Uncle Ben is on his way out. The “perfect every time” instant rice made by Mars, better know for their candy bars, is losing its longtime brand mascot.
Mars stated that it’s time for Uncle Ben to go:
“Uncle Ben’s Brand Evolution – As a global brand, we know we have a responsibility to take a stand in helping to put an end to racial bias and injustices. 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.
We don’t yet know what the exact changes or timing will be, but we are evaluating all possibilities.
Racism has no place in society. We stand in solidarity with the Black community, our Associates and our partners in the fight for social justice. We know to make the systemic change needed, it’s going to take a collective effort from all of us – individuals, communities and organizations of all sizes around the world.”
This is keeping with the widespread changes sweeping our society regarding racism after the George Floyd murder has sparked greater focus on institutional and cultural racism.
Uncle Ben, while not overtly racist, evokes racist imagery. Uncle Ben cooks food. He wears a tie. He delivers service with a smile. He’s not my uncle or yours, but we call him uncle.
That was a Southern convention, calling older Black servants “uncle.” The vestiges of a past American culture endure in branding. Or, they did. All that is about to change.
Then there’s the Cream of Wheat brand packaging. B&G Foods, based in local town Parsippany, new jersey, is dumping the Chef. B&G acquired the brand from Kraft Foods earlier this year. The company made this statement yesterday:
“B&G Foods, Inc. (NYSE:BGS) today announced that we are initiating 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. B&G Foods unequivocally stands against prejudice and injustice of any kind. ”
Like Aunt Jemima, the original Chef was also modeled after an archetypal minstrel character, Rastus. This original product mascot was created around 1890 by Emery Mapes of the Diamond Milling Company. if the name seems familiar, this was the same outfit the devised the Aunt Jemima branding, another borrowed meme from minstrelsy!
Rastus is actually a pejorative racial stereotype, referring to a former slave or servant who is positively ecstatic to serve White people, speaks English with both a Southern drawl and with poor grammar, just as the Aunt Jemima character did.
Actually, that’s not the entire story. Rastus, the blackface minstrel character, was replaced a long time ago, way back in the 1920s.
The obviously Black Chef replacing the Rastus image is actually based on a real-life Chicago-based cook, Frank L. White. Even though his image graced the box of Cream of Wheat for decades and decades, until this week, his headstone bore no name on his generic grave marker at Woodlawn Cemetery.
Finally, he’s getting the granite tombstone he deserves. Obviously, he did not receive fair compensation for use of his likeness.
Naa Oyo A. Kwate, associate professor of Africana studies at Rutgers University, explained that although the Chef is not quite so racist as Rastus, it’s still historically based on the idea of Blacks as servants, hearkening back to slavery and segregation. “”You still are referencing the place of black people as servants, as your chefs…You can still draw on that legacy of what slavery meant and what black people’s natural position is supposed to be — your own personal slave in a box.”
Of course, it’s also true that manufacturers want to retain brand continuity over time for their bestsellers, even as they chose to nix the overt racism, in keeping with cultural changes in America.
It’s doubtful that many people, even subconsciously, thought about a “Black slave in a box,” any more than they would think of Cap’n Crunch as being a drunken sailor in a box. Or, that Rice Krispies has a trio of diminutive elves in every box. The connection to the past culture of slavery and racism is lost on most Americans; the connection is just not there.
Many White Americans have not even been in this country long enough, generationally, to even have had any exposure to slavery, and segregation only existed in the South.
Finally, ConAgra Foods’ brand mascot Mrs. Butterworth is also leaving us:
“The Mrs. Butterworth’s brand, including its syrup packaging, is intended to evoke the images of a loving grandmother. 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.
While voiced by Jewish-American woman Mary Kay Bergman, and earlier by Edie McClurg, another White woman best remembered as the school secretary sniffing Wite Out in the 80s cult classic film, Ferris Buelller’s Day Off, the model for the bottle’s distinctive shape was alleged to have been an African American woman named Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen, the actress playing Scarlet O’Hara’s maid in Gone with the Wind.
As Prissy, the maid, Butterfly delivered this famous line, “Lawdy, Miss Scarlett, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!” She actually lived in Long Island at one point in her life. She appeared in many films and was a character in various TV shows.
Is it going too far removing a bottle shaped like a Black model? Are we practicing Black erasure? Is this like the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China that took place in the late ’60s and early ’70s? Are we going too far?
It’s also questionable as to whether there’s any truth to this rumor; there doesn’t seem to be any proof. The bottle doesn’t actually look like Butterfly. Perhaps it’s just the similarity in names: Butterfly, Butterworth?
Either way, some feel that Mrs. Butterworth evokes the “mammy” stereotype, just as Aunt Jemima did. To be fair, it’s not quite clear. To most, she seems like a syrupy sweet White grandma trapped in the form of a bottle. If she had been voiced by a Black voice actor, that would be different.
In any event, our culture is changing, and fast. We may be left with far fewer references to Black culture before the mid-1960s, as segregation and slavery were intertwined with Black life, historically.
Will it seem like Black folks arrived at our shores in 1965, as we strip our popular culture of all pre ’60s references? Is there a way to respectfully retain this imagery at all, or is this the only way to move forward?
These are all important questions. Perhaps racist brand mascots will be a thing of the past. But will this spread to other media, like movies and film? Already, Amos ‘n’ Andy has gone down the memory hole. Will the same one day be the case for Gone with the Wind?