As sociologist E. Melanie Dupuis suggests in her book Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink, milk was one of the first foods to be mass labelled as ‘good’ and ‘necessary.’[i]Coinciding with the rise of milk as a perfect food was the rise of ideas concerning what it meant to be a ‘perfect American.’ As Dupuis reveals, “milk is more than a food, it is an embodiment of the politics of American identity over the last 150 years.” For instance, as early as the 1920’s, National Dairy Council pamphlets subtly linked racial superiority to the ingestion of milk through such practices as picturing malnourished children in “Old World garb” alongside healthy children in modern American fashions. Implicit in these ads was the suggestion that drinking milk allowed one to shed the ‘dark’ stigma associated with being an immigrant and assimilate into ‘white America.’
Of course, milk was not the only food used to integrate a diverse populace. As Donna Gabaccia argues in We Are What We Eat, waves of immigration were often accompanied by campaigns to ‘Americanize’ immigrant diets. According to these campaigns, part of ‘becoming American’ was letting go of cultural/ethnic foodways and learning to ‘eat like an American.” While in the US we now relish eating all sorts of foods, there is still an emphasis on ‘properly assimilating.’ For example, in the contemporary USA, this ‘Americanization’ plays itself out via the ‘English only’ or ‘English speaking customers only’ signs that often grace restaurants in border towns. It is further apparent in the ways certain cultural eating practices are denigrated linguistically via terms such as ‘beaner’ or ‘rice rocket.’
This is the modern day equivalent to earlier times, when those who ate ‘ethnic’ were seen as failing to become properly assimilated into American culture. For example, there was a marked repugnance to immigrant foodways during the first decade of the twentieth century. During this time, dieticians and social workers emphasized the unhealthiness of ethnic diets and attempted to persuade immigrants to give up their ‘spicy ways.’ As Gabaccia notes, one of the common chidings against immigrant diets was that they included “too little milk”.[iv]Disclosing that “the lack of interest in milk among Asians and southern Europeans” was “shocking to American sensibilities,” Gabaccia reveals the longstanding association between milk consumption and ‘proper’ American citizens.[v]
However, despite these “campaigns for culinary Americanization,” as Gabaccia terms them, the ingestion of milk (and American identity by extension) was not as easy as the ads, social workers, and dietitians suggested. For, far from stubbornly holding onto ‘ethnic foodways’ and eschewing the supposed curative powers of milk, many people were (and still are) literally unable to readily stomach this white concoction. As Dupuis and others remind us, the majority of the world’s population cannot easily digest milk. Northern Europeans and their descendants are tellingly the group that can tolerate this ‘purifying’ beverage. As Dupuis argues, the “establishment of white racial hegemony and the celebration and purification of a white substance digested predominantly by this group” is “more than accidental”.[vi]
In fact, the glorification of milk coincides with white hegemonic practice and has served to enforce ideas of racial superiority through – of all things – the ability to digest dairy products. Just as milk has been deemed the ‘perfect’ food, so too have whites been deemed the ‘perfect’ race. But, as Dupuis reminds us, “The privileged discourse about the perfection of milk has left out those people – mostly people of color – who are genetically lactose-intolerant. The perfect whiteness of this food and the white body genetically capable of digesting it in large quantities become linked. By declaring milk perfect, white northern Europeans announced their own perfection.” Nutritionists, historians, dietitians, the American government, and most recently, the “Got Milk” ad campaign have fostered this association. For example, in the 1920’s, the famous nutritionist E.V. McCollum proclaimed the following:
The people who have achieved, who have become large, strong, vigorous people, who have reduced their infant mortality, who have the best trades in the world, who have an appreciated for art, literature and music, who are progressive in science and every activity of the human intellect are the people who have used liberal amounts of milk and its products.[viii]
Along similar lines, historian Ulysses Hedrick claimed in 1933:
A casual look at the races of people seems to show that those using much milk are the strongest physically and mentally, and the most enduring peoples of the world. Of all races, the Aryans seem to have been the heaviest drinkers of milk …a fact they may in part account for the quick and high development of this division of human beings.[ix]
Various activist groups have recognized milk as a “racist product,” pointing out that the majority of the non-white population in the US is lactose intolerant. Due to complaints from such activists, the dairy industry was forced to change their tag line “Milk, it does a body good”. For African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latino Americans, among others, milk, far from ‘doing a body good,’ often causes bloating, nausea, diarrhoea, cramps, etc. Conveniently though, a 450 million dollar industry of lactose intolerance products was (profitably) designed to meet this dietary fact. In capitalist America, it is, of course, more lucrative to promote pricey pharmaceuticals rather than endorse soy beverages or green vegetables as alternative sources of calcium.
The refusal to admit that milk doesn’t do most bodies good is also related to the fact that milk is a big-money industry. This industry is the impetus behind the got milk ads — a campaign aimed at increasing declining milk consumption. Thus, even though milk has been revealed to not be that healthy after all, the money behind this white beverage hides this information behind a clever ad campaign, a campaign so successful that the phrase “Got Milk” is recognized by 90% of Americans.
As Shanti Rangwani writes at Race History, milk is more like white poison than a curative beverage to many:
Got milk? If not, then thank your lucky stars. Because if you do, medical research shows that you are likely to be plagued by anemia, migraine, bloating, gas, indigestion, asthma, prostate cancer, and a host of potentially fatal allergies–especially if you are a person of color.
Ignoring this, the government declares that milk is essential to good health, subsidizes the milk industry to the tune of billions of dollars, and requires milk in its public school lunch programs. And celebrity shills sporting milk mustaches tell us that milk is rich in proteins, calcium, and vitamins–and very cool to boot.
The promotion of dairy products is thus not an innocent affirmation of a supposedly essential product. Rather, the encouragement to drink milk is economically motivated, and, more ominous still, fails to take into account the racial diversity of the populace. Dietary guidelines and food pyramids suggest dairy is a fundamental, easily digested product that should be a key part of every American’s diet. Yet, as Rangwani further writes,
…milk is also a racial issue. Almost 90 percent of African Americans and most Latinos, Asians, and Southern Europeans lack the genes necessary to digest lactose, the primary sugar in milk. The milk industry’s response is classic: they have launched new campaigns arguing that non-whites can digest milk if they take in small sips during the day. There is a burgeoning industry worth $450 million a year churning out products designed to minimize lactose intolerance.
Lactose intolerance is the most common “food allergy,” but to call it an allergy is to take a white-centric view that trivializes the fact that most of the world’s people are not biologically designed to digest milk.
Milk does no body good, but for the vast majority of the world’s people–people of color–it is a public health disaster
Despite the fact that for the majority of people of color milk is a ‘health disaster,’ the Got Milk ads, (which, for the most part, feature famous white people) set up an erroneous equation between milk consumption and health (not to mention weight loss, athletic ability, beauty, success, fame, wealth, etc). The milk moustache ads, which feature supermodels, actors, musicians, famous athletes, and politicians, imply that drinking milk is the key to opportunity, fame, and fortune. Although the ads portrayed some diversity in terms of race, class, and social background, the people of color that do appear are, ironically, often lactose intolerant. Whoopi Goldberg, for example, appears in a milk print ad- although she has to take lactose intolerance medication to consume milk.
The ads, through their continued focus on milk as a white drink, also often refer to the superiority of whiteness. While some may argue that this is a merely a marketing tactic with no racial undertones, it is problematic to ally whiteness with perfection in a country with a long, ugly past (and present) of racism. Take, for example, the milk ad featuring a young white woman with copy reading “the milk white look.” Not only is the ad equating consuming milk with ‘consuming’ this white woman (and thus sexually objectifying her), it is also claiming that ‘the milk white look’ is desirable, sexy, beautiful, etc. This message that white is better is conveyed in a number of ads. For example, in a milk moustache ad that features country singer Clint Black, the copy reads: “My favorite color? White of course”. Or, as the ad suggests, even those who are named ‘Black,’ really prefer white.
Recent milk moustache ads have featured Sheryl Crow, Brooke Shields, Elizabeth Hurley, David Beckham, Miley Cirus, Christian Bale, and, yes, Beyonce. But, the majority of ads show white people or, when they do feature people of color those featured tend to accord to ‘white beauty’ norms. This gives the t-shirts featuring the “Got White Privilege” or “Got Privilege” taglines yet another spin — when you are a POWP (person of white privilege), one of your ‘privileges’ is that you are likely to be featured in advertisements as representing purity, beauty, success, etc. Another is the ‘privilege’ of likely being able to drink the supposedly pure, healthy, curative white milk.
Of course, milk is not pure (unless you consider growth hormones pure) and is neither healthy or curativefor the majority of people. Nevertheless, the US still equates wholesomeness, purity, and good health with milk. Just last week my daughter stayed at her cousin’s house where she was only allowed milk as it is ‘good for you.’ Too shy to refuse to drink it, she has been suffering stomach pains as milk does not do her body good. And, today, my aunt reprimanded me when I told her my kids don’t drink milk. These relatives of mine are not unique I suspect — they, like many other Americans, have been misled by a very successful ad campaign into believing that a beverage that is unhealthy and damaging to the majority of the world’s populace ‘does a body good.’ Not only is it an unhealthy product for many, it is also promoted via a racist narrative that conveys a white supremacist paradigm.
[i]Melanie Dupuis, Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink (New York: New York University Press, 2002) 10.
[iv]Donna Gabaccia, We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 123.
[vi]Dupuis, Nature’s Perfect Food, 14.
[xi]PrkStRangr@aol.com, “Got Bilked,” Animal Writes: The Official Animal Writes Online Newsletter, 20 October 1999, http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/1395/aro991020.html (12 January 2003).