Companies are less concerned with being on the wrong side of history than hurting their bottom line.

Quaker Oats, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, announced Wednesday that it will retire its Aunt Jemima brand of syrup and pancake mix, acknowledging the brand was based on a racial stereotype.

For over 130 years, the brand’s logo has featured a black woman named after a character from minstrel shows that mocked African-Americans.

A 1940s print ad for Aunt Jemima branded products.
A 1940s print ad for Aunt Jemima branded products. (Reuters)

“We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” said Kristin Kroepfl, chief marketing officer of Quaker Foods North America. “As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers’ expectations.”

“We are starting by removing the image and changing the name.”

The logo’s origin dates back to 1889, when the Missouri newspaper editor Chris L Rutt decided to name his brand of self-raising flour after “Aunt Jemima,” a song performed by minstrel actors. A former slave named Nancy Green was later hired to portray Aunt Jemima as a “mammy,” a racist caricature that depicts female slaves as smiling and happy homemakers for white families.

According to PepsiCo, the Aunt Jemima brand will donate at least $5 million over the next five years to support the African American community.

There have been repeated calls over the years for Aunt Jemima to change its logo. In a 2015 op-ed for the New York Times, Cornell University Professor Riche Richardson said the logo is “very much linked to Southern racism.”

Shortly after Quaker’s announcement, others followed.

Mars Inc, which owns Uncle Ben’s, said that “now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity, which we will do,” adding that “we don’t yet know what the exact changes and timing will be, but we are evaluating the possibilities.”

Conagra, which makes Mrs. Butterworth’s, said it will conduct a complete brand and packaging review on the syrup brand. Conagra noted it “can see that our packaging may be interpreted in a way that is wholly inconsistent with our values.”

Pearl clutching in some quarters, however, was inevitable.

Performative activism

Following the murder of George Floyd in police custody and the subsequent protests that have reverberated across the country and the globe, a number of companies have been forced to reckon with a rapidly changing social landscape.

If, as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors proclaim that “white silence equals violence,” then corporate officials understand that ignoring this movement is not an option.

Businesses have started embracing what is called “brand activism” by taking a stand on social, political or environmental issues. It’s a trend driven by consumer behaviour, as more people expect companies to make positive social contributions – and will reward them in return.

Ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s has a long history of brand activism but have been criticised recently for being progressive on Black Lives Matter but not extending the same values to the plight of the Palestinians.
Ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s has a long history of brand activism but have been criticised recently for being progressive on Black Lives Matter but not extending the same values to the plight of the Palestinians. (Getty Images)

Many of the nation’s top consumer-facing firms have been “woke” for a while now, but over the past month of anti-racist protests, they’ve taken it up a notch.

There have been statements of support and pledges of donations to the BLM movement and civil rights groups from a wide range of industries. McDonald’s is cutting checks to the Urban League; Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is castigating white-supremacist customers on Instagram; and Walmart CEO Doug McMillon sent a company memo condemning racial violence and pledged $100 million to address it.

While many these decisions might be interpreted as symbolically significant, many have called out their hypocrisy; seeing it more as a public relations stunt that ultimately falls short of the structural changes necessary to truly tackle social and economic discrimination.

For Corporate America, donations are a convenient way to use green to conceal the whiteness of its boardrooms.

Amongst many of the country’s major employers, black men and women are absent from meaningful leadership roles.

In finance, there are no black people in senior leadership roles at Bank of America, JP Morgan or Wells Fargo. In technology, there are none on senior leadership teams at Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft.

There are just four black CEOs in America’s fortune 500 companies.

Many of those few black executives – former and current – are speaking out. Ford Foundation President Darren Walker has said that “Corporate America has failed black America,” and former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns has called out its failure of moral leadership.

The bottom line

Sportswear giant Nike took on the issue of social inclusion most famously in 2018, when it launched a bold advertising campaign with American football star Colin Kaepernick, who had been dropped by the National Football League after taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

The gesture paid off handsomely: Nike won many plaudits for its stance and saw a jump in sales, as its solidarity was repaid by the consumer. Never mind that less than 10 percent of its 300-plus vice-presidents worldwide were black.

The fundamental motivator for Corporate America, after all, is profit. 

The same year that Nike made American football star Colin Kaepernick its spokesman, it gave the bulk of its campaign contributions to Republican candidates. In 2017, Corporate America sent thousands of lobbyists to Washington DC to help tailor and facilitate Donald Trump’s tax cuts. Years before that legislation was passed, Walmart and Nike helped fund an advocacy organisation dedicated to slashing the corporate tax rate.

As the New York Times illustrated, the 2018 Trump tax cuts disproportionately widened Black-White economic disparity.

What matters more: Black lives or tax cuts?

For corporations, partaking tokenistic gestures of solidarity and adopting diversity initiatives sit comfortably alongside a commitment to public policies that perpetuate wealth inequality and deepen racial inequality.

“We are committed to taking actions to create tangible change for the Black community,” Band-Aid posted last week on Instagram. “We are committed to launching a range of bandages in light, medium, and deep shades of Brown and Black skin tones that embrace the beauty of diverse skin.”

Nothing say fighting systemic racism quite like offering a band-aid.