Aunt Jemima. Uncle Ben’s. The Washington Redskins. Land O’ Lakes. The list goes on, and you probably know the names. These companies have come under fire for their logos and branding during the recent racial and social justice movements, leaving many to grapple with a tough question: Where is the line between confronting racist history and erasing it?
The Black Lives Matter movement has drawn national attention to systemic racism in America and around the world. One particular dialog has garnered quite a bit of attention lately: What to do about the racist history of common products that line store shelves and of large sports teams supported and loved by many.
America is home to hundreds of traditional companies and industries, many of which have commonly celebrated, “all-American” origin stories. But some of these use outright racist branding and advertising. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, Mrs. Butterworth’s and Cream of Wheat are food brands that use Black people in harmfully stereotypical roles such as housemaids, slaves or a “mammy.” Worse yet is that the individuals these labels were based on were likely never compensated for the use of their likeness, according to the Associated Press, whether it was modeling the product or even discovering the recipe.
This issue goes beyond the Black community—the Land O’ Lakes label shows a native-American woman with a feather in her hair, yet the butter company is farmer-owned by non-natives. The banana company Chiquita is an American brand, yet their mascot is an exotic-looking, racially-ambiguous but presumably Latina woman donning a bright tropical dress. Eskimo Pie, an ice cream product, had a stereotypical Northern-tribe figure as their mascot. Arctic and Canadian Inuit and Yupik descendants demanded the brand to be renamed once it was made clear that the term “Eskimo” is a derogatory word used for natives by white colonizers in the past, according to a Business Insider article.
For many individuals, therein lies the problem: Predominately white Americans largely attacked these cultures and their members, only to turn around and profit off of their caricatures. Eskimo Pie, Land O’Lakes, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, Mrs. Buttersworth and Cream of wheat have since changed their branding and names.
Racism in American brands doesn’t only reside in food—both college and professional sports teams also capitalize on prejudiced mascots and names. Just recently, the NFL team formerly known as the Washington Redskins stirred up nationwide controversy for changing their long-held name to the “Washington Football Team.” Similarly, Saint John’s University’s former mascot, Chief Blackjack, was based on a Native American character used to sell tobacco. After facing pressure from native students, the school dropped the mascot in 1994.
The debate around changing racist labels is two-sided. Not necessarily between races, but between people who have nostalgia for the brands, those who want to see change and those who question whether it’s the most important issue to address at all.“
People use the argument of tradition,” Nikki Metzgar, the communications director for the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, said. “And, how precious these roots are, even the racist ones. Because it aids our society to grow from past mistakes, and erasing these traditions would only lead society backward into a repetitive state. It is commonly understood that using a slur, especially in branding, is morally incorrect,” continued Metzgar. “So would erasing these slurs from boxes and packages really lead society to forget about basic human decency and non-racism such as simply not using a slur to advertise pancakes?”
So will changing all these labels really make a change in how minorities are treated in America? Raphael Vulcain, a University of Miami finance and marketing major, said he thinks the rebranding does make a difference. “It’s an attempt at amending the pain caused by racism. I think the history won’t be hidden or ignored either. In fact, it’ll be highlighted because of the change.”
River Glassberg, a junior musical theatre major at the University of Miami, agrees that this rebranding movement isn’t a form of erasure that will harm the public. “To say that by changing the imagery on some of this branding is to erase history is a little bit of the wrong connotation,” they said. “To take that away is not to erase the history, but to hopefully start a change toward not ignoring that it happened, but accepting it happpened and moving in a hopefully better direction.”
Sheikh Muhtade, a sophomore musical theatre major, said he is skeptical of the motives behind companies making changes. “Even if you change the logo, even if you do all these things, is it just a PR stunt? Is it just for saving face?” he said. “In marketing and branding, the concept of ethics plays a big role. I feel like that’s where a bit more work needs to happen before we can actually wholeheartedly believe the steps that these big brands take to let us know they are working towards change.”
If these racist images continue to be circulated around the nation, mass-produced and distributed as normal, can America really move past its racist roots? Or will these seemingly little labels serve as a constant reminder of past horrors, which quite possibly won’t be forgotten even if some butter tubs are pulled from the shelves. To many BIPOC, these constant reminders can be degrading, belittling, unwelcoming, stereotypical and racist.
When one digs deep enough, many things in American culture could be said to hold a racist background. For example, close to home, South Dixie highway and the Winn Dixie grocery store chain, both contain the word “Dixie” which refers to the Mason-Dixon line and the eleven Southern states that seceded from America to create the Confederate States of America. The list goes on. And though these everyday American grocery stores, schools, books, pancake syrup, football teams and ice cream bars were made to benefit Americans to a certain degree, it does not mean they can’t use a reboot.
words_rachelle barrett. design_avani choudhary.