Author: Iselin Gambert


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.



The dark history of the whiteness of milk

Milk is having a moment lately. A dark moment. Or, more to the point, a white moment. As the recent NY Times article Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (and Why Geneticists Are Alarmed) explained, white nationalists and members of the so-called alt-right have been using milk as a symbol of white supremacy since the early days of the Trump presidency. It started with an event that has since been dubbed “the milk party,” in which a large group of white men gathered in front of a livestreaming camera on the streets of New York City carrying cartons of milk and voicing everything from off-color taunts to explicitly racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic rants. The atmosphere was raucous. After taking a swig of milk from his carton, one barechested man approached the camera and sneered. “An ice cold glass of pure racism,” he growled into the lens.

After that night, milk quickly went viral, joining the ranks of Pepe the Frog and the “okay” emoji as symbols of twenty-first century, post-Obama white supremacy. Pro-Trump supporters carried cartons of it to rallies. The hashtag #MilkTwitter was used in hundreds of tweets explicitly connecting milk with racist memes and sentiments. Richard Spencer added a milk-bottle emoji to his Twitter profile with the phrase “I’m very tolerant… lactose tolerant!”


This all may sound like the sort of fringe phenomenon that is best ignored, dismissed, or shrugged off as being nothing more than the provocative antics of far-right trolls. But not only is racist humor cloaked in irony worth taking seriously, this is not milk’s first rodeo with hate and ignorance. Far from it. In fact, the story of milk’s relationship with racism, sexism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression is notable in large part because of just how not-fringe it is. It’s a story about the rhetoric of modernity, progress, and scientific advancement, and features an esteemed cast of characters including university scientists, USDA publicists, the US National Dairy Council, the FDA, and the U.S. Code. And it’s a story with huge implications for the future of US food policy in the decades to come.

Over the next several weeks I’ll be telling the tale of the sinister side of milk. Today I’m taking you back in time to the late 19th century, to the years surrounding the passage of the first US immigration law that excluded an entire ethnic group, the Chinese Exclusion Act.

A “wretched, impotent, and effeminate race”: the gendered and racial politics of food

Exclusion of Chinese. The Cooly Trade. Those are the names of Chapters 7 and 8 of US Code Title 8: Aliens and Nationality. Yes, today’s US Code. The laws themselves have been repealed, but the ghost of them remains alive and well in those chapter titles—and, some would argue, in current-day politics around race, immigration, and food policy.

The United States had a policy of relatively free and open immigration during the 18th and early 19th centuries; the policy was rarely questioned until the late 1800s. The California Gold Rush in the mid-1800s brought with it a surge of immigration from China, which continued as Chinese immigrants sought jobs in agriculture, mining, railroad construction, restaurant, laundry, and other industries.

While Chinese immigrants represented the largest group of nonwhite immigrants who came to the United States between 1870 and 1880, they comprised only 4.3% of all immigrants who entered the country during that time. That said, they were viewed by many with vitriol, accused of stealing jobs from white workers. They were also accused of being dirty in mind and in body, accused of spreading disease and “moral and racial pollution” to American cities. Chinese men were also seen as undermining acceptable gender roles by engaging in jobs like cleaning and cooking, which were seen as “women’s work.”

These widespread anti-Chinese sentiments were bolstered by the opinions of respected experts who perpetuated racist ideologies under the guise of science. Much of that science concerned a perceived link between physical and mental strength (or weakness) and diet. Eating animal-based foods like meat and dairy was associated with intellectual superiority and virile masculinity exemplified by the white western man, while plant-eating was associated with Asian cultures and was thought to represent emasculation and to confer weakness of both mind and body. As E. Melanie DuPuis noted in Angels and Vegetables: A Brief History of Food Advice in America, “the racial rhetoric of the day . . . portrayed Asians as effeminate and enfeebled and the Chinese ‘leaf diet’ as a cause of degeneracy.”

In 1884 American neurologist named James Leonard Corning published Brain exhaustion, with some preliminary considerations on cerebral dynamics, in which he sought to explore the numerous ‘demands upon the thinking apparatus’ as well as possible remedies for a range of ‘mental phenomena.’ Corning spoke in one chapter of ‘defective brain nutrition’ and the role between various types of food on the brain’s development, health, and disease. In one passage, Corning linked the perceived intellectual inferiority of Chinese people to the (supposed) plant-based, milk-and-meat-deficient nature of their diets:

Where mental courage, tenacity of purpose, and concentrated energy are required the introduction of large quantities of fibrin and albumen into the system produces the most marvelous results. Thus, flesh-eating nations have ever been more aggressive than those peoples whose diet is largely or exclusively vegetable. The effeminate rice-eaters of India and China have again and again yielded to the superior moral courage of an infinitely smaller number of meat-eating Englishmen’ (emphasis added).

Not only were Chinese and other Asian people intellectually weak because they ate plants, argued Corning, but white people were intellectually superior because they ate animals (and drank milk), noting that the “most wonderful instance of the intellectual vigor of flesh-eating man is the unbroken triumph of the Anglo-Saxon race.” Corning’s medical opinions were shared by many of his peers: a year before he published Brain exhaustion, a respected Australian doctor named Stephen Mannington Caffyn published How, When, and What to Eat: A Guide to Colonial Diet, in which he cautioned that “[w]e might expect to find rice-eaters everywhere a wretched, impotent, and effeminate race, and such is the case.”

That medical experts like Corning and Caffyn perpetuated these racist and sexist tropes and grounded them in “science” gave significant legitimacy to these sentiments, leading to what Carol Adams described in her landmark work The Sexual Politics of Meat as a “racialized politics of meat” that worked to split the “world into intellectually superior meat eaters and inferior plant eaters.” The same could be said of milk as well.


The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882 with widespread support from lawmakers, many of whom called Chinese immigrants “rats,” “beasts,” and “swine” while the bill was being debated. Former Union general and California senator John F. Miller introduced the bill referring to the Chinese as a “degraded and inferior race.” The sentiment was widespread and long-lasting, and was sometimes linked back to the role of food: a 1902 report published by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) supporting the Chinese Exclusion Act framed the union’s views on Chinese immigration in terms of diet, titling it “Meat vs. Rice: American Manhood vs. Asiatic Coolieism, Which will Survive?

Even Justice John Marshall Harlan, whose lone dissent in the infamous 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson upholding the constitutionality of the “separate but equal” doctrine is widely seen as an example of courage and strength of character, viewed Chinese people worthy of distain and exclusion. “The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country,” he wrote in his Plessy dissent. “And so it is in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty.” He went on to note without hesitation or critique that “[t]here is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race.” While Harlan used this example as a way to point out the absurdity of the “separate but equal” doctrine—explaining that by “the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black race in Louisiana [cannot]”—it underscores the extent to which Chinese immigrants were vilified at every level of power and in every corner of American life.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was amended and expanded in 1924 to prevent citizens of other Asian nations from immigrating to the United States, and remained in effect until it was repealed in 1943. During and immediately after World War I, US animus toward Asian people took on a renewed significance. As DuPuis explained, as the “need for strong and aggressive bodies to fulfill national imperial ambitions” led to the “politics of ingestion [becoming] caught up in questions about the physical strength of the armed forces.” In the process, bodies “were compared across races and nations, and so it was that the Asian body came to represent nutritional deficiency in American gastropolitical discourse at this time.” Specifically, continued DuPuis,

[t]he Asian body became the sign of colonial subjection and effeminacy, while the tall, meat-eating and milk-drinking masculine American working-class body signified the superiority of the white diet. This characterization served as justification for white imperial projects in the post–World War I era. Colonial non-meat eaters were viewed as conquered peoples, defeated by diet. In their shared disdain for nonwhite races, the working and middle classes found a common identity as members of a powerful nation.

Next time: dairy milk’s role in crafting modern tropes of idealized white masculinity.