Know Better, Do Better

Blog by Associate Michelle Gray

Last week, in a long overdue move, Quaker Oats announced it is doing away with its Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup brand, saying that “Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype.”

A new name and packaging will debut later this year.

You are familiar with Aunt Jemima, of course: a Black woman, who originally was dressed as a minstrel character. She then appeared with a “mammy” kerchief, which had been removed in recent years because of racial stereotyping that dated to the days of slavery.

The current logo features a smiling black woman. Nevertheless, the racist origin remains.

Of course, it didn’t take long for the internet to react to Quaker’s news. And it was what I’d come to expect with anything involving race: those who applauded the move and those who thought their world was ending.

One gentleman (a white man) claimed the change ruined childhood memories of pancakes in his grandma’s kitchen. Ah, memories, like the heritage of the South we “erase” by removing Confederate statues; a separate but similar issue.

His comment brought to mind the time when I was a reporter and Warren City Schools (Ohio) had to merge its two high schools. Committees made up of administrators, students and citizens were formed. A building was chosen and its name retained, but the mascot and colors of the other school remained. The students took the change in stride, but the adults!

I took a phone call from a woman who was in tears, saying her memories were ruined. Yeesh!  She wasn’t the first to call and I finally decided to speak up: “Memories are kept in our hearts and minds, not in bricks and mortar. Your memories are yours to keep, regardless of what happens now.” She hung up on me, but I wasn’t sorry for what I had said.

This remains true for pancakes and syrup. You can keep your fond memories of grandma’s kitchen while recognizing the racist origins of a logo on a package.

Another (white) woman lamented: “This is ridiculous. Who’s next? Charlie Tuna?” As if anthropomorphizing a fish somehow equates to enslaving humans. But the answer to her question is Mars, Inc., which owns Uncle Ben’s. Just hours after the Quaker announcement, Mars said it would rethink the logo of its rice products.

My own reaction was “about time. I can’t imagine why it took them so long.” But I don’t want to commend myself, as I have moved through this world with relative ease as a white woman and I am embarrassed at how long it has taken me to be “woke.” And sometimes I wonder if I am at that.

I remember in 2013 watching “Fruitvale Station” and really realizing, for the first time, that I have never, ever had to fear for my life at the hands of a police officer. And sadly, that is something my black brothers and sisters deal with daily. It was a sad and sobering realization.

I came across this on the internet by Instagram user @shes_mightymighty: “No matter how open-minded, socially conscious, anti-racist I think I am, I still have old, learned hidden biases that I need to examine. It is my responsibility to check myself daily for my stereotypes, prejudice, and ultimately, discrimination.”

I posted it to my page as a reminder. And I tell myself to remember, and follow, what my hero Maya Angelou said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”

Posted in Associate Blog, News

13 responses to “Know Better, Do Better

  1. Thank so much Michelle for this wonderful insights on this issue. In a way I am happy that Quaker Oats is making the necessary changes but we have so far to go. It is becoming more and more evident today with Black Lives Matter. I pray that there be more changes as the years pass us by. Sooner than later.

  2. Thanks, Michelle! Your reflection was so on target for me.
    I have much “to know better”. God bless.

  3. You name my steps in the struggle to take off each new layer as I become aware of it. Like the memories that are beyond brick and mortar, our memories are out of touch with the real world of so many other persons.

  4. Michelle, this is exactly what is meant by “doing your own homework”. After two years of studying racism, I am finding I am only scratching the surface of what it means to be black in the US. Your piece was excellent and a good bit of homework for all of us.

  5. Thank you, Michelle, for your insightful reflection. Hope all of us are on the way to being woke.

  6. Great job Michelle. Luckily for me I’m perfect and so do not have any of the inherent biases of which you speak.(cough cough cough Yeah sure.)

  7. Michelle, I appreciate your insights. Structural racism is so deeply entrenched in our society that those of us who are white don’t even notice it. We need to listen to our African-American and indigenous sisters and brothers to understand its impact. Shalom, Ron

  8. Thank you, Michelle! Powerful reminders not only of things I agree with, but also of things I still need to attend to!

  9. Enjoyed your article. Now I think more, but not all, are aware of long standing racism and willing to change their thoughts and actions. Loved your quote by Maya Angelou
    “When you know better, do better. It couldn’t be more appropriate now.

  10. Thanks so much, Michelle. I too am trying to check myself, especially since I grew up in Memphis as a sheltered little white girl with protective older parents. There was a lot I was shielded from, especially the civil rights demonstrations and assassination of Dr. King right in my city. Fortunately my parents brought me up to judge people not “by the color of their skin but the content of their character”, but I was definitely effected by the racism around me.

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