Brands Pretend They Just Learned Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben's Are Racist

Now seemed like the time to drop the racist stereotypes.
June 17, 2020, 5:03pm
A bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup sits on a counter, Wednesday, June 17, 2020 in White Plains, N.Y.

The companies behind Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s have had a reckoning.

Quaker Foods announced Wednesday that it will change the name and logo of its Aunt Jemima brand of syrup and pancake mix after using the racist stereotype for more than 130 years.

The character is based on a 19th-century minstrel song called “Old Aunt Jemima,” as Cornell professor Riché Richardson wrote for the New York Times in 2015 in a call for Quaker to ditch Aunt Jemima. Richardson called Aunt Jemima “an outgrowth of Old South plantation nostalgia and romance” about Black women “who eagerly nurtured the children of her white master and mistress while neglecting her own.”

Amid a global uprising against racism and police brutality, and after years of calls to drop Aunt Jemima as a mascot, Quaker finally decided to relegate Aunt Jemima to the dustbin of history. “We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype," Quaker Foods North America chief marketing officer Kristin Kroepfl said in a statement provided to NBC News. (Quaker Foods’ parent company is PepsiCo.)

On the company’s website, it says that the character of Aunt Jemima was “first brought to life” in 1890 by Nancy Green, a “storyteller, cook, and missionary worker.” Green was born enslaved in Kentucky in 1834, according to the University of Kentucky.

“As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers’ expectations,” Kroepfl said. Quaker also reportedly will donate at least $5 million over five years "to create meaningful, ongoing support and engagement in the Black community,” according to NBC News.

Later on Wednesday morning, Mars International, the U.K.-based parent company behind Uncle Ben’s, said that the “visual brand” of Uncle Ben’s would be “evolving.”

In the plantation-era South, “Uncle” was a common moniker given to elderly Black slaves. The Uncle Ben’s website claims that the rice brand was named by its founders in 1940 after a “legendary Texas farmer who was known for his exceptionally high-quality rice.”

The man who has appeared on the package since the 1940s, according to the company, was Frank Brown, the head waiter at an “exclusive Chicago restaurant who agreed to pose for the Uncle Ben’s portrait.”

“As a global brand, we know we have a responsibility to take a stand in helping to put an end to racial bias and injustices,” Mars told HuffPost in a statement. “As we listen to the voices of consumers, especially in the Black community, and to the voices of our Associates worldwide, we recognize that one way we can do this is by evolving the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity.”

The company reportedly said that “all possibilities” were on the table to change the character of Uncle Ben.

While Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben were two of the most lasting symbols of racism in American advertising, many others still exist. Eskimo Pies and Chiquita bananas are still kicking around, as are several professional and college sports teams and mascots based on Native American caricatures, such as the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins, and Atlanta Braves.

Cover: A bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup sits on a counter, Wednesday, June 17, 2020 in White Plains, N.Y. (AP Photo/Donald King)

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