Sixty years removed from the advent of the American Civil Rights Movement, and racism is still alive in the aisles of our grocery stores.
From butter to syrup and porridge, rice, ice cream or waffles, bigotry in food products has stirred international debates for decades. But now, just two weeks after the US Patent and Trademark Office revoked the trademark of the NFL's Washington Redskins, many popular items commonly found on the shelves of the nation's supermarkets could soon come under identical scrutiny for their disparaging portrayals of minorities.
Purchasing a bottle of Aunt Jemima, of course, doesn't make you akin to a full-fledged Klan member. Yet continued support and proliferation of derogatory branding and images requires further inspection into the pervasive prejudices that continue to permeate culinary advertising.
Dating back to 1893, Aunt Jemima, owned by the Quaker Oats Company, is just one of a handful of grocery store staples at the epicenter that is the ignorance of food manufacturers. With its original logo—a caricatured image of former slave, Nancy Green, the brand's first spokesperson—now replaced by a more harmonious version of an African-American matron, Aunt Jemima has caused uneasiness for over a century. Besides the fact that it's propagating negative connotations about black America, Aunt Jemima is an inferior product to natural maple syrup, made from high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, sorbic acid, and artificial flavors: all the garbage found in soda that leads many to diabetes and obesity.
Above all else, the product's direct reference of plantation life, complete with not-so-hidden undertones of slavery, makes it the worst offender of food racism.
Aunt Jemima is not alone in the dated and ignorant portrayal of African Americans; Uncle Ben's, owned by Mars, Inc., was the nation's top selling rice brand for nearly 40 years until the '90s (it eventually lost its dominant market share to Rice-A-Roni and a bevy of Asian importers), and Cream of Wheat, now manufactured by B&G Foods, has been pushing its racially insensitive, gluten-free agenda since the late nineteenth century. Both products feature images of subservient, elderly black men on their packaging.
The obvious argument for the continued tolerance of these products is their legacy; why should we change our purchasing habits and boycott items that have been around since before World War II? But acceptance of these racially infused relics has proven detrimental towards improving grocery equality; even as recently as 2008, when Mark Whitlock and Bob DeMoss manufactured and sold Obama Waffles, complete with packaging depicting an offensive caricature of the 44th President of the United States.
President Obama has proven to be popular fodder for racist food manufacturers, both in the United States and abroad, like Taipei, where Taiwan's Lariat Partners Ltd. marketed Obama Coffee under its One Fresh Cup brand, along with Mandela and Pele flavors, each featuring various degrees of dark roast coffee varietals. There was also the short-lived Duet ice cream, a Russian dessert bar that was black on the outside with a white inner layer, featuring a cartoon image of Obama in front of the White House.
Russia, while not as blatant an offender as the US during the Atlantic slave trade that sent an estimated 12 million shackled Africans across the ocean to the new world, does have its own checkered past of collective farms, kolkhozniks, and indentured servitude. Nations like Australia and Germany also own long rap sheets of hate and bigotry, still present in the racially tinged goods that line grocery shelves.
In Australia, for example, Coon Cheese is not only readily available nationwide, but the product's namesake is a registered trademark, owned by National Foods. Formerly manufactured by Kraft, the brand, which is reportedly named after its American creator Edward William Coon, has long been at the center of racial controversy in Australia. And, in 2008 activist Stephen Hagan challenged the validity of Coon's namesake, unsuccessfully, in an attempt to banish the brand name.
Italian chocolate manufacturer Ferrero found themselves in hot water with the German focused marketing of its Küsschen, or little kisses, using the slogan "yes weiss can," German for "yes white can" to promote the product. Did they learn nothing from the Aryan horrors of the Third Reich?
African-Americans are certainly not the only racial minority feeling the brunt of inappropriate images in food. Eskimo Pie, a chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream bar originally manufactured in New Zealand, now sold by Nestle, has faced scrutiny for its ignorant portrayal of the Inuit, the indigenous people of the Arctic. Referenced in film, television, music, and popular culture, Eskimo Pie made headlines in 2009, when Canadian Seeka Lee Veevee Parsons made a public stand against the brands use of racial epithets.
Still, despite these blatant jabs at minorities, food manufacturers continue to produce and sell racist products, facing minimal pushback from consumers who buy en masse. Playful bigotry is being directly supported one purchase at a time, but after the US Patent and Trademark Office ruling against the Washington Redskins, similar legislature against ignorant branding may impact the future of racial sensitivity in the grocery store.
And how about Arden Hills, Minnesota butter, spread, and cheese manufacturer Land O'Lakes? Why has this 93-year-old, billion-dollar enterprise never come under similar fire as the Redskins for their branding, which features a young Native American woman wearing what the artist considered "authentic" garb, kneeling as she presents a package of butter? It's not as if, in 2014, Native Americans are still roaming the streets in headdresses, feathers, and breechcloths.
Perhaps it's that dairy products are not as sexy a defendant as an NFL team, or that the name is considered more vile than the derogatory image? But more likely it is because the Land O'Lakes butter "maiden" was the creation of artist Patrick DesJarlait, a member of the Red Lake Ojibwe tribe, who gave the company logo a facelift in the 1950s. Like many other racist charges, it is considered OK for members of a particular minority to loosely use slurs and images, but when a 77-year-old football franchise, owned in majority by a Jewish American, is at the center of controversy, government intervention is required.
Land O'Lakes does, in fact, push the very same stereotype as the NFL's Washington D.C.-based club, and should be held accountable to identical infractions. Somehow, no penalties have been levied.
With the official line on racism in food yet to be drawn, it's time for consumers to vote with their wallets and stop the proliferation of bigoted images in branding and packaging. And while the purchase of Land O'Lakes, Aunt Jemima, or Coon Cheese does not necessarily equate to an admission of racism, the US Patent and Trademark Office and similar government agencies worldwide have already set a very striking precedent and similar regulation in the supermarket could soon follow suit.