In his new book, the Japanese American peach farmer unearths his family’s painful, hidden history and explores its impact on his identity.
May 25, 2021
The Movement for Black Lives has come for your racist food brands.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, perhaps one of the most-overdue and yet least-expected changes in American culture finally began: the replacement of racist, stereotypical “spokescharacters” on packaged foods, including Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, and Mia—the Native American “butter maiden” from Land O’Lakes.
While Land O’Lakes announced that it would remove Mia from its packaging the month before Floyd’s murder set off a global uprising, in the days and weeks afterward, other brands followed suit. In June, Quaker Oats, the PepsiCo subsidiary that owns the Aunt Jemima brand, announced its intention to rename and rebrand its products. It also acknowledged that the character was based on a racial stereotype. Scholars have said that it represents the Black mammy.
“Over the years, the Quaker Oats Company updated the Aunt Jemima brand image in a manner intended to remove racial stereotypes that dated back to the brand origins, but it had not progressed enough to appropriately reflect the dignity, respect, and warmth that we stand for today,” a Quaker Oats spokesperson explained to Civil Eats. Earlier this year, the company announced that Pearl Milling Company would be the brand’s new name.
For generations, stereotypical imagery of Black and Indigenous people has appeared on food brands. Amid 2020’s “racial reckoning,” Uncle Ben’s, a subsidiary of Mars, Inc., announced that it would modify its name and remove the Black man on its products who was inspired by an African American cook and waiter.
“While never our intent, the picture of the man on the Uncle Ben’s packaging elicits images of servitude for some, and, in the U.S., the word ‘uncle’ was at times a pejorative title for Black men,” Denis Yarotskiy, regional president for Mars Food North America, told Civil Eats. “As a result, we committed to change our name to Ben’s Original and remove the image on our packaging to signal our ambition to create a more inclusive future.”
Similarly, Eskimo Pie, which featured a cartoon Inuit boy in a fur-lined parka on its ice cream, removed that image and name, which had drawn objections from Inuit people. It is now named Edy’s Pie after company co-founder and candymaker Joseph Edy. Cream of Wheat also dropped the character widely known as Rastus, the Black cook long featured on its products.
Eager to show that these rebrands and name changes are more than just performative, some food companies have also committed to making multi-million dollar investments in communities of color. On May 13, Pearl Milling Company announced that it would grant $1 million to nonprofits that empower Black women and girls. And in 2020, the brand’s parent company announced a $400 million, five-year commitment to uplift Black businesses and communities.
“The journey for racial equality is one that calls for big, structural changes, and . . . we have the resources, reach, and responsibility to our people, businesses, and communities to be agents of progress,” PepsiCo said in a statement provided to Civil Eats. “As people around the world demanded justice for the countless lives taken too soon, PepsiCo committed to helping dismantle the systemic racial barriers that for generations have blocked social and economic progress for communities of color in this country, particularly Black and Hispanic communities.”
PepsiCo’s Pearl Milling isn’t alone in its efforts. A spokesperson for Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, the parent company of Edy’s Pie, told Civil Eats that it would invest $1.5 million in donations over the next three years to organizations that support marginalized and underrepresented creators. And Ben’s Original this year launched its Seat at the Table scholarship, in partnership with the National Urban League and the United Negro College Fund, to support Black students pursuing food industry careers. The company is also investing $2.5 million over a five-year period to support educational opportunities and fresh food access in Greenville, Mississippi, where Ben’s Original products have been made for 40 years.
“There are significant portions of the Greenville community that can be classified as a food desert, so over the past several months, we have spent time engaging and listening to a variety of partners, including Mayor [Errick D.] Simmons, our associates and several local [non-governmental organizations],” said Yarotskiy. “We are all committed to bringing fresh food to the neighborhoods that need it most through new initiatives that are efficient, modernized and sustainable for the long term.”
The response to the company’s rebrands and their financial commitments to foster racial equity has been mixed. Consumers across the political spectrum have questioned whether these image overhauls were necessary, arguing that characters like the Land O’Lakes maiden weren’t really stereotypes. On the other hand, scholars told Civil Eats that the changes at these food labels were long overdue, and they question why it took a year of unprecedented outcry over racial injustice to usher in these rebrands. It’s also important, they say, that these changes not be surface level but part of a sustained effort toward compensating communities of color for capitalizing on racial caricatures.
“I feel bad that it took George Floyd’s tragic death and protests unfolding in all 50 states and around the world to be the tipping point toward measurable changes—that it’s taken so long,” said Riché Richardson, an associate professor in Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center. “But it’s definitely important for the change not to merely be cosmetic. It’s important to dig deep to grapple with what is at stake in these images and the serious damage they do.”
“Can We Please, Finally, Get Rid of ‘Aunt Jemima’?” Richardson asked in a 2015 New York Times essay calling for the shift. She pointed out that the character was inspired by the minstrel song “Old Aunt Jemima” and described Jemima as an outgrowth of Old South plantation nostalgia that romanticized the mammy, “a devoted and submissive servant who eagerly nurtured the children of her white master and mistress while neglecting her own.”
The egregious marketing of such a stereotype in the 21st century—though the company removed Jemima’s kerchief in 1968 and rebranded her as a “young grandmother” in 1989—is why Richardson finds it unsettling that the change took so long. That said, she views the company’s financial commitments to communities of color as a positive development.
“I think it’s important to make investments in the communities most implicated in and damaged by the images,” she said. “Those are, at least, promising signs. And they’re good to see.”
Psyche Williams-Forson, associate professor and chair of the Department of American Studies at University of Maryland–College Park, agrees that these food labels should have been rebranded ages ago. But she sees their decisions to part ways with stereotypical imagery as largely “symbolic.”
The rebrands suggest little more than that these companies “know how to read the room” during a time when Black Lives Matter has become a rallying cry for consumers of all racial backgrounds, and social media gives young people a platform to call out companies that fall short, she added. A viral TikTok video about Aunt Jemima’s minstrel show roots by Millennial singer Kirby Lauryen intensified the calls for the line to rebrand last year.
Although Land O’Lakes decided to remove the butter maiden from its packaging before protests against racial injustice spread worldwide, Williams-Forson doesn’t think the company deserves more credit for making the call a month early.
“People put enough money in your pocket to do the right thing,” she said. “Unless this particular butter is made by Native and Indigenous peoples, why do you have any imagery referencing that on the product? Are you somehow using that product to fund Native people? No. Well, then take it off.” (Land O’Lakes did not respond to a request for comment on this story.)
Rafia Zafar, professor of English, African & African American, and American Culture Studies at Washington University, feels simultaneously optimistic and skeptical about these companies’ commitments. Zafar said that she “wouldn’t look a good reparation in the mouth.” But she also wants to know if the funding will actually make it into communities of color—”to land trusts, community gardening [programs], agricultural education or something like that,” she said. “I think it can do good, particularly if [these companies] weren’t doing anything before.”
Dreyer’s has already made its first donation of $100,000 to the Hillman Grad Productions Mentorship Lab to support underrepresented creators, a spokesperson told Civil Eats. Founded by filmmaker Lena Waithe, the lab helps marginalized storytellers successfully pursue careers in television and film. In addition, applications for the Ben’s Original Seat at the Table scholarships are being accepted through June 30. And Pearl Milling announced on May 13 the P.E.A.R.L. Pledge, the funding initiative aimed at supporting Black women and girls.
Richardson, however, would like to see these companies hire more employees that better reflect the diversity found throughout the country. Mars, which owns Ben’s Original, has said it intends to make its workforce, leadership, and talent pipeline more inclusive. It’s a move that National Urban League President Marc Morial applauds.
“Diversity and inclusion cannot be solved by name and packaging changes alone—real change takes effort, time, and money, which is why it’s critical for companies like Mars to showcase their commitments through meaningful actions,” Morial told Civil Eats. “We’re proud to partner with Ben’s Original to help create these opportunities for those who truly deserve it, as well as support recipients in building successful careers in the food industry through the Seat at the Table Fund [scholarship].”
Cornell’s Riché Richardson said that diversifying the workforce is important because monolithic work cultures give rise to racially insensitive marketing.
“The lack of diversity is intimately linked to how and why these images have circulated for so long in the first place,” she said. “When you have a more diverse workplace, there’s more likely to be ingenuity, and there’s more likely to be observations that, you know, certain things are a problem. You need the person sitting at the table to say that.”
While proponents say these rebrands are long overdue, critics object to the fact that they’ve taken place at all. After learning that Eskimo Pie was changing its name, Donald Trump, Jr. declared “The bullshit never ends”—a tweet that garnered more than 40,000 likes.
“The backlash is all about MAGA [Donald Trump’s presidential campaign slogan, ‘Make America Great Again’],” said Zafar, suggesting that critics of the rebrands long for the days when it was acceptable to depict Black and Indigenous peoples as servile and exotic.
But not everyone who has expressed concern about the changes is an avowed Trump supporter. Robert DesJarlait, whose Ojibwe father, Patrick DesJarlait, redesigned Land O’Lakes’s Mia in 1954, doesn’t find the character offensive. He has pointed to the fact that his father included details, such as culturally specific beadwork on her dress and two points of wooded Minnesota shoreline recognizable “to any Red Lake tribal citizen” that underscored her authenticity
The author of an educational booklet about stereotypes and a critic of sports team mascots that dehumanize Native Americans, DesJarlait argues that Mia does not “fit the parameters of a stereotype,” as her physical features were not caricatured and her cultural heritage was not demeaned.
Similarly, relatives and supporters of the African-American women who portrayed Aunt Jemima in live promotions for the company early in its 132-year history fear that the rebrand erases them. “It’s a gross miscarriage of justice,” Dannez Hunter, great-grandson of Aunt Jemima performer Anna Short Harrington, told Chicago’s ABC7. “Let’s put it in context of what it actually is, a propaganda campaign.”
Richardson is aware of the concerns that these families have expressed as well as the argument that the rebrands stem from cancel culture. But she emphasized the argument that these representations of people of color were never accurate or empowering. The idea that Aunt Jemima, in particular, “represents Black heritage is actually deeply insulting and short-sighted,” she said.
Richardson added that no one is negating the work of the African Americans who historically portrayed Aunt Jemima, as she does not conflate these women with the fictional character. In fact, when the food line rebranded, she felt it missed an opportunity to showcase the work of African-American artists who radicalized Aunt Jemima’s image during the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. At that time, artists such as Betye Saar pointed to the character’s historic and racist origins and reframed it as a source of Black empowerment.
While Pearl Milling removed Jemima’s name and visage, the new packaging does not look significantly different from the old packaging, nor does it educate consumers about why the Aunt Jemima character was problematic.
“The box looks the same,” Zafar said. “The lettering is the same. Same colors. They have a circular logo that’s probably placed around the same [spot] where there was the circular logo with Jemima in it.”
The company may not have chosen to highlight the more revolutionary images of Aunt Jemima or educate the public about her origins, but Richardson said that “any rational person would conclude” that U.S. consumer culture is in a period of transition. She remains cautiously optimistic about what impact these rebrands and financial pledges will ultimately have on communities of color.
“Let’s hope this is a real paradigm shift,” Richardson said. “We definitely need to see follow up and follow through. The hopes are high that maybe we are getting somewhere.”
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In his new book, the Japanese American peach farmer unearths his family’s painful, hidden history and explores its impact on his identity.
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