Body Odor and Race
IT WAS one summer in the early 1960’s, in Arkansas. Two black girls, about eight and ten years of age, would soon be entering a school with whites. Previously, they had attended a rural segregated school.
One day a white woman, who had befriended the girls, asked the younger one: “Pam, what do you think about going to school with white children?” She replied, rather hesitantly: “Well, I don’t know. Now, I don’t mean you, Miz Cruder, but white folks, you know, they smell funny,” and her little nose wrinkled up at the prospect.
This is commonly believed by blacks. Youngsters apparently pick up the idea, not so much from firsthand experience as from what they have heard. But how did this idea that whites have a different, disagreeable odor get started? In large part, it may be in reaction to the long-held views that whites have of blacks.
In centuries past, when blacks were slaves and considered as property, whites often spoke about their body odor. In his recent book Race, John R. Baker says: “The authors of earlier centuries remarked on this subject with greater freedom than those of the present day. Thus Henry Home, in his Sketches of the History of Man, refers to the ‘rank smell’ of Negroes. In a work published in the same year (1774), The History of Jamaica, Long says that the Negroes are distinguished by their ‘bestial or fetid smell, which they all have to a greater or lesser degree.’”
This came to be a generally accepted view among whites. Since blacks were believed to be biologically inferior, having crossed a supposed evolutionary threshold of humanness later than whites, it is not surprising that whites should reach this conclusion
A Widespread Belief
However, it is not just blacks and whites who believe that the other race has a different, objectionable body odor. Melville Jacobs and Bernhard J. Stern, in their book General Anthropology, observed: “Few notions regarding race differences are more widely believed than the idea that each race has its distinctive odor.”
As an example, much was written in centuries past about a specific Jewish odor. Also, the Japanese anatomist Buntaro Adachi wrote that he found the body odor of Europeans to be very objectionable. This was his first impression when settling in Europe, but later he said that he became accustomed to the smell and liked it.
An experience told about an English physician stationed in Bombay, India, is also illuminating. He would have his Indian servant call him from his church on Sunday mornings to impress the congregation with his importance as a medical man. One day the physician attended a large Indian political gathering, but left after a short while, explaining to his servant: “What a relief to get out! In another ten minutes I should have collapsed. The smell!”’ His servant replied: “Ah, Sahib, now you will understand what I suffer every Sunday when I have to go right to the middle of the church to call you out!”
What are we to conclude? That the smell of different races is only a figment of people’s imagination? If it is not, what causes certain races to have different body odors? Is it because of racial inheritance?
Body Odor Real—Why?
No one will deny that body odor exists. The huge sales of deodorants and antiperspirants prove that it does. And it is obvious that some individuals, both blacks and whites, have strong body odors that can give offense to others. Why? What causes these odors?
It is apparently not the perspiration itself, as one might think. Experiments have shown that perspiration, as the body emits it, is both sterile and odorless. The odor results when bacteria work on the perspiration.
Hair, particularly under the arms, acts as a collecting site for perspiration and favors bacterial growth that can result in an offensive odor. Clothing, too, is a factor, since organisms may cling to it, along with the perspiration, and result in the bacterial decomposition that produces body odor.
A person’s diet also contributes to body odor. Jacobs and Stern note in General Anthropology: “Among the most potent odors known to chemists are valeric acid, butyric acid, and related organic compounds, which are given off as vapors through the skin by all persons who in the previous hours have digested milk, butter, cheese, or fats of various kinds. . . . A population which eats much garlic has another characteristic odor; onions engender still other consequences; smoked salmon and venison, pickled herrings, and yams, still others.”
Yet, despite the evidence that such factors as these are responsible, many persons still believe that body odor is due particularly to racial inheritance. In his book Along This Way, J. W. Johnson describes an interesting exchange that he had on this matter, explaining: “Once a man rose and said, ‘I wish to ask you a frank question. Isn’t the chief objection to the Negro due to the fact that he has a bad odor?’”
“In reply,” the writer said, “I agreed that there were lots of bad-smelling Negroes; but in turn, I asked my questioner if he thought the expensive magazine advertisements about ‘B.O.’ were designed to attract an exclusive Negro patronage. I remarked that I did not think so, since they were generally illustrated with pictures of rather nice-looking white girls.”
Yet might not a general community of blacks, as well as of whites, have an objectionable odor if they have a particular diet and way of living? Indeed so! Blacks held for weeks in the holds of slave ships smelled very bad. And so did many black slaves who worked in the fields and did not bathe regularly. Even today, there are some classes, both of blacks and of whites, whose hygiene is poor, and whose diet is different from what others are used to. They often smell different, objectionable, to persons who are not generally around them. Yet that does not mean that all whites or all blacks smell that way.
Still, the claim has been made, even by a university scholar, that one of the most outstanding of racial differences is body odor. Is there proof that this assertion is untrue?
What Experiments Showed
Some experiments have been conducted to provide an answer. Professor Otto Klineberg, a leading authority in the field of racial psychology, tells about an unpublished study. The experimenter collected perspiration in test tubes from white and black students who had just been exercising in a gymnasium. White judges were then given the test tubes, and asked to rank them in order of pleasantness.
“The results showed,” Klineberg reports, “no consistent preference for the White samples; the test tube considered the most pleasant and the one considered the most unpleasant were both taken from Whites.”
The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 1950, pages 257-265, tells about another experiment. Two blacks and two whites were the subjects. All four were college students who ate in the same cafeteria, lived in approximately the same quarters, and participated in the same school activities. For the experiment, the four showered in the same shower room and used the same kind of soap.
During the first half of the experiment the boys had just come from a shower, and during the second half, they were perspiring after vigorous exercise. The experiment was conducted in such a way as to eliminate any possibility of accidental factors or recognition of the subjects. In all, fifty-nine persons offered 715 judgments, being allowed to smell any part of the subjects’ sheet-covered bodies.
The results showed that in 368 judgments, or more than half of them, the Judges marked “don’t know.” They thus acknowledged that they were unable to recognize body odor of Whites or blacks as being in any way distinctive. And in nearly half of the rest of the judgments, or in 157 of them, persons who thought that they could identify the source of body odor were incorrect. Mere chance guesses would have produced almost this same degree of accuracy.
Interestingly, only seven of the fifty-nine judges were certain that they could differentiate the source of body odor every time. They showed their confidence by never marking “don’t know.” Yet they were correct, on the average, in only about half of their judgments—also no better than what chance guesses would have produced.
George K. Morlan, reporting in The Journal of Genetic Psychology, observed: “Our experiment neither proves nor disproves that there are ‘racial’ differences in body odor, but if such differences do exist, and whites and Negroes are equated for diet, cleanliness, and the like, our evidence very definitely does not support the view that whites can identify that odor with any dependable degree of accuracy.”
The Role of Prejudice
No doubt many persons, in all sincerity, believe that objectionable body odor is due particularly to race, rather than to poor hygiene or diet. It is possible that because they have been taught to believe that another race has a bad odor they, in fact think that they can detect such an odor. Discussing this matter, former professor of psychology at Harvard University Gordon W. Allport wrote:
“The associative power of odors is high . . . if we have once associated the odor of garlic with Italians we have met, or cheap perfume with immigrants, or fetid odors with crowded tenements, these odors newly encountered will cause us to think of Italians, immigrants, tenement dwellers. Meeting an Italian may cause us to think of the odor of garlic and even to ‘smell’ it. Olfactory hallucinations (caused by such associations) are common. It is for this reason that people who have formed olfactory associations may declare with conviction that all Negroes or all immigrants smell.”
Once a person has formed such an opinion, it is usually not easy to change it. Prejudice can be deep-seated, yet appear ludicrous when viewed objectively. Consider, for example, the woman who said that she did not wish blacks to live in her neighborhood, “because they smell.” Yet this same woman had no objection to blacks working for her as servants in her home. John Dollard, former professor of psychology at Yale University, was undoubtedly correct when he said: “It seems quite possible that if the belief were absent, the Negro odors would not rise above the discrimination threshold.”
The Encyclopædia Britannica, 1971, after discussing the subject, drew this conclusion: “It is doubtful whether there is a significant difference in the odour of sweat. Experimental tests have shown very poor ability to discriminate between Negro and white sweat. The subject is complex, and there is a very general tendency to attribute perceived differences to ‘racial’ factors, when in many cases the differences may be due to social and other nonracial factors.”
It is sad when persons judge others before examining the evidence. And it is even sadder when these views are held to after persons have considered the evidence. Whole races have been discriminated against due to prejudice. But, really, is there sound basis for prejudice or discrimination against any race of people?