On June 15, 2020, Miami-based singer-songwriter Kirby Maurier posted a TikTok video called
"How Not to Make a Racist Breakfast" that drew attention to the fact that many brands'
logos and images, like Aunt, are still deeply rooted in offensive stereotypes.
"Black lives matter, people. Even over breakfast."
As the video quickly went viral, it drew a lot of attention from both social and mainstream
media, with Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian tweeting in disbelief,
"How is Aunt Jemima not canceled?"
It's one of many aspects of American culture being reckoned with in the wake of widespread
protests against racism sparked by the death of George Floyd, a wave that caught the attention
of Quaker Oats, owner of the 131-year-old Aunt Jemima brand and a subsidiary of PepsiCo.
On June 17th, Quaker Oats chief marketing officer Kristin Kroepfl said in a press release,
"We recognize Aunt Jemima's origins are based on a racial stereotype. 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."
What's more, the company won't just be limiting itself to a public mea culpa, but is promising
to rebrand their pancake products to something more acceptable. So, how did the Aunt Jemima
brand come to be?
Once you know the backstory, it's definitely one of those, "What were they thinking?" brand
names. The Aunt Jemima image is based on that of a former slave, and the name comes from
a song written in 1875, "Old Aunt Jemima," that was performed in minstrel shows by white
performers made up in blackface. As Cornell University associate professor Riché Richardson
told the Today show in response to Quaker's announcement,
"[Aunt Jemima is] a retrograde image of Black womanhood on store shelves [and the] kind
of stereotype that is premised on this idea of Black inferiority and otherness."
The Aunt Jemima website credits Nancy Green as the original "Aunt Jemima," but they fail
to mention that she was born into slavery in 1834 in Kentucky. She was known as an incredible
storyteller and a great cook, and, at age 56, she was hired by the R.T. Davis Milling
Company to represent the new brand and become a well-known image for the company's pancake
products. She first appeared at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, where she dished up
tons of pancakes and demonstrated how the mixes work, and the brand took off.
Although the company has now promised to rebrand its items, this was not the first time there
has been a call for Quaker Oats to take a hard look at how they chose to represent their
products. In 2015, an opinion piece penned by Richardson in the New York Times argued
that the product imagery was not only old-fashioned but it continued to push forward the stereotypical
plantation "Mammy" figure, and Aunt Jemima herself continued to be an unwelcome link
to Southern racism.
Quaker Oats attempted to rebrand Aunt Jemima in the past, upgrading her look in 1989 and
portraying her with a pearl necklace instead of a kerchief. While the company hasn't said
exactly how they're going to further rebrand their products, they're expected to completely
overhaul Aunt Jemima and do away with the name completely this time.
"Aunt Jemima, what took you so long?"
Sadly, Aunt Jemima's not the only brand that needs a serious makeover. Uncle Ben also refers
to a racial stereotype, as "Uncle" was a derogatory term used to refer to older male slaves. That
grinning chef on the Cream of Wheat box was originally meant as a subservient and ignorant
caricature, and Eskimo Pies and Chiquita bananas are also based on insulting ethnic stereotypes.
However, Mars, the owner of the Uncle Ben's brand, has already risen to the challenge,
as it has now pledged to change its brand identity in the wake of the Aunt Jemima decision.
Also, the Land O'Lakes butter logo was long seen as not just a symbol of racism but of
misogyny, but the company took steps in April 2020 to change the packaging.
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