• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: More Racial Trade Characters Lose Shelf Lives

The Aunt Jemima brand was the first major food brand to announce the removal of its mascot following the global uproar over the George Floyd tragedy, which has compelled service corporations to reflect on their roles in the perpetuation of "benign" racism.


On Wednesday Quaker Oats, which owns the Aunt Jemima brand, announced it is renaming it and getting rid of its logo, which for decades has been widely criticized as a racist caricature of a black maid stemming from slavery. Hours later, Mrs. Butterworth's announced it was reassessing its brand as well.


In response to the recent Black Lives Matter protests, big business may finally be taking notice of normalized racism. What have been called “friendly trade characters” in turn of the 19th century advertising journals (i.e., characters that homemakers would gladly invite into their homes), are being removed from shelves as quickly as Confederate statues.


In American history it is not only the radical white supremacist fringe that has used caricatures and stereotypes to exploit or ridicule racial and ethnic groups. The practice has been across the spectrum of well-established international business, industry and products.


Following the Aunt Jemima announcement, pressure mounted for other brands Wednesday night and Cream of Wheat's parent company, B&G Foods, issued a statement saying it too has initiated a review of its packaging, which features the image of a black cook widely believed to be based on Chicago chef Frank L. White, who died in 1938. Before the chef, Wheat's original mascot was "Rastus"—a racist caricature of a blackface minstrel.



Later, in a statement, manufacturers behind the Uncle Ben's brand confirmed they would be changing the packaging and that they were “listening to the voices of consumers, especially in the black community.”



It’s taken long enough: Since 1946, Uncle Ben's products, including its much-used microwave rice packets, have featured a picture of a well-dressed elderly African American man—said to be based on a famous head waiter at a Chicago hotel.


Although these three trademarked characters were not based entirely on racist cartoons, they always and forever conveyed an overtone of subservience and superiority—and the imagery lasted for decades after they were condemned as systemic racist triggers. For further information, read “Dirty Pictures” by William Eric Perkins and myself.


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