 2017; Chiang 2004). Regardless of the group that is racialized, smell is always part of the process of racialization, as skin colour may be central to racism, but is rarely the most embodied and deeply understood racialization when it comes to the creation of feelings of hate and disgust.

Race divining is a new materialist pattern in the grand history of humanity that is meant to disunite humanity for patterns of divide and conquer. Racialization began in the body, was written in science, and now is read by computers through a genomic code that retains traits of racialization that allows correlation to mean causation in the most absurdist of racial terminologies. For many racial thinkers, certain peoples throughout the world have been associated to specifics of powerful smelling. The Natural History of Man: Being an Account of the Manners and Customs of the Uncivilized Races of Men (1868), anthropologist and explorer J.G. Wood claimed that people of different races had distinct body odours, which he attributed to differences in their skin secretions. Travelers to Africa, according to Wood, had to become accustomed to the “evil odours” of the regions (341). Tales of southern African nations described with racist terminology were analysed as able to believe they could smell-out the evils of witches and wizards in their regions. This skill of the nose was judged in some ways as a prominent cultural skill but also, to Wood, as evidence of a lower level of existence that relied on the nose more than the higher sense of vision (194-206). 

Often smelling-out was commonly associated to diverse global cultures that were linked to concepts of racial inferiority in the west. Most prominently, central and southern Africans have been linked to these concepts in European writings about witchcraft and the smelling-out of witches amongst central and southern African cultures and where those cultures were transported during eras of colonialism and slavery (Kettler 2019). For other racial scientists, many shapes of different noses were believed to show certain levels of civilization in different races. Part of this process often involved a history of nose shapes that related to ideas about smelling, phrenology, craniology, and the levels of civilization achieved by diverse constructed races (Kettler 2020: 207-209).

Figure 2. F.C. Hunt after drawing by E.F. Lambert, 'Rare specimens of comparative craniology: an old maid's skull phrenologised', c.1815 hand-coloured etching, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Marking Africans as foul and odoriferous was probably unconscious as an initial conception of the cultural other during the Early Modern Era, but the more it was cultivated and semantically linked to new and diverse ideas about African inferiority and biological inheritance the more it became economically determined and socially necessary to uphold various aspects of the slave system.  These olfactory ideologies found in literature generally provided Anglo-Americans fresh and embodied medical assurances that slaves were predestined to live in the stinking outdoors of the cane, tobacco, and cotton fields, not in the deodorizing bedrooms, living rooms, and homes of Europe and the blanching Americas (Babilon 2017).  

Odorised exclusion has continued into the modern neoliberal age, creating stigmas that link issues of class, gender, disability, and race in the intersection structures of language and oppressive forces of the market and state (Lazakis 2021; Low 2006). Often, modern racialization includes deep connections to earlier forms of othering that tie atmospherics to questions of Environmental Racism, whereby racialization is reinforced partly through the structures of society that place racialized persons into spaces often rife with industrial pollution and significant odours (Hsu 2020: 23-26).

Creator:
Andrew Kettler
Citation:
Andrew Kettler, “Racism,” Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage, accessed April 21, 2024, https://encyclopedia.odeuropa.eu/items/show/19.
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