NEW YORK (AP) — America’s painful struggles against racism have finally caught up with Aunt Jemima, that ubiquitous device served at breakfast tables for 131 years.
Quaker Oats announced on Wednesday that it will be retiring the Aunt Jemima brand, saying the company recognizes the character’s origins are “based on racial stereotyping.” Indeed, the logo was inspired by the 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 in the powerful cultural moment sparked by the Black Lives Matter protests, which have spread around the world and prompted companies to rethink their policies, hiring practices give employees leave for Juneteenththe anniversary of the end of slavery in the USA
Other companies said they were reconsidering racial imagery in their branding.
The owner of Uncle Ben’s Rice says the brand will “evolve” in response to concerns about racial stereotyping. Caroline Sherman, spokeswoman for parent company Mars, said the company listens to the voices of consumers, especially the black community.
Geechie Boy Mill, a family-owned South Carolina company that makes locally grown and ground white beans, said it is “listening and reviewing our overall brand image,” although no decision has been made. Geechie is a dialect spoken primarily by 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 a year and discussions have intensified given the current climate.
Earlier this year, Land O’Lakes announced that it would no longer use the Native American woman on its packaging of butter, cheese and other products since the late 1920s.
But the reexamination of the images also raises questions about why they lasted so long in the first place, beyond the civil rights movement and decades of protests against discrimination and violence against African Americans. Brands with ethnic and racial stereotypes still abound, from Nestlé Eskimo Pie and Miss Chiquita of banana fame, to the ongoing debate about 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 larger discussion about Confederate statues and other images after the massacre of nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Richardson said Aunt Jemima embodies the dark comfort some Americans derive from imagery of black bondage, so normalized it’s on their box of pancake mix. She said it was problematic that Aunt Jemima was such a pervasive symbol of black femininity when there are so many real women who are icons in African American history.
“The question becomes, ‘Do we want to preserve images that recall a past where black people were servants and expected to know their place? “People who cling to these symbols almost suggest that these are times they are nostalgic about. I don’t think people intend to send that message, but right now, we cannot afford to send mixed messages.”
Quaker, which is owned by PepsiCo, said its revised 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 uplift Black communities and increase Black representation at PepsiCo.”
“We recognize that Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on racial stereotyping,” said Kristin Kroepfl of Quaker Foods North America. “While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a way that is meant to be appropriate and respectful, we realize these changes are not enough.”
Quaker tried over the years to purge Aunt Jemima of her ‘mammy’ roots, trading her headscarf for beads in 1989. Yet the image was one of greedy domesticity and her name could not be divorced from her racist origins .
Aunt Jemima’s years of success as a marketing image made it risky for the company to part ways with it altogether, said Brenda Lee, founding director of marketing research firm Vision Strategy and Insights.
“It’s a huge deal. They’ve invested a lot in establishing this brand with everything that goes with the logo,” Lee said. “The call to make this change has been around for years and all they were willing to do was update its look, but they weren’t willing to give up the name.”
Lee said the calculus of risk to businesses is changing rapidly, in part due to efforts by the Black Lives Matter movement to draw attention to where black dollars are being spent.
Earlier this week, singer Kirby posted a TikTok video titled “How to Make a Non-Racist Breakfast” explaining some of Aunt Jemima’s brand backstory. This video has gone viral.
Associated Press writer Anne D’Innocenzio contributed to this story.
This story was first published on June 17, 2019. It was updated on June 18, 2019 to correct quote from Geechie Boy Mill. The company said it is “listening to and reviewing our overall brand image”, not “listening to and reviewing our overall brand image”.