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Published: September 2008
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Author Q&ACopyright (c) 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
A Conversation with Mark M. SmithAuthor of How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses
Q: Why does talking about the five senses add to our understanding of history?
A: Vision can be blinding sometimes, especially when it comes tohistory. For various reasons, historians have been accustomed to "see"the past, always searching for "perspective." My effort is simple, ifambitious: I want to restore the importance of the non-visualsensessmell, taste, touch, and hearingto our understanding of thepast. What such a restoration achieves depends a lot on the topic underconsideration and which sense or senses were at play. Sometimes,attending to the sensesÑindividually and collectivelyhelps us texturethe past and explains how people of a particular place and timeunderstood, say, the function and meaning of smell or the values ofparticular sounds. In other instances, the senses can offer usexplanative powerhow, for example, olfaction helps explain somethingthat vision alone can't explain, or has difficulty explaining.
Q: What are some of the most common sensory stereotypes related to race?
A: The vast majority, peddled most aggressively under slavery andsegregation, were applied by whites to blacks. They were crushinglycandid: black people smelled; black skin was especially thick andinsensitive; black people had poor taste both aesthetically andliterallytheir tongues could not appreciate good food; they were proneto noisy outbursts, lacking the discipline to control themselves. And soon. The stereotypes worked in other ways, too. Black people were alsobelieved to have more heightened sensesthey saw better, farther, couldhear at great distances, and pick up scents that white noses couldn't.In other words, their senses were portrayed as like those of animals.Both forms of sensory stereotyping had the effect of animalizing anddebasing blackness in the white mind.
Q: How have African Americans challenged these stereotypes?
A: Did black people hold stereotypes of whites? Actually, there is justone that I encountered with any frequency: the stereotype that whitepeople smelled like dogs when they were wet. But that's about it. Blackpeople were reluctant to engage in racial sensory stereotyping for asimple reason: doing so wrongly credited the very idea that "race,"itself a construction, could be sensed. And even this stereotype hadlimited currency. Some black people tested it by sniffing wet whites andfound that they didn't smell (white segregationists never returned thecourtesy, preferring instead to simply accept the stereotype, "feel"sensory difference, and not subject their core values to intellectual ormental rigor.) Blacks challenged the stereotypes using a materialistcritique. Yes, they argued, we might smell, but if you lived in suchappalling conditions, were the victims of deep, prolongeddiscrimination, you might well smell too. In other words, they testedthe stereotypes, found them wanting, and offered a materialist analysisof the sensory world.
Q: Did the Civil War change the way that race was defined?
A: Not reallybut postbellum segregationists did up the emotional antewhen it came to sensing race and they did so using a vocabulary theyinherited from their colonial and antebellum forebears. Likeslaveholders, segregationists still deployed sensory racial stereotypes,but with rather greater frequency, intensity, and urgency. Theincreasingly visual instability of race meant that white southerners hadto rely heavily on what they believed were reliable ways to fix, anchor,and identify blackness through their non visual senses. Without thebelief in sensory identification, segregation would have crumbled.
Q: Although your book spans from 1750-1960, great emphasis is placed on the 1950s. Why?
A: The last chapter details the 1950s and traces the sensory dynamicsand white response to the 1954 Brown decision. As I argue in thatchapter, the debate about black sensory inferiority and differencebefore, during, and after Brown was, in many ways, a product of over twocenturies of thinkingmore properly, feelingabout race, space, power,and identity by southern whites. The raw, emotional quality ofsegregationist reaction in the 1950s shows, I think, with powerful andunnerving clarity just how important the senses were to the visceralworld of white racists.
Q: Although your book focuses on the South, does your research havewider implications for the rest of America?
A: Frankly, and as evidence peppered throughout the book suggests,sensory stereotypes were never the exclusive provenance of southernwhites. Antebellum northerners, even liberal ones, shared beliefsconcerning, for example, black scent. In the 1950s, people throughoutthe United Statesas the book's last chapter showsheld the same racialsensory stereotypes as did southern segregationists. And, as we know,the senses have been used throughout history to denigrate a variety ofracial and ethnic groups as well as to establish class distinctions.
Q: You're originally from Great Britain. Do sensory stereotypes therediffer from those in the United States?
A: It's hard to sayI rarely go back these days. But, yes, when I wasgrowing up there were widespread sensory stereotypes at work in Britishculture especially regarding race and smell. Certain immigrant groups inparticular were often accused of smelling and white Britons invested agood deal of authenticity and meaning in that particular stereotype.
Q: How does your research reveal the irrationality of racism?
A: Because, at base, I think the non visual senses give rise to feelingrather than thinking. Smell works at the level of the gut, of intuition,of immediate reaction. So too do the other non visual senses. And whileI do not mean to endorse the old stratification of the senses that positsight as the most intellectual sense, I do think that the people Iexamine in How Race Is Made considered the senses in that wayso thatthe more "proximate" senses of smell, taste, touch, and to some extent,sound, were considered "lower," more "animal," and more visceral thanthe balanced perspective and considered focus that could often accompanyseeing and looking.
Q: What kind of response have you received to How Race Is Made?
A: Very encouraging. I've been invited to speak on the topic on a numberof radio shows and at several public venues. It's a difficult topic totalk about, of course, but I'm pleased that people seem to want to airit. In a way, I couldn't ask for a better response because keepingsilent about sensory stereotypes is one way they have retained suchenormous and unwarranted cultural authority.