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More on Racism and What It Is Not: Race and Body Odor - Anti-Small Talk
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More on Racism and What It Is Not: Race and Body Odor
I was reading recently on Livejournal about a woman who believed that different skin colors cause different body odors.

The consensus where this was posted was that said woman was racist and that such thoughts were disgusting.

While I acknowledge that such comments could be driven by racism, I wanted to play devil's advocate, because it seemed to me another misuse of the word "racism".[1]

It has been a few years since I have posted on the topic of racism, so I will reiterate briefly here.

The dictionary definition of "racism" is:
rac•ism n (1936) 1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race 2 : racial prejudice [a (usually harmful and/or hostile) pre-judgment] or discrimination
Of course, I am aware that definitions can change over time, but the thing about racism as a concept is that it is considered by most (and rightly so) to be an evil way of thinking. I agree. But this means that if the definition of "racism" the word changes to include a wider range of concepts, it does not mean that those new concepts must be evil. If you are going to use the word racism as a word for a bad way of thinking and include things outside of the above definition, you are going to have to A) indicate the change you have made in the definition, and B) argue for why the additional concepts can still be considered evil ways of thinking.

Returning to the specific subject at hand, let us consider body odor.

While many consider "body odor" to be an unpleasant thing, this is an assumption. The woman in the story likely did, but I don't know for certain, because I wasn't there. But anecdotally, I -- and just about everyone I've ever talked to about this, actually -- have noticed that people from different races have distinct body odors. I am not saying that some are better or worse than others; they just are. I'd bet money that people of other races notice my distinct body odor also.

Moving outside of personal experience, let me quote from a Professor V. Vemuri from U.C. Davis who has studied body odor.[2] He speaks of a subjective element -- my opinion of another human's odor -- and objective element -- whether or not an odor is really there.
The way one perceives odor is subjective; what may appeal to one person may nauseate another. What may be a pleasant odor in one context may be revolting in another....

Every adult, from head to foot, has a unique scent; it is almost like a fingerprint. It is by this scent a bloodhound recognizes the criminal it's tracking. Infants recognize their mother by this smell. No amount of washing or perfumes can disguise this smell.
So, scientifically, it is clear that you cannot make all body odor go away by any amount of washing; you can only mask it. And every human has a distinct one. Is it too far of a stretch to think that race might be a factor in determining this "unique scent... almost like a fingerprint"? It certainly sounds like genetics would be at play here.

Dr. Vemuri continues on that very idea:
One problem [in the manufacture of perfumes to mask body odor] is that male and female underarm scents differ; men's are muskier. Another problem is that scent glands differ from race to race; in Japan, underarm scent is so rare it is considered a disease.
So, while this may shock some, it is not only not racism to suggest a connection between race and body odor, it is actually scientific fact.

If you do not want to take Dr. Vemuri's word for it, here are a few of other links, and I found still more:

It seems to me a problem when people call "Racist!" regarding things that actually have a scientific basis.

(As a side note, to say that skin color itself causes a particular smell is false. There is no direct relationship between pigment and the smell produced. But skin color is an indication of race, so skin color could imply the smell. For example, if I see someone with a typical Asian tint of skin, I could logically assume that he or she is Asian and would not likely expect him/her to have a strong body odor.)

Now let's return to the definition. Is body odor a "human trait or capacity"? No, at least no more than calling hair color or fingerprints a "human trait"; it certainly has nothing to do with capacity. So believing that there is a connection between race and body odor is not racism -- it is also scientific fact.

Does body odor imply an inherent superiority of a particular race? No. If I believe it does, then yes, I am a racist.

Do I treat anyone unfairly or discriminate them because I do not like the smell I associate with his or her race? If so, then yes, this too is racism.

If someone were to make a blanket statement that "Such and such a race always smells bad!" That would be wrong because it is forcing a negative and subjective opinion on a race as a whole.

But if someone says, "Such and such a race tends to have a distinctive odor. I don't really like it, but they likely don't like my body odor either, so I do not hold it against them," I don't see how this can be called racism. The person is just being honest.

Likewise, I think that women smell better than men; that doesn't make me a sexist.

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dogs_n_rodents From: dogs_n_rodents Date: September 15th, 2008 07:16 pm (UTC) (link to entry)
Blah! I can't find the title in the archive search, but there was an oral presentation at FACSS 2007 by a fellow who works along side with a specific canine criminal unit. Basically their findings also support what you've mentioned here in that different races tend to have different genetic dispositions to make more or less particular amino acids and other chemicals which give us an odor fingerprint that dogs process during the search and rescues.

I might have to whip out the paper-copy of the program, but I will find it!
lhynard From: lhynard Date: September 25th, 2008 07:08 pm (UTC) (link to entry)
Did you ever find it?
From: (Anonymous) Date: June 6th, 2009 09:44 pm (UTC) (link to entry)


I'm sorry but you are wrong on the race issue. The reason that different ethnicities smell different is due to their consumption of different types of food. Japanese mostly eat plain/fresh vegetables and seafood which do not carry to your sweat while meat and spice consuming cultures will have a more pungent smell.
lhynard From: lhynard Date: June 8th, 2009 03:00 am (UTC) (link to entry)

Re: wrong

While food may certainly play a factor, it is not the only one. If you had read the entry fully and the links, you would find that the issue has been scientifically studied. Certain races have physically different sweat glands.

So my views here are not wrong; on the contrary, they are supported by studies.
essius From: essius Date: September 15th, 2008 07:17 pm (UTC) (link to entry)
Does body odor imply an inherent superiority of a particular race? No. If I believe it does, then yes, I am a racist.

Not inherent superiority, but perhaps accidental superiority, as when a particular race uses its vast odor to TAKE OVER THE WORLD! :O
From: mallon04008 Date: September 16th, 2008 04:14 pm (UTC) (link to entry)
There in an unintended consequence when something like is called racist when it is not--it weakens the impact of the word/concept. If such a triviality is labeled racist, what then would we call genocide, ethnic cleansing, racial segregation, and the like? Super-duper racism? It's absurd.

On a side note, it is always refreshing to read a volatile topic handled with calmness and clarity.
lhynard From: lhynard Date: September 25th, 2008 07:08 pm (UTC) (link to entry)
Why, thank you.
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