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.”