“You’ve been drinking the fascist, white supremacist, white neo-Nazi milk...To be a successful antifa soldier, you have to become a soy boy.”
In one of his satirical YouTube videos, alt-right commentator James Allsup suggests that what epitomises the anti-fascist, feminist, politically correct people he lambasts is that they drink soy instead of dairy milk.
The #MilkTwitter hashtag went viral after an incident that’s since been dubbed the “milk party”, in which a large gathering of white men descended on an anti-Trump art installation a few weeks after Trump’s inauguration. The men carried cartons of milk and voiced everything from off-colour taunts to explicitly racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and homophobic rants. After taking a swig of milk from his carton, one bare-chested man approached the camera and sneered. “An ice cold glass of pure racism,” he growled into the lens.
After that night, milk quickly went viral, joining the ranks of Pepe the Frog and the “okay” emoji as symbols of 21st century, post-Obama white supremacy. Pro-Trump supporters began carrying cartons of it to rallies and Richard Spencer and other prominent figures of the “alt-right” movement added milk-bottle emojis to their Twitter profiles. The #SoyBoy hashtag followed a few months later, going viral in the spring of 2017 and remains popular today.
For members of the alt-right, dairy milk symbolises strength of body and society; drinking it reinforces notions of white superiority and idealised visions of masculinity. Soy milk represents weakness, emasculation, and all things politically correct. The hashtags #MilkTwitter and #SoyBoy celebrate traditional gender norms and the “good old days” of white-dominated patriarchy, while ridiculing diversity and feminism.
But #MilkTwitter and #SoyBoy don’t exist in a vacuum: milk has long been used as a symbol for and tool of oppression and exploitation. Even the verb “to milk” means “to exploit”.
There’s a long history of association between dairy milk and white supremacy, as legal scholar Andrea Freeman explores. Freeman traces the link back a century, with official US government documents from the 1920s suggesting a link between white people, milk-drinking and a superior intellect.
Similarly, sociologist Melanie DuPuis has described how milk was central to the construction of the modern Western nation state. The nutritionally “perfect” white drink was symbolically linked to the white-skinned bodies that were better able to digest it due to a genetic mutation known as lactase persistence. Early 20th century milk advertisements perpetuated this trope, often juxtaposing images of healthy-looking, light-skinned people with sickly-looking, darker-skinned ones. “By declaring milk perfect,” said DuPuis, “white northern Europeans announced their own perfection”.
Where dairy has symbolised white superiority, soy has long represented notions of weakness, nonwhiteness, and emasculation. Feminist and animal rights advocate Carol Adams has discussed how 19th century scholars justified British colonialism in part by dividing the world into “intellectually superior meat eaters and inferior plant eaters”. Asian cultures heavy in soy and rice consumption occupied the latter category.
In contemporary discussions, scientific studies linking phytoestrogens in soybeans to lower sperm count have been used – by alt-right trolls and mainstream media alike – to create a narrative that soy emasculates men who consume it.
“This is gonna fill you full of estrogen, this is gonna block all your testosterone,” Allsup pronounces on YouTube, holding up a carton of soy milk. “We’re gonna be drinking only soy milk, and it’s gonna flush all that testosterone – which is a word that means white supremacy – out of your body.” While Allsup obviously intends his video to be funny, screen shots from a Men’s Health article about soy’s potential to “undermine everything it means to be male” suggests he nevertheless takes the threat of soy seriously.
Taking alt-right irony seriously
Many dismiss the racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and homophobic rants on #MilkTwitter and #SoyBoy as being nothing more than ironic antics targeting politically correct “normies” who can’t take a joke. But irony and ambiguity are worth taking seriously: they are established strategies of alt-right trolls who seek to exploit Poe’s Law, the notion that it’s virtually impossible to distinguish between satire and sincerity online. Irony allows for extremist views to hide in plain sight – in the words of prominent neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, “non-ironic Nazism masquerading as ironic Nazism”.
The danger of Poe’s Law, explained by Jason Wilson in an article for The Guardian about alt-right tactics, isn’t that satire may be mistaken for sincerity, but that “every ‘ironic’ repetition of far-right ideals contributes to a climate in which racism, misogyny, or Islamophobia is normalised”. Because of that, says Angela Nagle, who studies the alt-right’s online culture wars, “the best response is to stubbornly take the ‘alt-right’ at their word”.
Vegan vs dairy masculinities
The strategy of those using #MilkTwitter and #SoyBoy is to mix a carefully constructed view of history and cherry-picked science to reinforce sexist and racist beliefs, while fostering a fear of contemporary shifts in power away from white males and towards women, people of colour, and those occupying space outside the cultural mainstream.
Vegans are often the target of #MilkTwitter and #SoyBoy taunts, with “the vegan agenda” being code for all things weak, effeminate and politically correct. Vegans, after all, drink soy (or other plant milk) instead of dairy, typically for ethical reasons related to caring about animals’ welfare – another female-coded trait.
The irony of #MilkTwitter and #SoyBoy casting vegan men as less masculine is that it is hard to imagine a more feminine-coded substance than estrogen-filled animal milk, coming from the breasts of female mammals. But in the identity politics of the alt-right, linking dairy milk to white supremacy, such complexities are taken lightly. After all, they are only joking, right?
This article first appeared on The Conversation.