A Name Change Can't Save Aunt Jemima

Op-ed

On Wednesday June 17th, parent company PepsiCo announced that they are rebranding the famous Aunt Jemima pancake brand by changing their current name and logo. This announcement was included in PepsiCo’s public statement following the recent deaths of innocent black people at the hands of white police officers. Their website promises investing $400 million in the next five years towards Black-owned suppliers and businesses and other efforts to promote diversity within their company.

PepsiCo’s elaborate promises present them as effective allies to the Black community. Kristin Kroepfl, vice president and chief marketing officer of Quaker Foods North America (owned by PepsiCo) simply stated "We recognize Aunt Jemima's origins are based on a racial stereotype,” and assumed consumers would be wooed by their surmountable donations and apology rather than critically question the brand’s history. Despite the incoming changes, Aunt Jemima products should not be forgiven for normalizing racial stereotypes for 130 years and should be boycotted in the future.

Aunt Jemima's History:

Branded in 1889 as the first just-add water pancake mix, Aunt Jemima became incredibly successful and a staple in American households. Aunt Jemima’s appearance is based on Nancy Green, a South Carolina woman born into slavery. The prefix “Aunt” references that Black people living in the antebellum South were considered too inferior to be described as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” Her distinct character was developed from a black-face performance that featured the minstrel song, “Old Aunt Jemima.” Black-face performances popularized the “mammy” archetype Aunt Jemima embodies: a woman who is the subordinate caretaker and cook for a white family’s household. “Mammy” women are characterized as being obedient and genial to their white employers and prioritizing care-taking above any personal endeavours. The creators wanted 19th and 20 century consumers to feel like they were being fed by the Black cook they may have grown up with.

To further reinforce this archetype, the company put a paper doll family- Aunt Jemima, her husband, and five children (two of which were named Abraham and Lincoln) with ragged clothing and toothless mouths on their box mix. Purchasing a second box labeled, “After the recipe was sold” featured nicer clothing that consumers could cut and paste over the “poor” family on the first box. White consumers were mounted to saviors of this helpless Black family through the form of politically incorrect paper-doll clothing.

New changes and the Kendall Jenner scandal:

No revisions have been made following Quaker Oats’ purchase of the brand in 1926 except for merely replacing her headscarf and lace collar with a headband and pearls. According to a New York Times article, PepsiCo led a task force in 2016 to rethink Aunt Jemima’s image. Suggestions included appointing their chief executive, a woman of color, to release an apologetic statement about the brand’s past- a past she had nothing to do with.

Regardless, no change occurred as PepsiCo became invested in a scandal due to the infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi advertisement, released in spring of 2017. Coincidentally, the advertisement is set at a Black Lives Matter protest filled with crowds of cheerful, young protestors holding positive signs. Jenner, who is having a nearby photoshoot, arrives at the protest and brings a police officer a can of Pepsi. The crowd goes wild and applauds Jenner with smiling faces. The advertisement has faced controversy because it inaccurately depicted the often dangerous and life-endangering encounters between protestors and police officers. The ad pictured the protest as a fun street party rather than people frustrated with longstanding racism. Additionally, the video makes Jenner’s Pepsi gesture seem equivalent to accomplishing the protestors’ goal of eliminating racism.

Combining serious issues related to race and product promotion was an ignorant decision. PepsiCo and Kendall Jenner experienced countless attacks for this ad, which eventually got removed from broadcasting and provoked an apology from both parties. It’s evident PepsiCo was too busy defending hot shot celebrities to remove the negative stereotypes Aunt Jemima promotes, as talk of rebranding was only reintroduced after George Floyd’s murder. They believed the legal and monetary risks presented by Jenner’s team were far more important than furthering the task force.

Due to the increasingly progressive nature of the nation, PepsiCo was aware of the harmful business effects maintaining Aunt Jemima’s racist image. They avoided heavy promotions and advertisements so consumers did not become aware of its problematic image. Dominique Wilburn, a former executive assistant at PepsiCo, told The New York Times that “Aunt Jemima was a category leader, and no one wanted to mess with that stream of revenue.” Profits were prioritized at the expense of racism. By delaying this change by four years (2016-2020), PepsiCo was less concerned with losing any Anti-racist consumers, especially the Black community, than its target audience of whites: the audience it has appealed to since 1889.

Uncle Ben's:

Aunt Jemima is not the only brand under fire. Parent company Mars Co. announced Uncle’s Ben will be undergoing similar changes as “Racism has no place in society. We (Mars Co.) stand in solidarity with the Black community, our Associates and our partners in the fight for social justice.” The co-founders, who are both white, named the company after a black farmer named Uncle Ben, who was famously known for his rice recipe. Controversy is rooted in using a black man’s face on the box of a white owned company. Similarly to Aunt Jemima, the term “Uncle” references when Black Americans were not given titles like “Mr.” and “Mrs.” like their white counterparts.

Should we accept their apology?:

One could argue that while Aunt Jemima’s history is troublesome, their lengthy apology and generous donation towards Black organizations and equity training should be accepted. I was pleased to see the proactive measures they’re promising and that they are showing support to the Black community. However, I do not agree that this donation and apology forgive their past, and I won’t be purchasing Aunt Jemima products in the future, regardless of rebranding.

The apology was only provoked by recent deaths despite years of obvious inequities within their own brand’s policies. In my opinion, no amount of money is equal to the impact of the negative images they promoted. While a donation of that size is appreciated, it is insincere and fueled by public approval and fear of cancel culture. The brand’s disregard of this community in the past has revealed they care more about profits than morals, a message that will continue despite changing Aunt Jemima. They have provided no specifics as to what changes will be made either. Perhaps Aunt Jemima will simply be replaced with another logo and name equally as insensitive. Since the 2016 task force almost resorted to having a staff member of color apologize on behalf of the entire organization, genuine change seems unlikely.

By continuing to purchase Aunt Jemima products, even with rebranding, accepts their weak apology and forgives them for years of racist ideologies. It fosters racial inequalities and does not hold these powerful and impactful brands accountable. Therefore, I will not purchase the new and supposedly improved pancake mix they are coming out with. A new name does not mask a brand’s true identity. I’ll spare myself some calories and stand in support of the Black community. The same goes for Uncle Ben's and other companies deciding to rebrand. I hope readers do the same.

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Lucy Jaffee

Editor · 7 edited articles · 5 pitched topics · 6 writers helped

Lucy is a current high school sophomore from Southern California who is a journalism fanatic and blogger. When she is not writing, she can be found running, acting, listening to Spotify, or strategically planning out her outfits for the week. Some miscellaneous things she likes include New York City, the TV show Love Island, baking, eating the items she bakes, and above all: reporting and writing articles. She hopes you enjoy and become inspired to write yourselves!


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