The dark history of the whiteness of milk, part 2

My post last week told the story of the Chinese Exclusion Act through the lens of food, illustrating the ways in which perceived links between physical and mental strength (or weakness) and diet were used to perpetuate racist ideologies under the guise of science.

This week’s post turns its focus to milk specifically, and the role it played in the first half of the 20th century in perpetuating racist ideology and promoting notions of western superiority, modernity, and an idealized form of white masculinity.

Milk: the perfect modern food

During the first half of the 20th century, milk was seen as the cornerstone of a healthy diet and the white northern European identity. During that time, the US and Europe heavily promoted milk-drinking and celebrated dairy milk as a nutritionally “perfect” food that improved public health on a wide scale. School milk programs served milk free of charge to students on both sides of the Atlantic from at least the 1940s onwards; the practice continues to this day and is embedded into both US and EU regulations and dietary policies (Cohen 2017, Gaard 2013, DuPuis 2002, DuPuis 2007, Wiley 2014).

Dairy milk also symbolized modernity and western progress in the first half of the 20th century. As a “natural” food that could be improved through modern technological development like pasteurization and homogenization, the idea of dairy milk as a healthful, modern food was tied to the politics of a healthy and modern nation state. Dairy milk was portrayed in the US, Europe, and Australia as white and clean, a modern beverage for modern people (DuPuis 2002, Jönsson 2005, Nimmo 2010)—and, as the 1939 “Road to Health” ad below depicts, a “perfect food” for perfect—happy, healthy, white, nuclear—families.



White milk for white bodies

Milk wasn’t only used to promote storybook images of happy white families; it was also used to promote explicitly racist ideologies. These racist narratives about milk permeated society through scientific publications and were reinforced through visual representations in popular culture.

Scientific experts considered dairy milk to be directly linked to the success and superiority of white northern Europeans as a race. The respected University of Wisconsin nutrition scientist E.V. McCollum wrote in his widely-read 1918 book The Newer Nutrition that:

[t]he peoples who have made liberal use of milk as a food, have, in contrast [to non-milk drinking peoples], attained greater size, greater longevity, and have been much more successful in the rearing of their young. They have been more aggressive than the non-milk using peoples, and have achieved much greater advancement in literature, science and art. They have developed in a higher degree educational and political systems which offer the greatest opportunity for the individual to develop his powers. Such development has a physiological basis, and there seems every reason to believe that it is fundamentally related to nutrition (DuPuis 2007, McCollum 1918).

In 1928, USDA publicist T. Swann Harding linked perceived “dietary deficiency to a deficiency in national character” among people from China and other Asian countries where dairy was not a central component in most people’s diets. “Today,” Harding wrote, “the Chinese is peaceful, sequacious, unprogressive, unenterprising, nonperservering; his stature is poor, his physique bad, his mortality high” (DuPuis 2007, Harding 1928).

The US National Dairy Council published a pamphlet in the 1920s associating dairy milk with the perceived superiority of white bodies:

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 appreciation 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 (DuPuis 2002).

A 1930s publication about the agricultural history of New York echoed these sentiments:

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 of the people of the world. Of all races, the Aryans seem to have been the heaviest drinkers of milk and the greatest users of butter and cheese, a fact that may in part account for the quick and high development of this division of human beings (Hedrick 1933).

My research into the historical connections between milk and racist ideologies led me to two deeply offensive, explicitly racist images that ran as magazine advertisements from 1916. These images starkly illustrate the deeply ingrained racist narrative at the time that milk represented whiteness and ink represented blackness. I wrestled in putting together this blog post with whether to include these images, as I take seriously the possible implications of potentially giving them new life and attention. My wrestling led me to Dr. David Pilgrim, curator for the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia and author of several books including Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice. Dr. Pilgrim is also the current owner of one of the racist images I came across. In deciding to share these images here, I felt it important to share the story behind Dr. Pilgrim’s acquisition of the image in question, along with countless other pieces of racist memorabilia he has collected over the years.

“I am a garbage collector, racist garbage,” reflects Dr. Pilgrim in his essay, The Garbage Man: Why I Collect Racist Objects. He goes on to recount the following anecdote (note: the redactions of the N-word below are my own):

I have a 1916 magazine advertisement that shows a little black boy, softly caricatured, drinking from an ink bottle. The bottom caption reads, “N****r Milk.” I bought the print in 1988 from an antique store in LaPorte, Indiana. It was framed and offered for sale at $20. The salesclerk wrote, “Black Print,” on the receipt. I told her to write, “N****r Milk Print.”

“If you are going to sell it, call it by its name,” I told her. She refused. We argued. I bought the print and left. That was my last argument with a dealer or sales clerk; today, I purchase the items and leave with little conversation.

In his essay, Dr. Pilgrim explains that the mission of the Jim Crow Museum “is straightforward: use items of intolerance to teach tolerance. We examine the historical patterns of race relations and the origins and consequences of racist depictions.” He goes on to explain that:

Many Americans understand historical racism mainly as a general abstraction: Racism existed; it was bad, though probably not as bad as blacks and other minorities claim. A confrontation with the visual evidence of racism — especially thousands of items in a small room — is frequently shocking, even painful.

Shocking and painful, yes. And yet, I share these images in the hopes that in doing it so serves the mission of Pilgrim’s Jim Crow Museum, namely “the belief that open, honest, even painful discussions about race are necessary to avoid yesterday’s mistakes.” I am grateful to Dr. Pilgrim for his permission to share the image from his collection (which I have redacted, but which can be seen in full here), and for all he does to get people talking about diversity and race relations in meaningful ways.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the NAACP Records [reproduction numbers LC-USZ62-35731 and LC-USZ62-35732]. These images can be seen here and here

Milk Makes Men

Dairy milk has been associated not only with whiteness but also with a particular form of idealized white masculinity: a US advertisement for milk from the 1930s depicts a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy holding a bottle of milk with the words “Milk Makes Men” across the bottom of the page. In Sweden, an advertisement from the 1940s shows a muscular light-skinned, blond-haired boy holding a massive glass of milk under the words “the milk boy is healthy and strong” next to an image of a scrawny, slumped-over dark-haired boy drinking from a small coffee cup under the words “the coffee boy is feeble and weak.” These images remind me of James Leonard Corning’s “effeminate rice eaters” rhetoric from 1884 (see last week’s blog post for more on that). Where Corning linked physical and mental weakness and emasculation to plant-eating and people of color, these ads from half a century later linked strength and idealized masculinity to milk-drinking and whiteness.


The association between dairy milk, whiteness, and a particular form of idealized white masculinity persists today. In 2000, Superman—perhaps the very epitome of idealized white masculinity—was featured with a milk moustache in the famous Got Milk? ad campaign.

A 2012 ad for a product called “Maxi-Milk” featured a white, bare-chested man with rippling muscles suspended in air, gripping a rocky cliff with one hand and drinking a bottle of Maxi-Milk with the other. “Milk for Real Men,” the ad proclaims, a modern-day iteration of rhetoric dating back over a century.


Advertising is not the only place where milk is linked to notions of whiteness these days. US dietary guidelines—in particular their focus on milk and other dairy products as an essential and significant component of a healthy diet—have been accused of being racist for decades (Freeman 2013). More on that next time.


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9 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    I’m not sure that “They’re inferior to us because they’re malnourished, our success is all due to eating right!” is your typical racist meme. It does, after all, suggest that there’s nothing inherently better about the race, anybody could have done as well if they’d just eaten right. And still could!

  2. AYY says:

    I’m afraid this simply won’t do. What’s the point? Are we supposed to stop drinking milk because of the way it’s been advertised? If we’re not supposed to stop drinking it, then what are we supposed to do?

    Milk is not a moral agent, It’s a commodity. Those who advertise on its behalf, are simply trying to sell milk. The fact that milk is white is irrelevant to its nutritional value, and is not a reason to stigmatize milk. The author is simply cherry-picked trivia, but to what end? Her point appears to be l that she can dutifully follow the lead of the NYTimes article the author cited in her previous post..

    As Brett implies, the author sees racism when what she describes is actually nutrtionalism. If everything is racism, then nothing is. And for all her claims about racism, the author is dismissive towards white males.

    The point of the author’s two posts appears to be nothing more than another attempt by the Left to find something sinister in what any reasonable person would find innocuous.

  3. Joe says:

    The description is about advertising, not the problems of milk itself.

  4. JPE says:

    Oh goodness, that’s funny.

  5. AYY says:

    it’s understandable that you would lose the conservative commenters, but now you ‘ve even lost Joe,, and if you’ve lost Joe . . . .

  6. Joe says:

    Sorry for the comment glitches — one thread at one point said there were over 10 comments, but only saw two. Ugh. My take of the piece is not that milk itself is bad (leave that to vegans and others) but that ADVERTISING of milk has had a sordid history as shown by the examples. OTOH, lite beer has good advertising, but as a product is overall lame.

  7. Matt says:

    We need to include this important insight from former president Herbert Hoover: “The White Race Cannot Survive Without Dairy Products.”