Images perpetuating racial stereotypes to be removed from Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s brands

Images perpetuating racial stereotypes to be removed from Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s brands
Aunt Jemima syrup, a product by Quaker Oats, which will remove the image and name of Aunt Jemima later this year for its role in perpetuating racial stereotypes. Courtesy Flickr Commons.

Quaker Oats announced yesterday that they will at long last be removing the Aunt Jemima logo and name from their line of breakfast foods, which includes syrup and pancake mix. The company, owned by PepsiCo, announced the forthcoming rebranding after admitting that the image plays into racial stereotypes. Just hours after Quaker Oats made their announcement, Mars, Inc. followed suit making a statement that the image of Uncle Ben’s rice would be redeveloped as well.

“We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” said Kristin Kroepfl, vice president and chief marketing officer of Quaker Foods North America, in a statement to NBC News. “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.”

Developed in 1889 to accompany a ready-made pancake mix, Chris L. Rutt and Charles G. Underwood established the image of Aunt Jemima after “Old Aunt Jemima,” a minstrel song by Billy Kersands. The minstrel show that included “Old Aunt Jemima” was popular in the US during the mid-19th century and often included white actors in blackface. According to the Aunt Jemima website, the logo was modeled after Nancy Green, who was born into slavery in 1834. Later, the product and its logo were purchased, trademarked, and used by Quaker Oats.

Over the years, Quaker has attempted to distance the drawing of Aunt Jemima from the stereotypical portrayal of “mammy,” which is the “work” Kroepfl referred to in her statement. These amendments, like removing the headscarf worn by the Aunt Jemima character in original logos, have come over the years as many called for changes to be made to the image based in racist ideals. Amid ongoing protests concerning the killing of George Floyd, injustice, and inequality, the topic resurfaced earlier this week, and Quaker finally admitted it was time to change.

Mars, Inc. made a similar statement to Kroepfl regarding the drawn logo of a Black man used for Uncle Ben’s rice. “We know we have a responsibility to take a stand in helping to put an end to racial bias and injustices,” stated the company in a release. “Racism has no place in society. We stand in solidarity with the Black community, our Associates and our partners in the fight for social justice,” continued the company. “We know to make the systemic change needed, it’s going to take a collective effort from all of us — individuals, communities and organizations of all sizes around the world.” The image used for Uncle Ben’s rice, created in the likeness of a Chicago waiter named Frank Brown, dates back to the 1940s while the name for the rice was an homage to a famed Texas rice farmer who was known as “Uncle Ben.” Like Aunt Jemima, the image and name of Uncle Ben has been the focus of concern for many for many years now, particularly for the use of “uncle,” which was a common strategy used during the US’s Jim Crow era to not refer to Black men as “Mr.”.

The new image for the pancake line will be released later this year with a change in name to follow. In addition to the changes, PepsiCo is donating $5 million to create “meaningful, ongoing support and engagement in the Black community.” Details of how Mars, Inc. plans to evolve the image of Uncle Ben’s have yet to be announced.

Though there will be detractors refusing to understand or recognize the impact of such images and the need for their replacement, large corporations, like Mars, Inc. and PepsiCo, recognising their part in perpetuating stigma and stereotypes is a significant step in changing societal views. “What’s more important than the acknowledgment and removal of these symbols,” said author of Exhibiting Blackness and professor of art history and African American studies for the University of California, Irvine in a statement, “is the larger issue of Black equality on the corporate level and the corporations’ relationship to Black lives.”