Think Piece

In Defense of Vanilla: Decolonizing a Historical Metaphor

by guest contributor Ulrike Schaper

By Ulrike Schaper

What can metaphors tell us about historical analysis? Why is it important to keep in mind the conceptual history of certain terms? And what has vanilla got to do with it? In his recent book Sex, France and Arab Men 1962-1967, Todd Shepard introduces the metaphor of ‘vanilla histories of the West’ to criticize histories that “erase the importance of people of color” and “ignore or ghettoize” their voices. Drawing on the US-American association of the term ‘vanilla’ with conventional sex, Shepard also argues against ‘vanilla histories of sex’ that “pretend that its multiple valences and diverse forms are best ignored” (16). In doing so, Shepard refers to two colloquial usages of vanilla as an adjective, one meaning “sexually conventional,” the other “racially white.” A term loaded with racialized and sexual connotations, vanilla history points to potentially productive overlaps and interrelations between race and sexuality.

Thus ‘vanilla’ is frequently used as a label to criticize historical research that omits people of color and non-normative sex as well as their intersections. In doing so, vanilla histories ignore the significance of race for sexual politics and desire. Distancing herself from vanilla histories, in Insurgent Intimacies, Chelsea Schields explores precisely this intersection of sex, race and politics, when she examines the significance of sexual politics for anti-racist activism of Antillean leftists in the Netherlands and the Netherlands Antilles in the 1960s and 1970s. Analyzing decolonizing struggles through the lens of sexual politics, Schields attempts to reconceive the “substance and geography of the sexual revolution.” She relates her approach to a larger project of overcoming vanilla histories: histories with a “white cast of characters” (99) that were exclusively centered around Europe and the US. 

Similarly, in 2021, Schields organized the panel Beyond Vanilla History that assembled perspectives on both non-heteronormative sex and non-white and (post)-colonial contexts and actors. Furthermore, in a roundtable discussion, Shepard’s book was acknowledged for foregrounding the close connection between sex and politics. The success of this endeavor was linked to a peculiar use of the term ‘vanilla histories’ which provocatively dwelled on the multi-dimensional connotations of the metaphor ‘vanilla’ and the political fantasies it congealed.

The term vanilla history as it is currently used therefore provides a strong and multi-faceted image in which racial and sex-related associations intersect. However, I argue that it is not enough to use its imaginative implications that link race and sex. We also have to critically reflect, historicize, and expose the images this term evokes in order to not perpetuate its problematic meanings. If we want to take the metaphor of vanilla serious, we have to take a closer look. Before delving into a new reading of vanilla histories, I will illustrate some of the problematic implications the term vanilla histories in its current usage holds. I argue that the term fails to give credit to the complicated history of vanilla—both the spice and its metaphor—and even helps to consolidate colonial and racist ideas.

My reflection on this metaphor started with a confusion. A fan of vanilla flavor, I was struck that a spice with such intensity of taste became a label for boringness, normality, and “lacking distinction.” I am not alone in stumbling over this paradox which is usually explained with reference to vanilla being the most basic ice cream flavor by the 1950s. In Vanilla. The Cultural History of the World’s Most Popular Flavor and Fragrance, Patricia Rain, too, argues that ice cream was the most common vanilla product once the spice became widely available. Because vanilla contained no other ingredients and had a subtle taste and color, it became synonymous with plain and common. Rain traces this use of vanilla from the aviation industry in the 1940s to the clothing industry in the 1950-60s. She only vaguely alludes to the appropriation of the term in queer and BDSM movements. In the 1970s, especially in the US gay movement, vanilla came to refer to conventional, particularly non BDSM sex. 

Bruce Rodger’s dictionary of gay slang, Gay Talk. Formerly entitled The Queen’s Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon, lists vanilla as non SM (184) or “rigid, conforming, goody-goody” (205). This usage of the term, is however, important for Shepard’s coining of the term vanilla histories of sex. I argue that Shepard’s idea of vanilla histories is Anglo-centric, or even US-centric, as it relies on the already metaphorical use in the English language the—association of vanilla with whiteness as well as conventional/non BDSM—without exposing, the extent to which the concept of vanilla histories is embedded in this cultural context.

If we label histories of the West as ‘vanilla’ that omit people of color the term serves as a metaphor for whiteness. But if ‘vanilla’ symbolizes all-white histories of the West, its antithesis is lingering just around the corner: chocolate. In Chocolate and Blackness. A Cultural History, Silke Hackenesch illuminated the often troubling entanglements between  the two. Following cocoa production and its links to slavery and colonialism and unveiling how tightly chocolate and Blackness were linked in advertising and popular culture she shows how chocolate has been used as a metaphor for the racialization and eroticization of Blackness.

Bearing in mind this history, I wonder if the term vanilla does not undermine the attempt to take people of color as historical actors seriously. If the term vanilla history marks a hegemonic white perspective which erases the views and actions of people of color, does this not implicitly associate these alternative narratives with ‘chocolate,’ thus burdening histories beyond vanilla with racist imagery?

Even more importantly, and quite ironically, the term ‘vanilla’ undermines the attempt to achieve more diverse, inclusive and decolonized narratives. We need histories that include people of color with an openness to how that inclusion changes our perceptions of developments that are usually imagined—at least implicitly—as white. Striving for such histories is part of a broader attempt to make marginalized voices heard and ongoing repercussions of colonialism visible; an attempt which draws on discussion within post-colonial theory and black studies. 

In this vein, I value Shepard’s marvellous contribution to this endeavor as he systematically reconsiders the role of Arab men in the French sexual revolution. “Against (French) vanilla history” (14), he weaves together histories of migration and sexuality. However, I do not think the term ‘vanilla history of the West’ is wisely chosen to label the antithesis of what Shepard and others aim for. Nor does it help the political agenda to go beyond white histories.

After all, the vanilla spice—the referent behind the metaphor—has in fact a long and complex colonial history that is anything but white. Obtained from the pods of the vanilla plant (vanilla planifolia), which originated in Mexico, the spice was and still is mostly cultivated in areas (formerly) colonized by European powers. In New Noir. Race identity, and Diaspora in Black Suburbia, Orly Clerge connects the erasure of Black people from history with the history of vanilla. 

Edmond Albius, inventor of a technique for hand pollination of the vanilla plant

In 1841, Edmond Albius, a young enslaved Black man, discovered the pollination technique for cultivating the vanilla plant in the French colony Réunion. This revolutionary discovery—which enabled the cultivation of vanilla outside of Mexico—was soon denied by a slave owner in the region who falsely claimed he had invented the technique. For Clerge, this erasure of Albius’s achievement from history resonates with the twisted image of vanilla representing whiteness in US-American culture; twisted not least, because vanilla, a dark brown spice that used to be called ‘black flower’ is now perceived as white (163). Associations of vanilla with whiteness are fueled by the fact that vanilla flavored products often use cheaper synthetically produced white colored vanillin instead of natural vanilla.

The fact that vanilla represents whiteness goes back to the erasure of its own colonial history and the Black history of its cultivation. Historians that use the term ‘vanilla history’ usually seem not to be aware of these erasures when criticizing vanilla histories. They rather build on and replicate highly problematic associations of vanilla with whiteness when they use it as a label for the kind of history that needs to be overcome.

In its current use, vanilla histories of the West represent the exclusion of everything vanilla might stand for: the Mexican origin of the vanilla plant, Edmond Albius’ contributions to the colonial history of vanilla cultivation, and the discursive processes in which vanilla came to represent whiteness in American culture. The term thus undermines the attempt to make visible, acknowledge, and reintegrate people of color into histories of the West.

Finally, the term vanilla histories is problematic, if it is taken as a metaphor that refers to vanilla literally rather than in its already cultural embedded meaning. When Clerge points to the color paradox of a dark brown spice representing whiteness, she refers to vanilla as a spice rather than a metaphor for white/conventional. Describing actual colors when talking about social categories comes with the price of buying into racist ascriptions of skin color to a visible sign of race. This ascription, however, is a consequence not the origin of racist categories. In Desiring Whiteness. A Lacanian Analysis of Race, Kaplana Seshadri-Crooks argues that the cultural order precedes the racial differences that we see. Race, for her, is thus a regime of looking, a practice of visibility. She argues that we “believe in the factuality of difference in order to see it” (5).

However, even if the color paradox is set aside, the metaphor of vanilla history runs counter to the culinary logic of the spice. In a pudding made with natural vanilla, a small amount of pulp, originating from and being cultivated in socially non-white contexts, gives the pudding its particular vanilla taste. Culinary speaking, one might hence argue, that it is precisely the non-white minority-ingredient that defines the dish’s taste as ‘vanilla.’

Instead of using ‘vanilla’ as the epitome of an all-white history, I therefore propose to reverse and decolonize the metaphor. Vanilla histories, in this understanding, could be histories that draw their attention to agents of color or from (post-)colonial contexts that shaped and defined—or flavored—processes usually narrated as white histories. Such a usage of the term would acknowledge the colonial and Black history of the spice while also commemorating the attempts of its erasure. Vanilla histories in this sense would aim to reveal the often neglected Black and colonial dimensions of their own stories. 

Quinn Slobodian’s Foreign Front could in this sense count as a vanilla history, as it traces the importance of African, Asian, and Latin-American students within the emergence of the West-German students’ movement. It makes visible their contributions to this movement, usually narrated as being driven by white actors alone. Bearing in mind that vanilla is considered an aphrodisiac, and that etymologically, the term vanilla is related to the term vagina, an alternative usage of vanilla history would not even lose the ability to point to the complex intersections of race and sex. Using vanilla history in such an affirmative way contradicts a long-standing and seemingly self-evident metaphorical use of the term vanilla as either white or conventional. Why should that stop us from starting to use it differently?

Ulrike Schaper is Junior Professor of Modern History at the Free University of Berlin. Her research focuses on the global history of Germany in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is currently working on debates in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s that dealt with sex tourism and marriage migration. She has worked extensively on German colonialism and received her Ph.D. in 2010 with a study on law and jurisdiction in Cameroon, published in 2012 as Koloniale Verhandlungen – Gerichtsbarkeit, Verwaltung und Herrschaft in Kamerun 1884-1916 by Campus Verlag. 

Edited by Isabel Jacobs

Featured Image: Vanilla plant. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One reply on “In Defense of Vanilla: Decolonizing a Historical Metaphor”

When we think of metaphor, we usually think of clever comparisons and/or turns of phrase. That the linguistic device is important, historically and presently, seldom interests anyone but linguists and philosophers. The connexions are legion. See? And so is the connectivity of metaphorical description.

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