In the United States the promotion and widespread consumption of milk has political (and racist) undertones. As sociologists such as Melanie Dupuis and Marlene Nestle suggest, the longstanding association between dairy producers and processors, the government, and nutritionists to promote milk as America’s ‘perfect food’ has been motivated by desires to ‘Americanize’ and homogenize a diverse populace. In more recent times, milk ads have subtly prompted us to swallow the idea that being wealthy, famous, thin, beautiful, and white is what matters.
As scholar Doris Friedensohn argues, food serves as “a yardstick of consciousness”.[i] If we use milk promotion and consumption to measure the consciousness of the contemporary US, it seems we are sadly lacking in the area of race/color awareness. For, while contemporary culture plays lip-service to acceptance, the models and celebrities that dominate popular culture by and large conform to standards of ‘white’ beauty – not all of them have white skin, but most conform to Caucasian standards of appearance (large noses or too-full lips are out, as are curvaceous rears, hirsute females, ample bodies, and appearances that are ‘too’ ethnic). This widely displayed notion of beauty trickles down to the everyday person, making many young black girls long for smooth straight hair, making many young Latinas wish they had the lighter skin of their sister, or, making young Asian females resort to “upper lid Westernization” – a cosmetic surgery procedure that makes eyes more ‘Caucasian looking.’
Hence, as Toni Morrison makes beautifully clear in her book Playing in the Dark, the concept of the American self is bound up with an enduring rejection and exclusion of the non-white.[ii] While the promotion of certain food products may pale in comparison to racial profiling, I would argue that identity is crucially informed by food practices and that the long-lived valorization of white foods (such as milk and white bread) is linked to our investment in white skin as ‘superior.’
While some may retort that milk producers and processors are only trying to market their product in a hip, eye-catching fashion and that their advertising tactics are no better or worse than others in terms of promoting the picture of America as a homogenized culture, the continued efforts to promote milk as a beneficial, essential part of every American’s diet constitutes a stubborn blindness to the diversity of the populace.
Moreover, it is not just the matter of a few well-placed ads and catchy tag lines. “Got Milk” is not only part of the American vernacular, but milk is required according to Dietary Guidelines, school cafeterias, and government proclamations. For example, the fact that milk is usually the only beverage offered as part of school lunches – even in areas where many students are likely to be lactose intolerant due to their genetic heritage – is a sad symbol of our continued obliviousness to the diversity of the populace. While milk may do certain bodies good, the machinations surrounding its promotion and ingestion serve as a sign that we, as a nation, are deficient in acknowledging that not all American bodies are white.
As part of an advertising industry that prompts the populace to consume messages perpetuating white superiority, the Got Milk ad campaign represents a mere drop in the bucket. While ads have begun to acknowledge that not all bodies are white, the images in advertisements still do not reflect the diversity of the US populace. Ads are still dominated by images equating whiteness with beauty and perfection (as in fashion ads, makeup ads, holiday ads, mortgage ads) and non-whiteness with bodies that are either meant to serve others (as in cleaning product ads) or bodies that need help (as with ads for medicine, hair ‘cures,’ and drug treatment centers). The analysis offered by scholars such as Susan Bordo and Jean Kilbourne that lay bare the ways in which people of color are animalized, dehumanized, and brutalized in advertisements has not translated into substantial changes in the ads we view/watch. Thus, it is up to viewers to turn on their color awareness when bombarded with advertisements (they are unavoidable in modern life even if you don’t buy magazines or watch TV) so they don’t unconsciously consume any ‘white is right’ messages.
(This concludes the 5 part Consuming Whiteness series. Thanks for reading!)
[i] Doris Friedensohn, “Chapulines, Mole, and Pozole: Mexican Cuisines and the Gringa Imagination,” in Pilaf, Pozole, and Pad Thai: American Women and Ethnic Food, ed. Sherrie A. Innes (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 165.
[ii] Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 57.