By ALEXANDRA OLSON and MATT OTT (AP)
America’s painful struggles over racism have finally caught up with Aunt Jemima, that ubiquitous fixture served up at breakfast tables for 131 years.
Quaker Oats announced Wednesday that it will retire the Aunt Jemima brand, saying the company recognizes the character’s origins are “based on a racial stereotype.” Indeed, the logo was inspired by 19th century minstrel celebrating the “mammy,” a black woman content to serve her white masters. A former slave, Nancy Green, became the first face of the pancake product in 1890.
Aunt Jemima’s downfall is the latest signal of the powerful cultural moment unleashed by the Black Lives Matter protests, which have spread around the world and prompted companies to rethink their policies, from hiring practices to giving employees off for Juneteenth, the anniversary of the end of the slavery in the U.S.
Other companies said they are reconsidering racial imagery in their branding.
The owner of the Uncle Ben’s rice says the brand will “evolve” in response to concerns about racial stereotyping. Caroline Sherman, a spokeswoman for parent company Mars, said the company is listening to the voices of consumers, especially in the black community.
Geechie Boy Mill, a family-owned operation in South Carolina that makes locally-grown and milled white grits, said it is “listening and revising our overall branding,” though no decisions have been made. Geechie is a dialect spoken mainly by the descendants of African-American slaves who settled on the Ogeechee river in Georgia, according to Merriam-Webster.com. In a statement to The Associated Press, the company said a name change has been under consideration for the past year and discussions have ramped back up given the current climate.
Earlier this year, Land O’Lakes announced that it would no longer use the Native American woman on its packages of butter, cheese and other products since the late 1920s.
But reconsideration of the images also raises questions about why they have endured for so long in the first place, beyond the Civil Rights movement and ensuing decades of protests against discrimination and violence against African-Americans. Brands with ethnic and racial stereotypes still abound, from Nestle’s Eskimo Pie and Miss Chiquita of banana fame, to the ongoing debate over the Washington Redskins football team.
Riché Richardson, an associate professor of African American literature at Cornell University, called for Aunt Jemima’s retirement five years ago in a New York Times opinion piece — part of a wider discussion about Confederate statues and other imagery after the massacre of nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Richardson said Aunt Jemima epitomizes the dark comfort that some Americans take from imagery of black servitude, so normalized that it’s on their box of pancake mix. She said it was problematic that Aunt Jemima is such a ubiquitous symbol of black femininity when there are so many real women who are icons of African American history.
“The question becomes, ‘do we want to hold onto images that hearken back to a past when blacks were servants and expected to know their place?’” Richardson said. “People who are holding onto these symbols are almost suggesting that those are times they are nostalgic about. I don’t think people intend to send that message but at this time, we cannot afford to send mix messages.”
Quaker, which is owned by PepsiCo, said its overhauled pancake mix and syrup will hit shelves by the fourth quarter of 2020. The company will announce the new name at a later date. PepsiCo also announced a five-year, $400 million initiative “to lift up black communities and increase black representation at PepsiCo.”
“We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” said Kristin Kroepfl of Quaker Foods North America. “While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough.”
Quaker tried over the years to purge Aunt Jemima of her “mammy” roots, exchanging her kerchief for pearls by 1989. Still, the image was of eager domesticity and her name could not be dissociated from its racist origins.
Aunt Jemima’s years of success as a marketing image made it risky for the company to part with it completely, said Brenda Lee, founding director of the marketing research firm Vision Strategy and Insights.
“It’s a huge deal. They’ve invested quite a bit in establishing that brand with all that goes along with the logo,” Lee said. “The calling to make this change has been around for years and the most they had been willing to do was update her looks, but they were not willing to relinquish the name.”
Lee said the risk calculation for companies is quickly changing, in part because of the Black Lives Matter movement’s effort to draw attention to where black dollars are spent.
Earlier this week, the singer Kirby posted a TikTok video called “How to Make a Non Racist Breakfast” explaining some of the backstory of the Aunt Jemima brand. That video went viral.