Commodity Racism

ELIZABETH CHIN

Art Center College of Design, US

DOI: 10.1002/9781118989463.wbeccs049

The term “commodity racism” is most closely associated with McClintock's Imperial Leather (1995), in which she argues that, in the late 1800s, evolutionary and teleological formulations of racism were packaged into commodities. Mass production and distribution allowed these products and their embedded ideas to reach the masses in a way that scientific racism could not. Taking soap as her primary object of analysis, McClintock shows how seemingly innocuous products were imbued with deeply fetishized qualities, including the ability to confer racial uplift while simultaneously identifying the darker races as backward and in need of the care and attention of colonialist regimes.

Commodity racism, as defined by McClintock, is certainly one key manifestation of the intersection of race and commodification, but commodities and race intersect in other ways that are important and can be considered as commodity racism, particularly in the United States. Slavery itself must be understood as commodity racism since it was racism itself that justified turning people into commodities. The end of slavery provoked massive changes with regard to race, commodities, and consumption in the United States (Wilson 2005). As African Americans moved into the consumer sphere as agents and actors, ambivalence about these social and economic changes resulted in commodified cultural forms including the minstrel ...

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