In the ethnic food aisles at Trader Joe’s last week, the cancel culture hit a speed bump.
The popular grocery chain, famous for its organic, gourmet, and imported foods, came in for some unwelcome notice recently when The New York Times, followed by other news outlets, focused attention on a petition condemning Trader Joe’s for its “racist branding and packaging.” The petition, launched on Change.org by a California high school student, declared that the company “perpetuates harmful stereotypes” by labeling some of its international foods with international names, such as Trader José‘s for its Mexican beer, Trader Jacques’ for its ham-and-cheese croissants, Arabian Joe’s for its Middle Eastern flatbread, and Trader Ming’s for its Kung Pao chicken. The use of these familiar ethnic names amounts to racism, scolded 17-year-old Briones Bedell, “because they exoticize other cultures.”
In reality, they do just the opposite: They familiarize other cultures. They present international foods as accessible and appealing. Far from portraying foreign peoples and their foods as weirdly exotic, the lighthearted branding helps make them as welcome and appetizing as traditional “American” foods. Trader Joe’s ethnic packaging exemplifies the melting pot at its most engaging, lowering the barriers between consumers of different backgrounds and encouraging Americans to explore the variety and joys of other cuisines.
On social media, where Bedell tried to promote her petition (she tweeted that Trader Joe’s “romanticizes imperialism, fetishizes native cultures, and casually misappropriates”), the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. The gusher of media attention she attracted didn’t translate into many signatures — fewer than 6,000 as of Tuesday. And a counterpetition — “¡Salvemos a Trader José! / Let’s save Trader José” — was started by another Californian, Mexican-American writer Carlos Allende.
The company’s initial response to reports of the petition was to surrender without a protest. A spokesman said Trader Joe’s was ”in the process of updating older labels.” It allowed as how its ethnic brand names may have had the “opposite effect” from the lighthearted inclusiveness they were designed to convey.
Then something splendid happened: Trader Joe’s got an earful from its customers — and reversed course.
“We want to be clear: We disagree that any of these labels are racist,” the company announced on its website. “We do not make decisions based on petitions.” Trader Joe’s shoppers, it turned out, liked the playful “Trader José” and “Arabian Joe” names, and were unwilling to see them gratuitously smeared as racist or rushed down the memory hole because of one teenager’s complaint.
“Recently we have heard from many customers reaffirming that these name variations are largely viewed in exactly the way they were intended — as an attempt to have fun with our product marketing,” Trader Joe’s noted. “Those products that resonate with our customers and sell well will remain on our shelves.”
The cancel culture has been on a roll, toppling brand names and logos (to say nothing of statues and people) on the grounds of racial or social unacceptability. Some of the vanished trademarks, like the Aunt Jemima “mammy” emblem and the name of the Washington Redskins, were plainly overdue for retirement. But other names and products — like the Dixie Chicks, “Paw Patrol,” and even the Coco Pops cereal emblem — have been criticized for no good reason at all.
These name-and-shame campaigns haven’t encountered much corporate resistance. Businesses focused on their bottom lines may figure it’s best to minimize any controversy and move on as quickly as possible. But there are dangers in letting groundswells of outrage proceed unimpeded, or in going along with the pretense that a random online petition is a legitimate news story because a reporter decides to play it up.
It may be too much to hope that the unsuccessful assault on “Trader José‘s” and “Trader Ming’s” represents some kind of turning point in the culture wars. There will be further examples of “woke” intolerance, and more efforts to denounce bigotry where none exists. All the same, Trader Joe’s and its customers have provided a welcome reminder that the cancel crowd can be resisted, and common sense can prevail in the face of ludicrous demands. Here’s hoping that the power of that good example resonates widely, and that unwarranted charges of racism stop getting attention they don’t deserve.