Friday, April 9, 2010

White Privilege and Perfume

So first I want to clear up, I'm a white girl. Sometimes people feel uncomfortable when they approach race discussions, asking "Why does it matter if you're white or not?" and I think it always matters. Acknowledging I'm white in this discussion is a way of admitting that there are things I don't know, everyday experiences I am ignorant of, a point where my own knowledge will come up seriously lacking.

I've been involved in other online communities that have been critiqued for unexamined white privilege issues. Last year (or the year before) the scifi community offered a wealth of thoughts and discourse on cultural appropriation and the unfortunate ways white authors co-opt and/or stereotype minority experience, etc. It was a mind-opening, incredibly educative moment in the community.

Since then, I've moved into the perfume community, mostly as a silent reader (though I've just started this blog for my own thoughts). I want to say that, by pointing out problematic quotes here, I'm not trying to offend anyone or pass judgment on anyone's moral character. I quote only to say, look. These are problematic. And there are a few of these problems. Making the community accessible to anyone should be everyone's concern and goal. By quoting, I'm trying to open a discourse on the ways we might be failing to do that. Unexamined white privilege is insidious. Talking about it could never be more offensive than ignoring it.

Recently, while reading through a blogger's perfume reviews, I came across this passage comparing two scents: they both possess that most coveted of feminine real estate: acres of creamy white flesh that they use to their advantage in manipulating men. This is not the first time in the community that I've seen 'white skin' being admired as the most coveted real estate. Who can forget the release of Banana Republic's Alabaster, the ad campaign of the pale-white model that left no wiggle room for what 'alabaster' was meant to evoke and the subsequent outpouring of criticism? Well, a lot of people probably don't remember that, because it was isolated to a few journals and articles, and most of the criticism I found was angry criticism against the critics for 'being too sensitive' or for 'looking for offense where there was none' or, more offensively, for having 'white-fright'.

In his ad-copy for Serge Noire, Serge Luten's wrote "Pour vous belles éthérées! Peaux blanches et serge noire...", which Perfumeshrine pointed out was a visual contrast between white skin and black cloth, evoking 'ethereal beauty'. Pink Manhattan was one of the only bloggers to criticize the inherent white privilege of this ad-copy. Her comments in other blogs about it were erased, though they were not offensive, and she was ridiculed for being too 'PC'.

And then there's always Elizabeth Arden's White Shoulders, with every pale-pink bottle decorated with a woman's back and shoulders.

So the problem here is that when white shoulders are coveted or desirable or beautiful, then by implication, non-white shoulders are lacking, unwanted, not beautiful. This isn't a problem without historical precedent or context, but by admitting so should not lessen our community responsibility to talk about these prejudices when they come up and are before us.

Another example of white privilege I've noticed is the continual legitimacy afforded to the theory that scent smells different on different people sometimes because of their skin color. I've seen this discussed more than a handful of times in threads, and have each time been surprised by the honest belief people have in this theory. Here is one example I saved, from a Victoria's Secret perfume review: I first smelled this on a black woman who shared my dormitory. It smelled marvelous on her, and I bought some for myself. Somehow on my Asian skin, it changed to a quite different smell -- sour and totally annoying. I never wore it again! I've notice some white women wearing it, and it doesn't smell the same either. I'm pretty sure it has something to do with body chemistry.

I'm not arguing that individual skin chemistry doesn't play a role in our perfume aesthetics and experiences, but by making that phenomenon about skin color is another way of exoticizing 'the other'. There is nothing mysterious or different or weird about other people who have different skin color than you. They have no magical way of changing their perfume based on their skin color. The ongoing rehash of this theory only promotes ignorance. It's white privilege that allows us to bandy these thoughts about with no real concern or awareness of how they affect people or isolate them from engaging with the community, that lets us do these things with no real consequences.

Another thing I've found was the use of problematic, privileged language, like when in a perfume review for a Le Labo scent, a perfume blogger compared the charry smoke of Patchouli 24 to the heart of a tar-baby. I call this 'privileged language' because it is utilizing a term that carries a lot of weight and historical meaning for a group of people, but isn't acknowledging that or contextualizing it. You can't use the word 'tar-baby' without evoking a certain response. It is then irresponsible of the reviewer to use it in this fashion, without acknowledgment of the ways tar-baby is problematic and hurtful.

So what can the average blogger/person in the community do about white privilege? We can't make Serge Lutens change his ad-copy. That's probably not going to happen easily. I think what we can do is talk about these issues when they come up, make it a subject that we all realize is necessary and ok to discuss. I think people are afraid to approach race subjects because they don't want to 'get it wrong' or be 'ignorant'. But to not discuss them is much more hurtful. One of my favorite critical reviews was Legendez's review of Idole de Lubin. Not only does she critique the scent on its own merit, she also examines race issues with Lubin's marketing campaign and the way it exoticized African culture and experience to give the perfume a 'story' for predominately anglo-western consumers. It was not only a great perfume review, it was an interesting and informative read.

So white privilege is a universal problem that needs to be approached where ever it's found, even in our online perfumes blogs and communities. There is no example of white privilege that is too small or seemingly petty, even if it's 'just about' perfume ad-copy. By dismissing these criticisms or discussions as being 'too fussily PC,' we're reprimanding others for their desire to be heard or for their frustrations to be recognized. These are legitimate problems. If we want a community that is open to all people, we need to be ok with addressing white privilege and how it affects our perception and the people around us. We need to be ok about being called out sometimes or being the ones responsible for calling out. We need to be honest and air out our dirty laundry for anyone to see.


  1. This is a great freaking post. I mean amazingly great. One of the advertising posts I have coming up is also going to talk about race, and I want to say--for the record--that I appreciate this post, I appreciate Pink Manhattan making the comments she did, I'm appalled that they were deleted or she was ridiculed for trying to be culturally competent, and I encourage all of us to keep up the good work.

  2. Diana, thank you for reading this! I'm home right now with a baby so I have a lot of free reading time and have pretty much read your entire blog (creepy!). So I feel like I can appreciate what it means for you to find this readable or useful. Your own feminist critique of perfume marketing has been eye-opening to me, and it's one of my favorite parts of your blog. So thank you! I look forward to your next post!

  3. This is really interesting approach and I mostly agree with you. But I come from a country where there really aren't many people who aren't white. And not only that, but we have no racial baggage whatsoever. So it is really difficult for me to guess when I might not be PC because I really have no previous knowledge of it.
    I for one don't think skin color matters in how the smell is going to behave - I can see that with my friends and all of them are white.
    But I agree we should at least think if our words are closed-minded.

  4. Ines, I love your blog! I mostly lurk there, reading. But I've enjoyed your reviews.

    I don't think acknowledging and addressing white privilege when it happens is the same thing as American political correctness. It's about being self-aware of our own impulse to white-centric thought and beliefs, pausing to think of the ways we make assumptions about the rest of the world based on white-centric thinking.

    Americans definitely have a specific historical background in racism and white privilege, but this isn't an American problem. And if we're just talking about the perfume community, which is an international community, I think we're discussing a problem that affects and implicates everyone, regardless of the nature of racial tension or white privilege in each user's nation or culture.

  5. I'm sorry that I've just found your blog. Because I like what I'm finding here.

    This post in particular, though not only. Yes, yes, and yes. Yes, there is silent privileging of one experience over another. Yes, scents can smell differently on different skin--and there very well may be trends based on color/ethnicity. (Had a fascinating conversation once about this at a high-end department store that carries Malle etc. Perfume reps and make up SA's chimed in as word burbled 'round what the conversation was, each with their own anecdote about an experience with a given scent smelling differently based on skin...especially color of skin. And they made it clear they were NOT on the record or officially speaking, so it kinda makes you wonder about the training, eh?) Yes, we need to not be afraid of criticisms that call assumptions to the fore.

    OTOH, we should probably discuss some of the mythologies that operate as sub-cultures of the white skin world (those "white shoulders"? see for example Gone With the Wind for an example of how Southern culture valued the palest and least freckled of skin as an ideal) and also whether or not it is permissible to express "beauty" at all. (What if someone does find black fabric on pale skin attractive? Are they not allowed to say so, because that reflects a dominant voice, and we need to work at pulling out other voices?)

    Yammer yammer yammer about this. It's an excellent dialogue. One that should probably never be left alone.

    But I'm also going to point out how much I understand and support your mother rant (next post?). Yes, paying attention to others can be 24/7 as a mom. I don't begrudge you at all your approach to the counter.

  6. Hi scentscelf! I've totally read your blog. Probably all of it, when I was just soaking everything up like a sponge in the beginning. I think I have some to catch up on!

    You say What if someone finds black fabric on pale skin attractive? Are they allowed to say so?

    Well, all I know is that personal aesthetics don't exist in a vacuum. They develop based on societal, cultural and political prejudices and values. I would say that if you find black fabric on white flesh so appealing, why? Do you think you're the sole creator of your own aesthetic preferment, or can you admit that the world around us encourages certain 'right' and 'wrong' aesthetics and attitudes? I have come to distrust my own impulses because I know that we live in a world which, by majority, reflects back at me my own white-centric assumptions and expectations, my own white-centric aesthetics. Since developing a more every-day awareness of my white privilege, I am continually surprised (appalled) by all the things I took for granted were real and mine. I've come to see how even the movies I've been able to enjoy (especially period pieces about colonialism) are because I have spent most of my life in a total lack of awareness of the all-consuming reality of white-centric aesthetics and narratives. If I find lily-white skin draped with black beautiful, I also find it fraught with historically racist repulsion of black skin. It carries baggage that needs to be examined. I guess I'd find it naive to assume that we can just like something aesthetically without acknowledging how we're responding to and promoting ingrained prejudices.

  7. Prosetry,

    Yes, absolutely, our impulses should be shaken up and examined. I personally would like to see something like a spring cleaning program, wherein we go through some sort of annual look-see and re-assessment. :)

    But here's the thing...some preferences may come from more influences than mere conditioning. Or may be triggered by some form of conditioning that has nothing to do with anything having to do with marginalization or outright suppression of other people. This could be a lovely long weekend of talking just to get all the cards out on the table (and I'd love to share, among other things, the primacy of the male in cinema...I remember a friend once moaning "Just ONCE I'd like to see a tampon in a scene. Not being used or anything, but just...there.") There's all kinds of privileging going on, no doubt.

    But, that said...I am still loathe to condemn a preference just because it could read a certain way. Do a double take, do some quiet examining perhaps, but allow for innocence until proven guilty.

    When it comes to images, familiarity is of course a factor. Lots more people would queue up for other "likes" if they were offered as a matter of course in the media. Beauty in kinky hair, in wrinkly skin, in asymmetry, in a "zaftig" body, in heavily lidded eyes...they are all there to be beheld. All sorts of studies showing that it's not just prejudice (as in actively being trained against), but the familiar (being drawn to, or at least feeling safe with, what is known) that "inclines" us.

    (People need to sample a "new" food or taste at least a dozen times, for example, before they can get to a point of truly deciding "like" or "dislike.")

    But while aesthetics are very much a part of context of experience, they also have some individually driven elements. I've like magenta since I was little...other than the Crayola box, I was not able to encounter that color anywhere else. It was neither familiar, nor said to be friend/foe. It was just there. And I liked it. If you were to tell me today that magenta was the insignia color of the guard at a concentration camp, I'd be horrified. I'd be careful about trotting it out in the future, worrying about how it would be read.

    But I would not be guilty of expressing a cultural stereotype.

    So, YES, assuming there are no cultural prejudices would be foolish. But assuming they are there could represent a different kind of foolhardy.

    I'd hate to put on an incense scent, for example, and have people assume I was expressing some sort of solidarity with the church. But I recognize some folks will get that association. It's all in there.

    Hmm, I think I started our lovely long weekend, anyway. Here, have some tea. I thank you for the conversation. :)

  8. Oops, let me try this again. I should have edited first!

    Scentscelf, sorry it took me so long to get back to you! I've been sick for a few days and not in a thinky mood.

    I totally think you're right, with the idea of liking what's 'familiar'. But I don't think that's an innocent, uninfluenced state of being.

    You said:

    When it comes to images, familiarity is of course a factor. Lots more people would queue up for other "likes" if they were offered as a matter of course in the media. Beauty in kinky hair, in wrinkly skin, in asymmetry, in a "zaftig" body, in heavily lidded eyes...they are all there to be beheld. All sorts of studies showing that it's not just prejudice (as in actively being trained against), but the familiar (being drawn to, or at least feeling safe with, what is known) that "inclines" us.

    But isn't it a racial prejudice that makes most of our tv and popular movies predominately white, which we find 'familiar'? Hollywood will go out of its way to 'white-wash' media for us. Several years ago, a tv miniseries was made for Le Guin's Earthsea series with an all-white cast, which was completely absurd, because the characters in the books are definitely NOT white. And if you look at the recent live-action Airbender movie, you'll see that they haven't cast one Asian or minority actor in any of the main hero roles. I find this most alarming, because I know that the Airbender cartoon was often lauded for promoting relatable, empowering imagery and storylines to Asian and non-white youth. White-washing the new movie is proof, to me, that what is 'familiar' or 'popular' is not without political and racial implications. I don't think we like it just because it's what is given to us and what becomes familiar. I think we like it because it mirrors back our own white-centricity. TV makes money because it gives us what we want.