Aunt Jemima is out, and Uncle Ben is rebranding

It is no secret that these corporate logos were steeped in decades-old racist history, so why did change take so long?

This week, after decades of pressure to ditch its racist Aunt Jemima branding, the Quaker company (owned by Pepsico) announced it would eliminate the line of pancake mixes and syrups. Soon after, the Mars corporation told Adweek it would be making a “substantial visual change” to its Uncle Ben’s rice logo, and that they actually thought of it first: “We … have begun that work even before news of Aunt Jemima.” (As recently as April 21, Uncle Ben’s owners stood by their branding.)

All this, on the heels of the announcement this spring that the Native American woman on boxes of Land o’ Lakes butter was no more, and the Chiquita corporation quietly removing the controversial “Miss Chiquita” logo from their banana stickers.

It was no secret that these corporate logos were steeped in decades-old racist history, so why did change take so long?

The logo’s original inspiration was a minstrel show around the turn of the 19th century, with a popular song called “Old Aunt Jemima” being sung by a white man dressed as a black woman.

Do you remember the Frito Bandito? Perhaps not. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he was the mascot for Fritos brand corn chips. Watch this old commercial to figure out the schtick, quick: Speaking in broken English, this Mexican thief may show up at your house to shoot you for your precious snack. Always be ready to appease the bandito by keeping extra bags on hand.

After outrage and public pressure from civil rights organizations, the Frito corporation made small concessions, removing his beard and gold tooth. After Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, the bandito no longer brandished pistols. And finally, after some T.V. stations refused to air the ads in 1969, the company eventually phased out the bandito altogether.

In her most recent iteration, Aunt Jemima, a smiling caricature of a Black woman, has been around since 1989. Much like the Bandito losing his gold tooth, the late-’80s rebranding was a slow evolution from Jemima’s original form, a crude depiction of the “Mammy” stereotype. The logo’s original inspiration was a minstrel show around the turn of the 19th century, with a popular song called “Old Aunt Jemima” being sung by a white man dressed as a black woman. After attending the show, two grain-company magnates decided Aunt Jemima would make an ideal brand ambassador.

“When you go back to the very beginning, it’s so clear that she was a product of white supremacy. Even her honorific ‘Aunt’ came from the tradition of not calling Black people ‘Mrs’ or ‘Mister’.”

“I was looking at Twitter yesterday, and it was interesting to see people sincerely asking, ‘What’s wrong with Aunt Jemima, she just looks like some Black lady from the ‘80s!’” says Brian Behnken, a historian at Iowa State University who focuses on race and civil rights. “When you go back to the very beginning, it’s so clear that she was a product of white supremacy. Even her honorific ‘Aunt’ came from the tradition of not calling Black people ‘Mrs’ or ‘Mister’.” (Also see: Uncle Ben.)

Aunt Jemima’s old ads often included slogans in broken English. Her product was a sponsor for mid-century variety shows on radio and television; for awhile there was a Disneyland restaurant called Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House, replete with a costumed hostess. Behnken says her products were depicted being used by white families to give the sense that convenient kitchen items were a replacement for having Black help—essentially “a nanny in a box.”

The removal of a couple of iffy, outdated logos might seem like a long-overdue response at worst and at best, well, small pancakes. But Behnken, who co-authored the book “Racism in American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandit”, says it reflects a fairly profound culture shift.

“The calls for change are so broad-based that corporate executives can see significant losses in profits if they don’t respond.”

“I don’t like to say ‘History repeats itself’ but I do think history rhymes,” he says. “It’s not difficult to see parallels between this moment and the civil rights movement—multiple civil rights movements, really—of the late ‘60s and ‘70s.” The Frito Bandito’s disappearance, for example, came after significant pressure from Mexican-American activists. Behnken says that corporations which have long been resistant to change are finally making concessions, in the wake of weeks of protests and upheaval surrounding police brutality and racial inequality in the United States.

Gregory Smithers, history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-author of “Racism in American Popular Media”, thinks these decisions are driven by profit. Essentially, these companies have made a calculated decision that their bottom line will suffer unless they step forward and do something. “The calls for change are so broad-based that corporate executives can see significant losses in profits if they don’t respond,” Smithers wrote in an e-mail. He notes that corporate reform in the 1960s were often the result of effective boycotts.

It’s one thing to change a logo, though, and another to tackle entrenched racism. Behnken notes that Quaker Oats’ senior management and board of directors is still predominantly white—” It’s odd for a white-owned company to use a black person as a mascot, no?”—and that it’s difficult to predict whether Quaker or Mars will embrace meaningful, long-term reform.

“This is one of those moments in American history when broad based coalitions are formed and the cross-section of issues—wealth inequality, institutional racism, gender discrimination—become so great that if they’re not effectively addressed the republic is imperiled.”

“This is the advertising version of statues tumbling down,” says Behnken.

Smithers believes that these corporate decisions auger more change to come: “This is one of those moments in American history when broad based coalitions are formed and the cross-section of issues—wealth inequality, institutional racism, gender discrimination—become so great that if they’re not effectively addressed the republic is imperiled.”

Pepsico has not indicated what new branded products, if any, will replace Aunt Jemima on supermarket shelves. Representatives from Pepsico and Mars did not respond to a request for comment.

Jesse Hirsch is The Counter's managing editor. Before he joined the team, he was an investigative food editor at Consumer Reports. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, VICE, Eater, and The Guardian.