NEW YORK — Aunt Jemima, the popular syrup and pancake-mix brand that marketed itself with imagery of the slavery-era South, will get a new name and image after Quaker Oats, its parent company, acknowledged that its origins were “based on a racial stereotype.”
On Wednesday, the company, owned by PepsiCo, said it was taking “a hard look at our portfolio of brands” as it worked “to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives.” Packaging changes, first reported by NBC News, will appear toward the end of the year, with the name change coming soon after.
The Aunt Jemima brand, founded in 1889, was built on images of a Black female character that promoted a false and nostalgic view of slavery in the United States. A former slave portrayed the character at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and a white actress known for performing in blackface played Aunt Jemima on a radio series in the 1930s.
In magazine advertisements throughout much of the 20th century, the character was shown serving white families. Aunt Jemima went through several redesigns over the decades. In 1989, Quaker Oats substantially revised the character’s look, adding pearl earrings and a lace collar.
“While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough,” Kristin Kroepfl, Quaker’s chief marketing officer, said in a statement.
PepsiCo bought Quaker Oats in 2001, inheriting the Aunt Jemima brand. Ramon Laguarta, the chief executive of PepsiCo, wrote in an article in Fortune this week that “the journey for racial equality has long been part of our company’s DNA.”
Amid the worldwide protests against racism and police brutality prompted by the killing last month in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a Black man who died after being pinned to the ground by a white police officer, many companies have rushed to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, often running into accusations of hypocrisy.
PepsiCo was already familiar with the fallout: In 2017, after a backlash, it apologized for running a commercial that showed Kendall Jenner, a white model, delivering a can of Pepsi to a white law enforcement officer at a Black Lives Matter protest.
The Aunt Jemima brand has its roots in a 19th-century blackface minstrel song, “Old Aunt Jemima,” that expressed nostalgia for the South in the slavery era. The character “is commodified racism,” one of “many racialized caricatures” that were “the creation of the white imagination” during the rise of the marketing industry, said Gregory D. Smithers, an American history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Marketing companies used racism to sell everything from soap, children’s board games, and food,” said Smithers, who wrote a book about the use of racist imagery in popular media. “So ubiquitous did racism become in marketing and popular culture that it naturalized oppression in American society and shaped white privilege in the twentieth century and beyond.”
But now, he said, corporate executives “are doing their projections and the calculations don’t look pretty.”
“We’re in a moment where the rejection of systemic racism is so broad-based — cutting across racial, ethnic, religious, and political lines — that ignoring the politics of the moment would be ethically callous and economically foolish,” he added.
Riché Richardson, an associate professor of African-American literature at Cornell University, said she welcomed the move by Quaker Oats.
“I’m hopeful that this is really the gateway for more and more reflection on this topic and the catalyst for increasing change,” she said.
Richardson, who called for an end to the Aunt Jemima character in a 2015 opinion piece in The New York Times, added that the image is “maybe not as obviously linked to Southern violence, racism and terror as the Confederate flag, but it is still heavily weighted by the history of slavery and Jim Crow.”
She added, “It is a symbol that is rooted in the ‘Mammy’ stereotype, that is premised on notions of Black otherness and inferiority, that harkens back to a time when Black people were thought of and idealized mainly in relation to servant positions. They were lovable and acceptable as long as they stayed in their place.”
On Monday, the singer Kirby described the history of the brand in a TikTok video that has been viewed more than 1.8 million times. The video, titled “How to Make a Non Racist Breakfast,” ends with her pouring a box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix into a sink.
Alexis Ohanian, the Reddit co-founder, amplified Kirby’s message the next day on Twitter, where he has 334,000 followers.
“How is Aunt Jemima not canceled??” he wrote, linking to the TikTok video. (Ohanian recently resigned from Reddit’s board with a request to be succeeded by a Black replacement.)
Other major US food brands, including Cream of Wheat, Land O’Lakes, and Uncle Ben’s, gained popularity in the 20th century by marketing themselves with racist stereotypes.
After the Quaker Oats announcement Wednesday, the food and candy giant Mars, the owner of Uncle Ben’s, said it was “evaluating all possibilities” concerning the brand. Mars said it did not yet know the changes it would make or when they would go into effect, but added that it had 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,” Mars said in a statement.
Land O’Lakes removed stereotypical Native American imagery from its products before the recent protests.