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Thuy Linh Tu on the Racial History of Dermatology

  In this episode we talk to Thuy Linh Thu, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU. We talk about how good technology disperses power, while bad technology concentrates power, the racial history of dermatology, including the connections between the Vietnam War, medical experimentation on incarcerated men in the U. S., and retinol creams. Please note that this episode contains references to medical experimentation and racial violence.

Thuy Linh Tu is Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. She is the author of The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion (Duke University Press, 2011), winner of the Cultural Studies Book Prize from the Association for Asian American Studies, and runner-up for the Lora Romero Prize from the American Studies Association. She is also the author of Experiments in skin : race and beauty in the shadows of Vietnam.


Tu, T. L. N. (2021). Experiments in skin : race and beauty in the shadows of Vietnam.

Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America, co-edited with Mimi Thi Nguyen (Duke University Press, 2007).

Technicolor: Race and Technology in Everyday Life, co-edited with Alondra Nelson and Alicia Hines (NYU Press, 2001).



 In this episode we talk to Thuy Linh Thu, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU. We talk about how good technology disperses power, while bad technology concentrates power, the racial history of dermatology, including the connections between the Vietnam War, medical experimentation on incarcerated men in the U. S., and retinol creams. Please note that this episode contains references to medical experimentation and racial violence.


 Great. Well, thank you so much for joining us. It really is such a privilege to have you on the podcast. So just to kick us off, could you tell us a little bit about who you are, what you do, and what's brought you to thinking about gender, race, and technology?


Thank you so much for having me here. My name is Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, and I teach in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU, and I've been teaching here for over a decade, and my recent work, but I guess we're also going to talk about past work, right, charts a relationship between race, gender, and really medicine. Um, I work in the nexus of history, anthropology, ethnic studies, Asian studies, um, here at the university.


Fantastic. Well, I'm really looking forward to hearing more about it, but first can you help us answer our three good robot questions, which are what is good technology?

Is it even possible? And how can we use feminism or anti racism to help us get there?


What is good technology? It's a really good question, and it's actually one that I feel like I've been thinking about for over a decade, and, you know, I was trained many, many, many years ago into a school of thought about technology, that it was not predetermined, right? That it would be, um, really shaped by social and cultural practices. In other words, that technologies were neither inherently good nor bad. Now I've dwelled in the age of social media, and I begin to wonder about that view, right, about the kind of looseness of it. And I guess I always return to Langdon Winner's essay that was really influential in my thinking when I was in graduate school called 'Do Artifacts Have 'Politics?

And the Winner essay is basically arguing that, you know, actually there are social and political relations that are embedded in forms and in technological forms. And, you know, I think having come full term many years later, thinking through different phases of emerging technologies, I still return to what he says, which is that good technology actually disperses power. Bad technology concentrates power, right? Concentrates power in the hands of the elites, um, concentrates opportunities, um, drives opportunities and advantages upward, um, and good technology Um, a definition of good technology might be a technology that actually allows us to disperse power. Um, and you know, and I think we thought for a minute that social media technologies would do that, but now we've actually learned the ways in which it actually just concentrated monopolistic power in the hands of some very few white men, right?

Um, and I think if we begin with that notion that good technology actually disperses power, then we can see how a feminist approach really prioritizes things like relationality, connectivity, right? Um, intimacies, right? Um, those kinds of ideas can drive different uses of technologies in ways that actually allow us to disperse power.


I really love that answer because I think something I hear a lot, particularly in corporate settings is when we try to ask this question of like, what is good technology? Is it possible is people will quite often say, oh, you know, there's no such good technology. There's no such thing as bad technology.

It's what you do with it. You know that these are neutral tools. And I always like to kind of very gently push back on that and say, actually, I think there are bad technologies, you know, I think there really are tools that are, you know, Even not even necessarily technically flawed, but they're based on really violent premises.

Like, so Eleanor and I have done a lot of work on AI powered recruitment tools, for example, which are very explicitly based on these kinds of racial pseudosciences in terms of their premises. And to me, I think that's when it's not really what people are doing with it. It's just like the kind of whole conceptual project you like you say, concentrating power so profoundly.


Yes. In other words, it's embedded in the technology itself, right? There is no good way to use that.


Exactly. Sometimes the good way is just to, you know, gently put it in the bin. You know, some of the products we look at, I'm like, Ohhh.... But you mentioned that a lot of your contemporary work is more focused on medicine and kind of thinking about Um, the history of different kinds of scientific fields in relation to race and gender.

And so I came to your work through a phenomenal book that you wrote that was published in 2021 called Experiments in Skin, Race, and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam. And this book is now on the syllabus for the MPhil in AI Ethics that we teach at the Leverhulme Center for the Future of Intelligence.

Uh, and your book traces among other things, the racial history of the science of dermatology. So for our listeners who might not have heard of your book or encountered it before, I mean, firstly to those listeners, absolutely, please go and read it. But could you tell us a bit about how did the conflict in Vietnam shape and inform the field of modern dermatology as we know it?


Of course, dermatology as a field of medicine really emerged really late in the history of medicine, right? So we're going to trace the history of medicine back several centuries, right? But dermatology is one of those fields that didn't really get much traction, even though Um, you know, uh, it is our largest organ, right?

Our skin is our largest organ. And I say in the book that, you know, it was, it's the most visible organ we have, and yet it struggled for so long to be seen by medicine, right? And in the United States in particular, the earliest, um, uh, departments in dermatology were early in Europe, in Germany and France.

And in the United States, it developed really, really late. And it developed really around the Vietnam War era. If you include the 1950s 60s right in this sort of build up to the US intervention in Vietnam, right? Um, this was really when physicians were really exploring dermatology as a field, and they were supported mainly by, um industry, of course, and by military. And a lot of the research that was done by dermatologists in the United States... and I talk about Albert Kligman in particular, I talk about Marion Salzberger, who are sort of considered foundational figures in the field of US medicine, um, were funded and worked very, very closely with the military.

And a lot of their experimentation on skin really, uh, involved incarcerated populations, uh, U. S. soldiers abroad, uh, Vietnamese populations, Vietnamese, uh, prisoners of war. And so the Vietnam War, in several different ways, was central to building up the field of dermatology in the United States.


That's really, you know, a history that I didn't know much about at all until I started reading your work. Um, and so could you give us maybe some examples of like what that might have looked like or like what kinds of scientific practices that you were able to map from these kinds of very kind of carceral militaristic origins to contemporary kinds of cosmetic practices?


Sure. A perfect example is the work of Albert Kligman, who was a dermatologist who taught at the University of Pennsylvania, which is still the, the sort of most, one of the most prominent dermatology departments in the United States, um, in part, thanks to his work. So he was the one that, um, opened a major research facility inside the Holmesburg prison in Philadelphia, just outside of Philadelphia. There's a moment in his arrival. He says, I went into the prison and it was like an acre of skin, right? And he spent, uh, years doing experiments on incarcerated men in the prison.

And part of the funding and part of the experimentation he did was for Dow chemicals and for the U S military. So he had a lot of military contracts and he in particular worked with Dow Chemicals, who, as you know, um, produced what later would be called Agent Orange, right? Um, and it was Kligman who actually, um, injected dioxin, right, into his subjects.

And through that process and observing what happened to their exposure, right, to these toxic chemicals, was able To develop Retin-A, right? Um, and which is an anti acne, um, anti agent formula that we still use every single day. If you go to any dermatologist with, um, acne, for instance, right, which is the most common skin condition in the world, right?

Um, chances are. You'll be referred to these products, right? If you open any magazine, um, to any kind of skin, uh, care product that promises any type of, uh, skin clearing or anti- aging property, you're really using the stuff that he discovered. And he discovered it thanks in part to the Military Dermatology Research Program of which he was a member. Um, and which was also located in the battlefields of Vietnam. So all of this knowledge really traveled through the circuits of that war.


Yeah, and I mean, I have to admit, my kind of only encounters before your book with Retinol/Retin-A, like it was through kind of the skincare community and TikTok, and it's very, you know, it's a history that I think like, certainly for me was very hidden.

It was one that I didn't know much about. And so it was really quite a horrible shock to see, wow, you know, how embroiled that was with this really fundamental conflict. Um, and I, this phrase that I hadn't heard this, him saying acres of skin is just so horrifying and such a testament to these broad cultures of institutional violence and abuse, um, and especially in the name of medicine.

But I think it's also such a striking image because that word 'acres' immediately brings to mind the kind of like, so many acres of forests in Vietnam destroyed by Agent Orange, but also something you comment on a lot, the way that dermatology as a practice emerged from these patterns of racial pseudoscience earlier on that were using the skin as almost like a map of the body, or they were explicitly kind of treating skin in the same way they treated the surface of the world.

And these narratives were just really fascinating to me, but I think they also highlighted how ideas from 19th, 20th century race science were also proliferating in this new science of dermatology. And one thing you talk about a lot in experience in skin is how race fundamentally shaped ideas to do with skin sensitivity, particularly in relation to pain.

And so I was wondering if you could talk about how the Vietnam War and the kinds of chemical practices that took place in that both reflected, but also reproduce and entrenched these very racist ideas about pain and about skin sensitivity, the ramifications of which very unfortunately, continue to shape medicine today.


Absolutely. I mean, I think it's an old trope, uh, you know, in the history of medicine and also in, you know, enlightenment thinking, right? The higher up you travel in the civilizational hierarchy, the more sensitive to pain, right? The lower you are in that civilizational hierarchy, the more hardy you are, the less sensitive to pain, the more, uh, the more suitable for work, right?

The more suitable for um, all kinds of violences, right? Um, so these were long, long circulating ideas by the time that they reached the Vietnam War. And in fact, the Vietnam War was one of those moments where the entire world, right, was watching this conflict and actually reconsidering their investments in the kind of colonial imperial structure that this conflict represented.

And, you know, historians in the US call that moment like the global 1960s right where there was so many protests all over the world. You saw it in Ghana. You saw it in Berlin. You saw it in Paris. You saw it in Mexico City, right, espousing a kind of anti imperial stance. And a call to rethink all these colonial and racial narratives and all these colonial and racial practices.

And in the United States, you know, a lot of the civil rights legislation, all that emerged from this, this historical moment. So to me, this was a moment where we really historically could have undone some of these ideas. And what happened with these scientists in the Vietnam War is that their work actually helped to reinforce those ideas, right?

Um, and so what part of their research and, you know, um, the Kligman and their type really advancing what they were calling a scientifically based dermatology, right? Which, you know, emerged from experimentation, not just looking, right? And they really claim to have scientific evidence that darker skin and black skin in particular but also Vietnamese skin, right, was just thicker, was immune to pain, but also immune to disease. And that it was the really white soldiers who were suffering the most in Vietnam. And they really, these ideas, as you say, travelled back, right? And really still live today. And to me, it's such a missed opportunity in that moment to really shift our thinking in a different way.

And of course, what happened to Black skin and Vietnamese skin was that it was as a result, at least in part as a result, right, subjected to the most explicit kind of violence and abuse during the war, right? So Black soldiers, Black American soldiers died disproportionately, Vietnamese died in, in, in millions and millions and millions, right?

Right. Um, and so these narratives had consequences in the moment themselves and also return such as now that even the, you know, um, American Medical Association will recommend less painkillers for Black patients. Um, so to me, this was a moment where we really missed an opportunity.


And it's so deeply sad thing, these like junctures in history, like you say, as well, because, you know, we're still in this moment where from these racial sciences, several centuries ago, we're still at a moment where the skin is read as a site of not only race, but kind of morality of character and these like deeply racialized and gendered ways.

And, you know, I think something that continues to preoccupy me as somebody who's very interested in beauty and then kind of the beauty industry, but also is a feminist scholar and a critical race scholar is just this idea of good skin. Right. And like how many ideas assumption built into that. And when someone says, Oh, you have good skin, like, what do they mean by that?

Usually that it's clear and that's porous and you don't have acne. And often, unfortunately in the very colorist societies we live in. And a lot of places that means that you have lighter skin. Um, and so I guess I want to also ask you about how you see your work on dermatology, also intersecting with the rise of digital technologies that are increasingly kind of trying to bring our skin into this, like so called perfect state. Like whenever I see or use a digital filter on TikTok, it makes my skin look really smooth and makes it look almost plasticky and also almost always makes it look whiter. Like, I think there's so many assumptions built into that. And so, yeah, I was wondering if you could speak a little bit to like how you see the race and gender relations that shape the field of dermatology also playing out in like our contemporary ideas of beauty, especially online.


Yeah, absolutely. I think it goes back to the comment that you began with, right, which is to say that technologies are embedded in these social relations already, right? So these ideas, right, were not invented by, but they were absolutely a part of how these technologies get shaped and used, right?

Um, and of course you can make again the argument that you can use them differently, right? Of course, but in this particular instance, you know, I think there is something very specific about the female body and the ways that we really demanded to be so sealed, and so coherent and so individualized .

And part of what I see happening with these filters, the removing the pores, removing is a kind of production of that, um, imagined desired body, which is, um, individual and sealed and protected and this was the sort of fantasy that really drove, um, dermatological experimentation during the war.

I talk about in the book, Marion Sulzberger's sort of like presentation to the military, and he says, you know, we can build an armor of skin. That's what we're going to do. We're going to create this kind of perfectly sealed body, right? That could protect us from germs, but also from rain and from all kinds of things, right?

And I think this is a long standing fantasy, right? And the fantasy doesn't cease for women. And where we have failed to produce it materially, we continue to try to manage it in the representational mode.


We couldn't finish this interview without talking to you about Technicolor, your book from 2001. And, you know, it's now been quite a few years, but we'd really like to hear what has changed -what did you set out to achieve when you wrote it? How was it received? And for everyone that's listening or watching definitely go and read it. It's an amazing, amazing text.


Thank you so much for that question. You know, um, Alondra Nelson and I, um, did that book together while we were in graduate school. And now Alondra Nelson is, you know, sort of the kind of, at least in the U S like the advisor to the Biden administration on AI.

Um, and she's really taking up these questions in her work in such profound and important ways and models, right? Some of the things we're talking about, how to think about equity, how to think about all of these questions. Um, and so I feel really honored that we began thinking about them together, right?

And I think the thing that we thought was the big issue way, way back then was, you know, we have these technologies, but not everyone's going to have access to them, right? So we were really concerned at that point about something called the digital divide, that black people and all these other people were going to be left behind and everybody else who got access to the technology.

We're going to zoom into some sort of like future. Some, you know, golden future and other people would be left behind. And that is still a question that I think is really an important question. These questions of like equity. Um, but you know, what we've learned in the interim intervening years is like, well, we all have access now.

What is this golden future that we have arrived at? Right? So maybe the question now is not so much about equal access because, you know, but equal access to something that we actually want. You don't need equal access to Facebook, necessarily, equal access to Twitter or X, right? Um, and so I think the conversation has to shift right now to these questions that you're asking, well, what makes a good technology?

How do we bring communities to the table when we're talking about how do we bring more people to the early days as well. Thinking about how different communities were thinking about these technologies. Um, what was important to them? What were their cultural priorities? I think to me, those are still the questions, right? How do we bring more people to the table so that, as you say earlier, these social relations that are already embedded can be undone or we can actually situate new social relations into the technologies that we are building.

Um, So I think those are the questions that I think, um, have changed and have stayed the same for, for me.


Oh, that's such a great answer. You know, this differential access to good technology to technology used well. And kind of on that note, I just really wanted your view, on the Gender Shades Project, which was this project undertaken by Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru to improve the way women of color were represented in data sets that were then used for facial recognition. The Fitzpatrick scale was used and these other scales to measure color.

And I just really wanted your opinion on the project because I have to give people responses to this , I get asked in conferences and stuff. And, um, yeah, I'd just love to hear what you have to say.

What do you say? When you get asked,


I just present the kind of two camps, right? Because you have, you know, the reformist camp on one side that wants the recognition and the inclusion. And then on the other side, you know, Os Keyes wrote that paper about, why do we want to surveil people who feel the negative effects of surveillance more acutely better.

So yeah, I present to people the different emotions.


Yeah, I absolutely agree with that. I mean, my habit of mind is to think about how we can bring community approaches, different community approaches to these tools, right? And, you know, I think what is scary to me about these kind of recognition technologies and other forms of AI technologies is they are happening fast.

And they're becoming a kind of runaway train, which none of us can quite get our hands on. Right. And I think, and you know, and that's supposed to be baked into the kind of genetic material technologies, things move fast, stay up or be left behind. But why is that the premise? Right. Why do we have to accept that right ethical proposition, right?

Can we not foster a preposition which we can say, you know, there are multiple camps, there are multiple ways of looking at this, what is most important is that we have the kinds of input in the kind of reflection on how these things are being used, right? You know, I do a lot of work in Asia and some of these technologies in China and other places are absolutely on a runaway train, right? And there is actually no say in how it's being used at all, right? Um, so I guess I would agree with you that there are multiple ways of looking at this, but those multiple ways of looking at this have to be a part of how we talk about it and how we, um, regulate, right?

The use of these technologies. And, you know, and I think we're even afraid, at least in the U. S. to say things like regulation. Yeah. Um, because technology and the market are supposed to like run themselves.. Um, and so, you know, those are the kinds of things that I would bring to that discussion.


Fantastic. Thank you very much. And I also wanted to say to listeners, you don't have to write a very famous book at graduate school, don't panic if you're writing a PhD and you haven't written a book. So you're, you're working now on a really cool project about the automobile industry in North Carolina.

And can you tell us a bit about that?


Yeah, in the United States right now, the, the big discussion is on the so called electric revolution, right? The kind of transition to electric cars and the Biden administration has been really pushing this.

It's a part of the green agenda. And, I think, um, going back to your question earlier, there are many perspectives on on electric vehicle? And the transition to electric it solves some problems, but it produces others, and so the project is looking at 1 particular electric car company called VinFast which is actually based in Vietnam, and is building their electric vehicle production facility in North Carolina, and they're being invited into North Carolina by huge incentive packages, right, to sort of redevelop the area along the lines of this kind of like green new world.

As with many other projects I have looked at, I am wondering about like the stickiness of history, um, in these locations. As we transition to new technologies, I think in the rush of it, we're often forgetting how history sticks, right? No matter how fast the technology goes, right?

That history tends to stick. And so I'm wondering about the history of these kinds of relationships, the relationship of a country that had just recently fought a massive war with the United States, is enduring and dealing with their own environmental impact from this war, producing a kind of a talisman for a green new future for the United States.

I'm thinking I'm wondering about what does what are the cost of these technologies for us? How is labor relations embedded in there? Relations of race and colonialism embedded in there. I think a lot of us know that electric batteries don't come free.

They come with a lot of toxicity. They rely on lithium and other exploitative processes. Our tactic in the U. S. is always to distance ourselves from those histories, right? Distance ourselves from those processes so that we can reproduce these talismans. And so the project is about thinking about what if we started a kind of analysis of a technology with the history, right?

What if we just read everything through these sort of transnational, trans pacific, histories? How might we see the electric car a little differently?


I think that's so important. Are you planning a book?


I am, but we'll see.


But we'll be the first to read it. Thank you so much for coming and joining us today. We really appreciate it.


Thank you so much. Such a pleasure to speak with both of you. 

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