Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, R.I.P.

June 17, 2020

They should have been shown the door long ago.

So Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are on their way out.

Good.

It has been, frankly, an embarrassment and a borderline disgrace to the food industry that those two managed to hang around so long. Let’s not forget why elderly black people were addressed (by whites) as “aunt” and “uncle” in the first place: It was because most Southern white people, from before the Civil War through the Jim Crow era, refused to call black people “Miss,” “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Adults of all ages got called by their first names; when they got old enough, “aunt” or “uncle” were tacked on as a sort of twisted parody of an honorific.

The history of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben is firmly rooted in this kind of racist condescension. Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix was created in 1889, and its creators hired a former enslaved woman to be its living face, starting with an exhibit at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. There’s more, but you get the idea. Uncle Ben’s started similarly, with the face modeled after a Chicago maitre d’s.

There have been some token, pathetic attempts to brush off the racist cobwebs along the years. Aunt Jemima switched her headband for pearl earrings in 1989; Mars Inc. launched an online ad campaign in 2007 that depicted Uncle Ben as the CEO of an imaginary rice company. But there are some you-know-whats you just can’t polish.

PepsiCo says Aunt Jemima is definitely going, name and all, by the fourth quarter of this year. Mars would only say to the Wall Street Journal that “it is considering how to change the Uncle Ben’s brand and its imagery” but doesn’t have a timeframe. Let’s hope they follow through.

Using black people as advertising icons, in a way that identifies them as subservient if not actual servants, is as offensive as using Native Americans as sports mascots. It’s a rotten shame that it took something like the killing of George Floyd to push aunt and uncle out the door.