This week, Dove Soap unveiled a new internet ad. It didn’t go well.
Dove has apologised over an advert which has been labelled racist.
The cosmetic brand faced backlash over a Facebook advert that appeared to show a black woman turning white after washing herself with its product.
Bosses at Dove said they ‘deeply regretted’ the use of the images after they sparked an online race row.
The advert shows a smiling black woman pulling her t-shirt off to reveal a white woman underneath. A third image then shows an Asian woman.
The imagery used in the ad has a long and ugly history. I discuss it at length in chapter four of Clean and White (now available in paperback and audio formats), and I also wrote a brief post about the history of racist soap ads for NYU Press’s From the Square blog in 2015.
Such a message was consistent with the trope that skin darker than white was somehow impure and dirty. Products boasting of absolute purity claimed to be so powerful that they could literally wash away the stain of race.
Why do these images matter as anything beyond century-old relics of America’s racist past? These images proliferated at a time when the rhetoric and imagery of hygiene became conflated with a racial order that made white people pure, and anyone who was not considered white was somehow dirty. The order extended from caricatures to labor markets. Analysis of census data indicates the work of handling waste (be it garbage, scrap metal, laundry, or domestic cleaning) was disproportionately done by people who were not native-born white Americans.
Through World War II, this involved work by African Americans and first- and second-generation immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Southern and Eastern Europe. In the second half of the twentieth century, the burdens of this dirty and dangerous work fell heavier on Hispanic and African-American workers, creating environmental inequalities that endure to this day. They are evident in the conditions that led to the Memphis’s sanitation workers strike in 1968, as well as the residents of Warren County, North Carolina laying down in the street to block bulldozers from developing a hazardous waste landfill in 1982. Environmental inequalities are evident still in environmental justice movements active across the United States in 2015.
Since the end of the Civil War, American sanitation systems, zoning boards, real estate practices, federal, state, and municipal governments, and makers and marketers of cleaning products have all worked with an understanding of hygiene that assumes “white people” are clean, and “nonwhite people” are less than clean. This assumption is fundamental to racist claims of white supremacy, a rhetoric that involves “race pollution,” white purity, and the dangers of nonwhite sexuality as miscegenation. It is also fundamental to broad social and environmental inequalities that emerged after the Civil War and that remain in place in the early twenty-first century. Learning the history of racist attitudes towards hygiene allows us to better understand the roots of present-day inequalities, for the attitudes that shaped those racist soap advertisements remain embedded in our culture.