Uncle Ben's is also reckoning with its history of racially-insensitive branding.

By Jelisa Castrodale
June 17, 2020
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KKStock / Alamy Stock Photo

On Wednesday, Quaker Oats announced that it would be changing the name and logo of its Aunt Jemima brand of pancake mixes and syrups, after acknowledging that those familiar marks continued to perpetuate an unwelcome stereotype.

"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 statement. “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."

The Wall Street Journal reports that Quaker has also pledged to donate at least $5 million "to support and engage with black communities" within the next five years. Although Quaker has not yet revealed any additional details about the new name or appearance, Kroepfl said that its goal was to "further evolve the brand and make it one everyone can be proud to have in their pantry."

According to the Aunt Jemima website (which, as of this writing, is still active) the character of Aunt Jemima was "brought to life by Nancy Green, a storyteller, cook, and missionary worker" in 1890. Her portrayal was followed by that of Anna Robinson, who took over in 1933. Robinson, the brand gushes, "is able to make enough money to [...] buy a 22-room house." (It's worth noting that Harrington's great-grandsons sued Quaker in 2014 for failing to properly compensate Green and Harrington for the use of their images.)

In 1989, Quaker changed the appearance of the Aunt Jemima character, trading her headscarf for "soft, curly, gray-streaked hair" and a pair of pearl earrings. "We wanted a more modern-looking woman, but one who still has traditional values," a company spokesperson said at the time, adding that the changes "[give] our Aunt Jemima line a more contemporary look as we move into the 1990s."

Despite the late eighties makeover and the ongoing brand recognition, is there any reason why the Aunt Jemima character should've lasted this long? As author and Cornell University professor Riché Richardson said in 2015, the imagery has always been "linked to Southern racism," and the name was pulled from "Old Aunt Jemima," a 19th-century minstrel song.

"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," she wrote for the New York Times. "Visually, the plantation myth portrayed her as an asexual, plump black woman wearing a headscarf."

Shortly after Quaker's announcement, Mars Inc said that it was "evaluating all possibilities" regarding the name and longtime logo of its own Uncle Ben's brand, which has used the image of an older Black man on its products since 1946. "As a global brand, we know we have a responsibility to take a stand in helping to put an end to racial bias and injustices,” a spokesperson told Reuters. “We recognize that one way we can do this is by evolving the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity."

Later on Wednesday, B&G Foods announced that it would be "launching an immediate review" of the branding and packaging of its Cream of Wheat-brand hot cereal. The brand has used the image of a Black chef referred to as "Rastus" for more than a century; the inspiration for that fictional chef is believed to be Frank L. White, a Barbadian immigrant who did, in fact, work as a chef in Illinois and Michigan.

"B&G Foods, Inc. today announced that we are initiating an immediate review of the Cream of Wheat brand packaging. We understand there are concerns regarding the chef image, and we are committed to evaluating our packaging and will proactively take steps to ensure that we and our brands do not inadvertently contribute to systemic racism,” a B&G spokesperson told Rolling Stone. “B&G Foods unequivocally stands against prejudice and injustice of any kind.”

According to USA Today, Quaker's renamed and rebranded line of pancake mixes and syrups will be available by the fourth quarter of this year.

Update June 18, 2020: This article has been updated to include a mention of B&G Foods, Inc.'s effort to review its Cream of Wheat branding.