With Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth’s and Uncle Ben’s set to disappear from American kitchens, a look back at their racist origins

With Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth’s and Uncle Ben’s set to disappear from American kitchens, a look back at their racist origins

For 131 years, Aunt Jemima syrup and pancake mix have been breakfast staples in Americans’ homes. But behind the smiling face featured prominently on these products is a history of slavery and African-American oppression.

In the wake of the international protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, PepsiCo PEP, +0.06% announced Wednesday that it will remove the image of Aunt Jemima from its packaging and change the name of the brand, acknowledging its racist origins.

‘Aunt Jemima, like other Mammy representations, portrays African-American women as one-dimensional servants. Despite this, many Americans nostalgically associate her with fond familial memories. For me, I see the vestiges of enslavement and segregation.’



— David Pilgrim, the director of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia

On Wednesday afternoon, Mrs. Butterworth’s CAG, +0.14% announced it has “begun a complete brand and packaging review on Mrs. Butterworth’s,” according to a statement made by its parent company, Conagra Brands. “The Mrs. Butterworth’s brand, including its syrup packaging, is intended to evoke the images of a loving grandmother,” it stated. “We stand in solidarity with our Black and Brown communities and we can see that our packaging may be interpreted in a way that is wholly inconsistent with our values.”

Also Wednesday, Cream of Wheat BGS, -0.08% announced “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,” it said in a statement. “B&G Foods unequivocally stands against prejudice and injustice of any kind.”

Quaker Foods North America stopped short of using the word racist in its official statement. “We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” said Kristin Kroepfl, vice president and chief marketing officer for the company. “While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough.”

Kroepfl added, “We acknowledge the brand has not progressed enough to appropriately reflect the confidence, warmth and dignity that we would like it to stand for today. We are starting by removing the image and changing the name. We will continue the conversation by gathering diverse perspectives from both our organization and the Black community to further evolve the brand and make it one everyone can be proud to have in their pantry.”

Hours later, Mars Inc., the parent company of Uncle Ben’s rice, said it will be “evolving the visual brand identity.”

“As we listen to the voices of consumers, especially in the Black community, and to the voices of our associates worldwide, we recognize that now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity, which we will do,” Caroline Sherman, a Mars spokeswoman said.

PepsiCo’s elimination of the Aunt Jemima character is long overdue, said David Pilgrim, the director of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. The museum features Pilgrim’s own collection of over 2,000 racist artifacts including white-only signs, commemorative postcards of lynchings and an entire section dedicated to Mammy caricatures.

Dating back to slavery through the Jim Crow era, white Southerners, in an effort to justify having slaves, designed propaganda which displayed black women in particular as happy and filled with laughter ‘as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery.’

Dating back to slavery through the Jim Crow era, white Southerners, in an effort to justify having slaves, designed propaganda which displayed black women in particular as happy and filled with laughter “as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery,” Pilgrim stated in an online blog post.

“The caricature portrayed an obese, coarse, maternal figure. She had great love for her white ‘family,’ but often treated her own family with disdain. Although she had children, sometimes many, she was completely desexualized. She ‘belonged’ to the white family, though it was rarely stated.”

One of the most well-known Mammy figures is Aunt Jemima, a fictional character that the brand is based on.

“The Aunt Jemima caricature was a product of the white imagination and the minstrel shows of 19th-Century America,” said Gregory Smithers, a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Aunt Jemima was also part of the ‘blackface’ tradition that, in the decades after the Civil War, harkened back to a simpler time of plantations and ‘happy slaves’.”

In the late 19th century, marketing agencies began to commodify racism and make it profitable, Smithers, who co-authored the book “Racism in American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito.” That dynamic “harkens back to the racial and economic order of the early 19th Century when slave markets were ubiquitous in the United States.”

The brand model featured on Aunt Jemima products was replaced two times. Once in 1933 with Anna Robinson, a heavier and darker in complexation model than Nancy Green, a slave from Kentucky who was the original Aunt Jemima brand figure. After Robinson came Edith Wilson in the 1960’s, who played Aunt Jemima on radio and TV shows. Wilson has remained on Aunt Jemima products to current day though in recent years “has been given a makeover: her skin is lighter and the handkerchief has been removed from her head. She now has the appearance of an attractive maid — not a Jim Crow era Mammy,” Pilgrim wrote.

In the late 19th Century, marketing agencies began to commodify racism and make it profitable. That dynamic ‘harkens back to the racial and economic order of the early 19th Century when slave markets were ubiquitous in the United States.’

— Gregory Smithers, a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University

“Aunt Jemima, like other Mammy representations, portrays African-American women as one-dimensional servants,” Pilgrim, a former sociology professor, told MarketWatch. “Despite this, many Americans nostalgically associate her with fond familial memories.”

“For me, I see the vestiges of enslavement and segregation,” said Pilgrim, who is black and grew up in Mobile, Ala., where he first began collecting racist artifacts at age 12.

“Any object that reduces African-Americans to a caricature, with accompanying stereotypes, is problematic,” he said. That applies to Uncle Ben’s Rice, Mrs. Butterworth’s and Cream of Wheat, which have similar racist connotations to Aunt Jemima.

The Black figures featured on these products “are carryovers from the ugly days when black people were relegated to servant roles,” Pilgrim said. “There is nothing inherently wrong with serving others, but when those were the dominant images of black people, it was easier to dismiss African Americans as real people.”


Originally published on MarketWatch

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