Enrichment Arts & Culture

Aunt Jemima rebrand of racist name prompts calls for Uncle Ben’s to follow

a box of aunt Jemima's pancake mix with the racist name and logo

Story at a glance

  • Aunt Jemima’s parent company, Quaker Oats, has announced it will change the name and remove the image of a black woman from its packaging.
  • The brand known for its pancake mix and syrup was named after a racist stereotype when it was founded in the late 1880s.
  • The move follows statements from both Quaker Oats and its owner, PepsiCo, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

More than a century after the well-known Aunt Jemima pancake mix debuted, its owners have acknowledged the racist stereotype behind the name and packaging. 

Introduced in 1889, “Aunt Jemima” was inspired by a minstrel character, a black woman with a kerchief over her hair and a wide smile, from a song, “Old Aunt Jemima” by Billy Kersand. Over the years, her image was updated, but the history remains. 

“We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” Kristin Kroepfl, vice president and chief marketing officer of Quaker Foods North America, said in a press release first reported by NBC News. “As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers’ expectations.”  


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While details about the updated name are yet to be announced, packaging is slated to appear on shelves this fall. Since 2001, Quaker Foods has been owned by PepsiCo, which has recently made public statements in support of racial equality and committing to action. 

In a 2015 New York Times op-ed calling for the name change, Reiche Richardson tracked the racist history of the name and logo. 

“This Aunt Jemima logo was an outgrowth of Old South plantation nostalgia and romance grounded in an idea about the ‘mammy,’ a devoted and submissive servant who eagerly nurtured the children of her white master and mistress while neglecting her own. Visually, the plantation myth portrayed her as an asexual, plump black woman wearing a headscarf,” said Richardson, an associate professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University and an artist. 


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The image itself was of Nancy Green, who is credited on Quaker Oats’ website as a storyteller, cook and missionary worker. Born into slavery, she was hired as the first model for the brand and worked for the company until her death at 1923. 

In 2015, two of her great-grandsons sued the company for $2 billion and a share of future revenue, but the case was dismissed. At the time, Quaker Oats said in a statement, “The image symbolizes a sense of caring, warmth, hospitality and comfort and is neither based on, nor meant to depict any one person.”

On social media, some approved the change, saying it was “about time.”

Others called for other companies to do the same, including Mars, Incorporated, which owns Uncle Ben’s, a popular line of rice products accompanied by the image of an elderly African-American man. The name and brand draw on the historical labor of black men as rice growers, both as slaves and later sharecroppers. 

 


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