CAMBRIDGE, Mass. For Beth Nelson, the watershed point came last month when new hires at Economatrix, her employer, pushed the Caucasian share of the consulting firm’s workforce below 50% for the first time.
“People came in on Monday and said the office smelled like a wet dog,” she says, recalling her mortification. “It was then that I realized that I’d become a minority.”
Nelson is an early warning sign that the borderline in America that demarcates whether an individual’s personal, unenhanced fragrance is considered “normal” has moved from a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant standard to something more complex. “It’s a well-settled fact among olfactory ethnographers that white people smell like wet dogs,” says Allen Reynolds, a professor at Case Western Reserve. “The old standard was a mixture of mashed potatoes and Christmas tree highlights on a solid foundation of wet dog smell, usually a golden lab or cocker spaniel.”
“Like many prejudices, this particular belief contains a grain of truth, however invidious and noxious,” says Arnold Pehayek, a fragrance specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau who recently finished reading “Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary.” “Upper-class white people smell like dogs favored by the affluent, such as black labrador retrievers and Jack Russell terriers. The odor is caused by the natural fibers they wear–the people, not the dogs–and by their participation in privileged outdoor activities such as field hockey and lacrosse.” He noted that the phenomenon was especially pronounced among graduates of small liberal arts colleges.
Nelson’s co-workers, who eventually were forced to complain to human resources about her, said they were merely being objective, not racist. “Wet dog smell is a good thing,” said DeShawn Johnson, a research assistant. “I told her the old joke, how do you spot the bride at a WASP wedding? She’s the one kissing the golden retriever,” he says to scattered laughter and a few groans. “That showed we were laughing with Beth, not at her.”