Do Your Food Products Have Racist Roots?

Uncle Ben's Rice. Chris 22090/Flickr.com

The images of racial minorities have been used to hawk food for more than a century. Bananas, rice, and pancakes are just some of the food items that have historically been marketed with visages of people of color. Because such items have long been criticized for promoting racial stereotypes, however, the link between race and food marketing remains a touchy subject. When President Obama rose to prominence and Obama Waffles and Obama Fried Chicken made their debut soon after, controversy followed.

Once again, an African American was being used to push food, critics said. Take a look around your kitchen. Do any of the items in your cupboards promote racial stereotypes? The list of items below may change your mind about what constitutes a racist food product.

Frito Bandito

In the age of Dora the Explorer, it's difficult to imagine a time when a Latino cartoon character wasn't portrayed as caring, adventurous and inquisitive--but as sinister. When Frito-Lay rolled out Frito Bandito in 1967, though, that's exactly what happened. The Bandito, the cartoonish mascot for Frito-Lay corn chips, had a gold tooth, a pistol and a penchant for stealing chips. To boot, the Bandito, clad in a huge sombrero and boots with spurs, spoke broken English with a thick Mexican accent.

A group called The Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee objected to this stereotypical image, causing Frito-Lay to change the Bandito's appearance so he did not appear as devious.

"He became kind of friendly and rascally, but still wanted to heist your corn chips," explained David Segal, who wrote about the character for Slate.com in 2007.

The committee found these changes didn't go far enough and continued campaigning against Frito-Lay until the company removed him from promotional materials in 1971.

Uncle Ben's Rice

The image of an elderly black man has appeared in ads for Uncle Ben's Rice since 1946. So, just who exactly is Ben? According to the book Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Ben was a Houston rice farmer known for his superior crops. When Texas food broker Gordon L. Harwell launched a brand of commercial rice cooked to preserve nutrients, he decided to name it Uncle Ben's Converted Rice, after the respected farmer, and use the image of an African-American maitre d' he knew to be the face of the brand.

On the packaging, Uncle Ben appeared to be a menial type, as suggested by his Pullman Porter-like attire. Moreover, the title "Uncle" likely derives from the practice of whites addressing elderly African Americans as "uncle" and "aunt" during segregation because the titles "Mr." and "Mrs." were deemed unsuitable for blacks, who were regarded as inferior.

In 2007, however, Uncle Ben received a makeover of sorts. Mars, the owner of the rice brand, debuted a website in which Uncle Ben is portrayed as the chairman of the board in a posh office. This virtual facelift was a way for Mars to bring Ben, an outdated racial stereotype of the black man as sharecropper-servant, into the 21st century.

Chiquita Bananas

Generations of Americans have grown up eating Chiquita bananas. But it's not just the bananas they remember fondly--it's Miss Chiquita, the comely figure the banana company has used to brand the fruit since 1944. With a sensual swagger and flamboyant Latin American attire, the bilingual Miss Chiquita makes the men swoon, as vintage advertisements of the bombshell demonstrate.

Miss Chiquita is widely thought to have been inspired by Brazilian beauty Carmen Miranda who appeared in ads for Chiquita bananas. The actress has been accused of promoting the exotic Latina stereotype because she achieved fame wearing pieces of fruit on her head and revealing tropical clothing. Some critics argue that it’s all the more insulting for a banana company to play into this stereotype because the women, men, and children who worked in banana farms toiled in grueling conditions, often falling gravely ill as a result of pesticide exposure.

Land O' Lakes Butter

Make a trip to the dairy section of your grocery store, and you'll find the Native American woman known as the Indian maiden on Land O' Lakes butter. How did this woman come to be featured on Land O'Lakes products? In 1928, officials from the company received a photo of a Native woman with a butter carton in hand as cows grazed and lakes flowed in the background. Because Land O' Lakes is based in Minnesota--the home of Hiawatha and Minnehaha--the company reps welcomed the idea of using the maiden's image to sell its butter.

In recent years, writers such as H. Mathew Barkhausen III, who's of Cherokee and Tuscarora descent, have called the image of the Land O' Lakes maiden stereotypical. She wears two braids in her hair, a headdress and an animal skin frock with beaded embroidery. Also, for some, the maiden's serene countenance erases the suffering indigenous peoples have experienced in the United States.

"Like the hoary fantasies of 'Indians' and 'Pilgrims' sharing with quiet reverence the first 'Thanksgiving,' the Land O' Lakes butter maiden helps white Americans sidestep and repress the horrific realities of what white Americans have done to Native Americans," posits blogger Macon D.

Eskimo Pie

Eskimo Pie ice cream bars have been around since 1921 when a candy shop owner named Christian Kent Nelson noticed that a little boy couldn’t decide whether to buy a chocolate bar or ice cream. Why not have both available in one confection, Nelson figured. This line of thinking led him to create the frozen treat known then as the “I-Scream Bar.” When Nelson partnered up with chocolate maker Russell C.

Stover, though, the name was changed to Eskimo Pie and the image of an Inuit boy in a parka was featured on the packaging.

Today, some indigenous peoples from the arctic regions of North America and Europe object to the name “Eskimo” in the use of the frozen pies and other sweets, not to mention in society generally. In 2009, for example, Seeka Lee Veevee Parsons, a Canadian Inuit, made newspaper headlines after publicly objecting to references to the Eskimo in the names of popular desserts. She called them “an insult to her people.”

“When I was a little girl white kids in the community used to tease me about it in a bad way. It’s just not the correct term,” she said of Eskimo. Instead, Inuit should be used, she explained.

Cream of Wheat

When Emery Mapes of the North Dakota Diamond Milling Company set out in 1893 to find an image to market his breakfast porridge, now called Cream of Wheat, he decided to use the face of a black chef.

Still on promotional packaging for Cream of Wheat today, the chef—who was given the name Rastus, has become a cultural icon, according to sociologist David Pilgrim of Ferris State University.

“Rastus is marketed as a symbol of wholeness and stability,” Pilgrim asserts. “The toothy, well-dressed black chef happily serves breakfast to a nation.”

Not only was Rastus portrayed as subservient but also as uneducated, Pilgrim points out. In a 1921 advertisement, a grinning Rastus holds up a chalkboard with these words: “Maybe Cream of Wheat ain't got no vitamins. I don't know what them things is. If they’s bugs they ain't none in Cream of Wheat…”

Rastus represented the black man as a child-like, unthreatening slave. Such images of blacks perpetuated the notion that African Americans were content with a separate but (un)equal existence while making Southerners of the time feel nostalgic about the Antebellum Era.

Aunt Jemima

Aunt Jemima is arguably the most well-known minority “mascot” of a food product, not to mention the longest lasting. Jemima came to be in 1889 when Charles Rutt and Charles G. Underwood created a self-rising flour that the former called Aunt Jemima’s recipe. Why Aunt Jemima? Rutt reportedly got the inspiration for the name after seeing a minstrel show that featured a skit with a Southern mammy named Jemima. In Southern lore, mammies were matronly black female domestics who doted on the white families they served and cherished their role as subordinates. Because the mammy caricature was popular with whites in the late 1800s, Rutt used the name and likeness of the mammy he’d seen in the minstrel show to market his pancake mix.

She was smiling, obese and wore a headscarf fit for a servant.

When Rutt and Underwood sold the pancake recipe to the R.T. Davis Mill Co., the organization continued to use Aunt Jemima to help brand the product. Not only did the image of Jemima appear on product packaging, the R.T. Davis Mill Co. enlisted real African-American women to appear as Aunt Jemima at events such as the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago. At these events, black actresses told stories about the Old South which painted life there as idyllic for both blacks and whites, according to Pilgrim.

America ate up the mythical existence of Aunt Jemima and the Old South. Jemima became so popular that the R.T. Davis Mill Co. changed its name to the Aunt Jemima Mill Co. Moreover, by 1910, more than 120 million Aunt Jemima breakfasts were being served annually, Pilgrim notes.

Following the civil rights movement, however, black Americans began voicing their objection to the image of a black woman as a domestic who spoke grammatically incorrect English and never challenged her role as servant. Accordingly, in 1989, Quaker Oats, who’d purchased the Aunt Jemima Mill Co. 63 years earlier, updated Jemima’s image. Her head wrap had vanished, and she wore pearl earrings and a lace collar instead of servant’s clothing. She also appeared younger and significantly thinner. The matronly domestic Aunt Jemima originally appeared as had been replaced by the image of a modern African-American woman.

Wrapping Up

Despite the progress that’s occurred in race relations, Aunt Jemima, Miss Chiquita and similar "spokes-characters" remain fixtures in American food culture. All came to fruition during a time when it was unthinkable that a black man would become president or a Latina would sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Accordingly, they serve to remind us about the great strides people of color have made over the years. In fact, many consumers likely buy a pancake mix from Aunt Jemima with little idea that the woman on the box was originally a slave prototype. These same consumers likely find it difficult to understand why minority groups object to President Obama’s image on a box of waffles or a recent Duncan Hines cupcake ad that seemed to use blackface imagery. There’s a long tradition in the U.S. of using racial stereotypes in food marketing, but in the 21st century America patience for that kind of advertising has run out.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Do Your Food Products Have Racist Roots?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 26, 2017, thoughtco.com/do-your-food-products-have-racist-roots-2834586. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2017, April 26). Do Your Food Products Have Racist Roots? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/do-your-food-products-have-racist-roots-2834586 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Do Your Food Products Have Racist Roots?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/do-your-food-products-have-racist-roots-2834586 (accessed December 14, 2017).