On Aunt Jemima

My home town paper from Casper, Wyoming came out, yesterday, with an article on the Aunt Jemima brand change. The post was followed by a spate of disgusted or enraged comments ranging from “Unbelievable!’ to “THIS IS SO IGNORANT ITS (sic) BEYOND BELIEF” to “I hope their sales plummet” to “What is becoming of the greatest country ever the political left and snow flakes (sic) will be its undoing.” Here are more:

“Silly people. No problem with Uncle Ben’s.”

“Sad. People should stop being so peddy (sic).”

“As an old, fat woman I am offended by Mrs. Butterworth products.”

“More knee-jerk stupidity.”

Interested in these responses, which number over 200 and counting as of this writing, I made a reply. What I did not address in my comments (that’s for a longer essay) is what I find most compelling, which is how, through a process Ernest Bormann called symbolic convergence, people respond to threats to values–to what must feel like threats to their very existence–by quickly dismissing and ridiculing an idea and then piling on, reaffirming belonging to one group by disaffirming belonging to a different group.

Anyway, what I focused on instead was this:

“I trust,” I wrote, “that most commenters here are intelligent, curious people– some, Christians, perhaps?– who are not interested in just blowing off steam, dismissing an Oil City headline with a contemptuous snort of self-righteousness. Thus, I’ve found and shared some interesting history of the AJ brand below. To that, I add a few thoughts. If one is a black American who has grown up in a white-dominated culture –with our nation’s history of enslavement of and violence against human beings with brown and black skin (and the legacy: generations-long, terrible familial, social and economic effects and ongoing repression, by force, of entire communities) then icons like Aunt Jemima (see the history of the brand below) are insulting and demeaning. They perpetuate the myth that America has been equally good to everybody, which may feel true to some of us but certainly is demonstrably untrue for many.

Yet, do not all citizens deserve the dignifying respect of an American company’s public recognition that its icon has a racist history? Aren’t we all better off acknowledging Jemima’s meanings? What exactly is lost, to any of us, in the Pepsi corporation’s move to update a line of pancake and syrup product with a new name, one that does not remind black Americans, among other things, that black people were once routinely depicted as being jolly in spite of their enslavement?

Point taken that significant change threatens the status quo and challenges our comforting sense of what we claim as our own history and identity. But, our collective history/histories (no matter how familiar and comforting to those who were not excluded from comfort) also hide sins (or wrongdoings, if you prefer) that are possible to redress with simple acknowledgments and responsiveness. Culture, by its nature, learns and evolves. That’s good, because cultural symbols can be toxic to entire groups of people. The time came, in the male-dominated marketing, advertising and entertainment industries, to stop representing women as only capable of being housewives, manipulative shrews or brainless bimbos. The time came to stop representing all men as handsome, hard-muscled heroes, good only for fighting, killing and seduction, or as fat slobs. The time came to stop representing all Native Americans as bad guys or loyal sidekicks; all Jews as greedy and all people of color as lazy. We live among others not exactly like ourselves; we have different stories, but we share empathy. If you cannot empathize, think of it this way. If I use an image of you, laughing and dancing while I call the tune, to sell my product, you’d be right to expect me to stop when I finally understand that it’s humiliating, not harmless. https://www.businessinsider.com/aunt-jemima-history-logo…

I am pretty sure that this will be unread by most people, will receive an angry face or two in response, perhaps a couple of thumbs-up and conceivably a death threat.