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More than a whiff of prejudice

By Richard King - posted Thursday, 19 January 2012

In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), George Orwell delineates the varieties of prejudice ranged against the working class by its middle and upper class overseers. In a passage that was often used by his enemies to suggest, quite wrongly, that he was a closet snob and no friend of the people whose cause he championed, Orwell notes in particular the role of smell in class relationships. As he puts it:

Here you come to the real subject of class relations in the West – the real reason why a European of bourgeois upbringing, even when he calls himself a Communist, cannot without a hard effort think of a working man as his equal. It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering, but which were bandied about quite freely in my childhood. The words were: The lower classes smell.

I thought of this passage the other day when reading Teresa Gambaro's comments on the Government's multiculturalism strategy, in which she suggested that the failure of some migrants to wear deodorant on public transport was evidence that 'cultural awareness training' was not as rigorous or as widespread as it might be. Needless to say, what goes for class also goes for race, and while I'm sure the Federal Opposition's spokeswoman on citizenship and settlement is no racist, it would, I think, be irresponsible to dismiss her comments too casually. 'You've got to laugh' said one Labor MP, eschewing outrage for ridicule. Well, I've no wish to appear po-faced, but in this case I really don't think you do.


One only needs to have the barest acquaintance with the history of slavery and colonialism to recognise in Gambaro's comments a common manifestation of racial prejudice. In antebellum America, for example, the malodorous Negro was a familiar figure in the rhetoric of the anti-abolitionists. Similarly, European imperialists were never more exquisitely appalled than when contemplating the foul-smelling natives. In either case, it is easy to see that the emphasis on smell had less to do with the odour given off by the 'offender' than it did with a relationship of political power. A sahib may think he dislikes the smell of the man who brings him his gin and tonic, but what he really dislikes is the man himself.

Such was the conclusion drawn by Franz Fanon in his important book The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon saw that colonial discourse was framed in terms of 'us' and 'them', of superior and inferior, and that one of the ways in which colonial oppressors sought to distance themselves from the latter was by characterising them as in some sense subhuman. Pressing the pomaded handkerchief of 'civilisation' to his nose and lips, the colonialist justifies his position of power by denying his victim's humanity, by placing him among the beasts. '[W]hen the colonist speaks of the colonised', wrote Fanon, 'he uses zoological terms. Allusion is made to the slithery movements of the yellow races, the odours from the native quarters, to the hordes, the stink, the swarming, the seething and to the gesticulations.' (Note that smell makes two appearances in this list of 'zoological' emphases.)

This racist obsession with things olfactory survived into the postcolonial era. When I was growing up in England in the 1970s and 1980s, the quivering nostril was much in evidence amongst those who resented the implosion of Empire and subsequent immigration of peoples of rather duskier complexion than their own. Nor was this simply or even principally a case of unfamiliar cooking smells. The insinuation was that Afro-Caribbeans (or Pakistanis, or Bangladeshis) were negligent in point of cleanliness and hygiene. Similar prejudices obtained on the Continent. In France in the early 1990s, Jacques Chirac made a notorious speech in which he referred to the 'smell and noise' of immigrant areas. A blatant appeal for the racist vote (Chirac was hoping to draw support away from the far-right Front National), this was no case of dog-whistle politics but a marrowbone thrown to the slavering pack.

It is a very bad sign when politicians and commentators flirt with this language of bodily odour and (its close relation) bodily function. The Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci succumbed to this kind of verbal thuggery in her final, anti-Muslim phase. Her books about Islamic immigration are morbidly obsessed with personal habits (alfresco urination was a particular bête noire). Fallaci, it seemed, had ceased to think rationally about the subject of multiculturalism and had given in to primitive loathing. This, indeed, is the whole point about smell as a political or ideological trope: it marks the juncture at which the intellectual gives way to the visceral. Again, Orwell put it best:

[N]o feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling. Race-hatred, religious hatred, differences of education, of temperament, of intellect, even differences of moral code, can be got over; but physical repulsion cannot. You can have an affection for a murderer or a sodomite, but you cannot have an affection for a man whose breath stinks.

Needless to say, when the various 'hatreds' and 'differences' in Orwell's list are allied to feelings of physical repulsion the results can be disastrous.


Gambaro has apologised 'unreservedly' for her comments. No doubt that apology was made in good faith, but the member for Brisbane ought to be very clear about precisely what it is she's apologising for. Talk of 'offence' is not enough; one needs to understand that racial prejudice often operates at a subconscious level and that a morbid obsession with body odour is one of its common manifestations. Gambaro says she wants 'good settlement outcomes' for Australia's migrant population. Well, then, she should watch her language, lest the dogs of racism break their chains.

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About the Author

I'm a freelance based in WA and write regularly for The Australian and Sydney Morning Herald as well as for many magazines and journals. You can read my recent articles here, or some generous comments about my work on Clive James's website, here.

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