Aunt Jemima Rebranding Incites Outrage
After PepsiCo announced on February 9th that its pancake and syrup brand Aunt Jemima will be renamed Pearl Milling Company, the response on social media was mostly negative. The reasons people are unhappy with the name change vary, but some people on Twitter said they thought the new name was even more racist.
According to the recently updated Aunt Jemima website, the name "Pearl Milling Company" refers to the mill in Missouri where the self-rising pancake mix that became known as Aunt Jemima was first made. Aunt Jemima's face was replaced with an image of the old mill. The colors and lettering on the new packaging are similar to the old. The old-timey feel of the product remains, without, as the New York Times put it, the racist imagery that was based on a 19th-century minstrel song that evoked nostalgia for slavery and the antebellum South. Quaker Oats had announced in June that it would change Aunt Jemima's name, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and nationwide protests calling for racial justice. The company stated in June 2020:
"As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers' expectations."
In a February 2021 corporate statement about the decision to rebrand as Pearl Milling Company, PepsiCo said it consulted with customers, employees, "cultural and subject-matter experts," and "diverse agency partners" to make sure they were being inclusive in their rebranding.
Among many others on Twitter, Wild 'n Out's Karlous Miller was not impressed, tweeting:
"I'm not buying it."
When another user replied that the new name seemed, quote, "more racist than the first one," Vas of the Minnesota artists' collective Velvet Rasputin followed up with:
"It doesn't seem more racist, it is."
Some threads in the Twitter conversation leveled their criticism at the new name itself. For some, the name "Pearl" evoked a racist image similar to Aunt Jemima, with one user writing:
"Pearl still sound racist, they gotta change it again."
According to the Aunt Jemima website, the word "pearl" refers to a particular way of grinding grain into flour that was used at the mill.
If Twitter accurately reflects the broader base of people who buy pancake mix and syrup, then the main problem with Aunt Jemima's new name is that many people don't feel any connection to it. Some expressed distrust that the corporate leaders at Quaker Oats and PepsiCo really had good intentions. One Twitter user commented:
"Maybe they should ask blk folks if we were ok with the name before changing it. This shows there's no POC helping make those decisions."
In their statement, PepsiCo announced plans to donate $1 million to nonprofit organizations working to empower Black women and girls. Meanwhile, the soft drink and snack food giant says it is investing $400 million over the next five years in Black businesses and communities. PepsiCo says it will also strive to "increase Black representation" at the company.
Aunt Jemima's name change backfired in yet another way. Some people suggested that a Black woman's image on the syrup and pancake mix was empowering or at least relatable. Still others on Twitter were prepared to switch brands after the announcement that Aunt Jemima would soon be known as Pearl Milling Company. One person wrote:
"Looks like we'll be buying Mrs. Butterworth's from now on."
The only problem is, the makers of Aunt Jemima aren't the only ones who announced name changes last year. The company that owns Uncle Ben's rice also announced that it would be reviewing its branding.
Meanwhile, Conagra Brands stepped up to say they would review the branding of their Mrs. Butterworth's syrup, too. Even though the grandmotherly mascot is a bottle shape rather than a logo, some have linked its appearance to harmful racial stereotypes, according to USA Today.
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