On my last trip to the supermarket, I saw a familiar sight: a red carton with an older Black man in a chef's hat and bowtie. He looked joyous, holding a steaming bowl of Cream of Wheat in his right hand, beckoning for me to try it. Behind Rastus's welcoming Black face (that's the name given to the caricature used as Cream of Wheat's mascot), though, is a longstanding stereotype, one that's far from comforting for many Black people. It's rooted in racism, serving as a constant reminder that America loves to portray Black lives as valuable only within the confines of servitude.
But the comeuppance the brands are experiencing is long overdue. The usage of Black caricatures like these represents a denial of Black humanity that's always existed. According to the Smithsonian, The Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that people of African descent were not humans, which "permitted the image of African Americans to be reduced to caricatures in popular culture." These stereotypes from slavery not only persisted, they gained new ground—especially the Mammy, a rotund, perpetually jovial caricature who "loved" the white family she served and attended to their every need, never complaining.
It's this stereotype that prompted Chris Rutt to name his new pancake flour after "Old Aunt Jemina," a minstrel song in 1889. But the real Mammies and Aunt Jemimas were a stark contrast from their cartoon-ish counterparts, explains Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson, Department Chair of American Studies at the University of Maryland College: "Nine times out of 10, the Aunt Jemimas were in the kitchen. She was worried about the children who were running around the kitchen while [she was] cooking. She was worried about whether [she would] have dinner on time, and if she had all the ingredients she needed. [She was] worried about getting maimed, hurt, raped, or killed. She wasn't smiling."
Uncle Ben's, Cream of Wheat, and other brands used these tropes, too, liberally exploiting Sambo and Uncle Tom caricatures to sell goods. Food was the place where eugenics, racism, and sexism fused—where stereotypes were used to pedal everything from coffee to cupcakes. The invention of these caricatures attempted to rework the narrative of slavery as something benign—even beneficial—to Black people. White comfort was paramount, and that meant hiding the very real evils of slavery, its visceral effects acutely felt in Black communities over a century later.
As America moved from slavery to its new form, Jim Crow, these caricatures came to represent the idea of comfort, servitude, and respectability. Through these items, Black people were allowed to occupy white homes and imaginations, but only as one-dimensional characters. "The image of the happy, smiling Black person helps people believe 'Oh, here's my friend. They're going to take care of me,'" Williams-Forson says. "The whole image of comfort given by the smiling Black face is because in American society and throughout the globe, we don't like an angry Black person. That's part of the narrative of the simple Black person. You don't have to deal with our complexity."
Lynn Pitts, a New York-based creative director, notes that these images of happy Black people were a strong factor in appealing to white households. Pitts recalls a piece she read that was particularly salient to her. "I can't remember where I read this, but there was a piece that talked about these brands [that] were designed to appeal to white people who had a really specific idea of what it meant to have a Black face or hands preparing the food, that these were 'trusted Black people,'" she says. "Marketers were trying to appeal to white housewives who wanted to feel confident about the food they were putting on their table. And in some cases, that meant a reminder of the Black people who had prepared food for them at some point in their lives."
While the idea of comfort remained, its iteration changed slightly: Real women like Nancy Green, who was used as the face of the first Aunt Jemima, received little compensation for their likeness. Nancy continued to work as a housekeeper until she was hit by a car and killed in 1923. Aunt Jemima continued to use real women until 1968, until they created a composite with a slimmer face and relaxed hair. The year 1989 saw another makeover: no headscarf, but a new little lace collar and pearl earrings for a "contemporary" look.
Uncle Ben's had to wait a few more decades for a different change: In 2007, he received an abrupt move from the kitchen to the boardroom on a redesigned site, though he kept his original maitre d' uniform. (The website no longer exists, and the Uncle Ben's caricature no longer has a bowtie or jacket.) However, brand names have not changed: While aunt and uncle seem to signal familiarity, they are vestiges of the Jim Crow era, where whites refused to address Black people as Mr. or Ms., even though racial etiquette rules called for Black people to use honorifics or risk putting their lives in danger.
But the changes didn't do much to rectify America's racist past. In response to previous and frequent outcries over racially charged mascots, brands have done little more than adding and taking away clothing. "Very longstanding brands like those can be suddenly reluctant to change aspects of what they consider 'hallmarks' of their brand," Pitts explains. "In Black communities, people have been talking about the problematic images that are in question right now...for a long time, but that talk didn't generate the kind of consequences that are being generated right now."
Brands, relying on warped notions of nostalgia with racism at the foundation, were willing to defend these caricatures for the sake of profit. "What capitalism has figured out is how to use a shorthand toward very complicated conversations because it's easier to rely upon these stereotypes to get across a very simple message, as their whole bottom line is to make money," Williams-Forson notes. And some consumers who don't know—or care—about the history of these stereotypes are excusing brands in defense of happy childhood memories.
From enslaved Africans who were brought into America for their labor to present-day food apartheid, food has always been mired in politics and the subjugation of Black communities.
So are brands truly changing now—doing more than just adding or subtracting accessories or moving a caricature to a different room? "As long as the Black Lives Matter movement is active and applying pressure, you'll continue to see changes or, at the very least, reactions," Pitts says. "Brands are reacting to what's happening in the marketplace, and there's pressure being applied to their bottom line because of the movement."
Williams-Forson echoes a similar sentiment: "The reason why this particular moment is happening is because of COVID. We're drawn to the media more than ever before, without work or the daily distractions of life. This has been going on for decades, centuries even, but we are literally and globally being forced to stop and watch injustice," she says. "You cannot unsee George Floyd. You're forced to make a decision: Am I going to act, or am I not going to act?"
The current act of choice? Removing mascots—but it's not a panacea. Quaker Oats (Aunt Jemima's parent company and a subsidiary of PepsiCo) declared they would be spending $400 million dollars over the next five years to "lift up Black communities and increase Black representation at PepsiCo." As plenty of brands clamor to perform solidarity in the wake of Black Lives Matter, the true impact is yet to be seen.
"I'm more interested in how quickly Quaker Oats changes their overall image as a corporation, and I'm not talking about hiring more people in their plants," Williams-Forson says. "I'm talking about a systemic, actual change in the way they do business, from hiring practices to paying people a living wage and providing health insurance, maternity leave, and paternity leave. How are you really going to make those changes across the board?"
Removing these mascots isn't going to magically solve racism; it's a small, reactionary fix to a system ossified centuries ago. And as Dr. Williams-Forson notes, change boils down to the way businesses create long-lasting, equitable policies across entire organizations. The real work that goes beyond reactionary measures like removing mascots, attending protests, or posting black squares to social media is the most uncomfortable. It's in the quiet, ongoing, rigorous, and necessary self-examination and accountability-taking—followed by action—for being complicit in the racism that pollutes America.
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