cover of book

Skin Trade
by Ann DuCille
Harvard University Press, 1996
Cloth: 978-0-674-81081-5 | Paper: 978-0-674-81084-6
Library of Congress Classification E185.615.D78 1996
Dewey Decimal Classification 305.800973

How does the notion of colorblind equality fit with the social and economic realities of black Americans? Challenging the increasingly popular argument that blacks should settle down, stop whining, and get jobs, Skin Trade insists that racism remains America's premier national story and its grossest national product. From Aunt Jemima Pancakes to ethnic Barbie dolls, corporate America peddles racial and gender stereotypes, packaging and selling them to us as breakfast food or toys for our kids.

Moving from the realm of child's play through the academy and the justice system, Ann duCille draws on icons of popular culture to demonstrate that it isn't just race and gender that matter in America but race and gender as reducible to skin color, body structure, and other visible signs of difference. She reveals that Mattel, Inc., uses stereotypes of gender, race, and cultural difference to mark--and market--its Barbie dolls as female, white, black, Asian, and Hispanic. The popularity of these dolls suggests the degree to which we have internalized dominant definitions of self and other.

In a similar move, Skin Trade interrogates the popular discourse surrounding the trial of O. J. Simpson, arguing that much of the mainstream coverage of the case was a racially coded message equally dependent on stereotypes. Focusing on Newsweek and Time in particular, duCille shows how the former All-American was depicted as un-American. She explores other collusions and collisions among race, gender, and capital as well. Especially concerned with superficial distinctions perpetuated within the academic community, the author argues that the academy indulges in its own skin trade in which both race and gender are hot properties.

By turns biting, humorous, and hopeful, Skin Trade is always riveting, full of strange connections and unexpected insights.

Reviews of this book:
"[duCille's essays may] succeed in challenging the pervasive notion that on matters of race, we must 'declare victory and get out.' "

--G. Albert Ruesga, Boston Book Review

"In these essays Ann duCille, writing from within the academy, offers an array of thoughts on race. Several of the essays are about the reading, teaching and campus politics of black studies at a time when black faculty, already ghettoized in African-American studies departments, are being further squeezed to make room for other writers and theorists 'of color' and the new discipline of 'postcoloniality.' 'Skin Trade' is, however, written with a lighter touch than many academic studies and ranges well beyond the campus. DuCille makes a sharp analysis of the O. J. Simpson murder trial and its fallout...And in her satirically titled 'Toy Theory: Black Barbie and the Deep Play of Difference,' duCille points out, with warmth and wit, a running theme of this volume: how we learn to judge ourselves and others by that least reliable of indicators, appearance."

--Amanda Heller, Boston Globe

"In these cogent and clever essays, duCille handily balances popular culture and academia with an accessible and wry tone. DuCille has an eye for ideas that others have glossed over or missed completely. She adds a new twist to the recent flood of Barbie scholarship with her consideration of the doll's ethnic makeup...In examining the myriad media perspectives on the O.J. Simpson trial, duCille casts a wide net without getting tangled in it. Sandwiched between these two essays on icons are three on literature and academia."

--Publishers Weekly

"DuCille's Skin Trade is a thoughtful compilation of five provocative essays...DuCille's subtle wit punctuates each essay, including the afterword, 'The More Bitter the Whine,' which anticipates claims of black feminist essentialist grousing. DuCille's wry inversion of the title of Wallace Thurman's Harlem Renaissance novel The Blacker the Berry implicitly acknowledges her own project as another critical rejoiner to the changing same. DuCille's project is a serious, even urgent one. She calls her generation to account for complacently perpetuating a legacy of 'ethnic rivalry, race hatred, bigotry, anti-Semitism, sexism, heterosexism, and even neo-Nazism'. DuCille's antidote to the 'skin trade' is to decode rather than 'deny the country's entrenched schemes of color, class and gender."

--Hermine Pinson, Signs

"This collection of lucid, engaging, thoughtful essays on the current uses and abuses of race as a cultural commodity in America should prove highly attractive both to specialist and to general readers...Beautifully written, each of the essays displays a finely balanced and judiciously deployed mixture of personal reaction, analytic power, and political commitment. Simultaneously displaying the accessibility of the best journalism and the rigorous standards of expert scholarship, this is a book which one can only hope will reach the very large number of readers which constitutes its proper audience."

--Kate Fullbrook, Journal of American Studies [UK]

"DuCille's new book provides a poignant answer to two pivotal questions: Does race matter? And, in what fashion is 'racial' significance manifested?...Skin Trade is a moving depiction of the commercialization of race relations in American society."


"Rational, heartfelt, this book will bridge understandings across a wide range of constituencies struggling seriously with questions of race and gender."

--Patricia J. Williams, author of The Rooster's Egg

"A brilliant analysis of race and gender in contemporary continental United States. It explores the meaning and merchandizing of race and gender by the corporate world, the academy and the justice system. This book is enlightening and thought provoking...duCille has presented us with a brilliant synthesis of racial issues in America. Where integration would seem to have occurred, processes of differentiation and segregation, be they intellectual or physical, continue to plague American society. This is compounded by the gender issue where females are particularly vulnerable to control, commodification and exclusion. There is much to be gained by this thoughtful analysis...A penetrating piece of literary writing."

--Rita M. Bienvenue, Ethnic and Racial Studies[UK]

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