The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.
In 1986, the Disney movie Song of the South was re-released for its 40th anniversary to promote Splash Mountain, a Disney theme park ride based on the characters from the film. You won’t find it on Disney+ because the movie was deemed too racist to release for home entertainment in the United States, which speaks to an anti-Black past that blemishes the iconic Disney brand.
This June, the company decided that the legacy of Uncle Remus no longer fit the moment and announced that they’re changing the theme of the ride to 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, which starred Tiana, their first Black princess. This fits a pattern of companies ditching characters that highlight their respective brand’s racist legacy. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, and Mrs. Butterworth’s were all retired due to a growing rise in anti-racist social pressure forcing some brands to re-evaluate their public images.
Taken at face value, these gestures imply that brands with racist pasts are growing a conscience, and this is by design. Upon deeper reflection, a single question lingers. Who benefits from changing a racist brand image?
To answer this, it’s necessary to confront white privilege’s younger sibling, white guilt. While some white people are openly racist, others passively benefit from racism while thinking that they are somehow absolved from racial dynamics. Racist tropes in branding serve as reminders that white history is littered with damaging stereotypes of Black and indigenous people. When racist marketing is called out, well-intentioned white people tend to feel guilty.
This current trend of rebranding is not exclusive to consumer products like Cream of Wheat or Land O’Lakes. Statues of Christopher Columbus and other racists are being toppled like Saddam Hussein from The United States to Europe to The Congo. Confederate flags have been banned from NASCAR and are being removed from the state flag of Mississippi. NASA even did it for the culture and named its headquarters after hidden figure Mary Jackson.
The University of Las Vegas has removed a statue of its mascot “Hey Reb!” because it depicts a confederate soldier. They’re even flirting with the idea of changing the mascot completely. Also on the education front, Princeton University, an institution with historical ties to slavery, removed the name of former president Woodrow Wilson from its campus buildings. The move came in response to student feedback over the years. Wilson, a former president of both Princeton and the United States, was a well-known racist and segregationist.
Similarly, an airport in Santa Ana, California named after John Wayne is being considered for a name change, as well. Chuck D told us about him on “Fight The Power.” Apparently some locals are trying to distance themselves from Orange County’s racist past.
The state of Rhode Island also decided to modify its name. They removed the word “plantation” from the long version of its official title. In the same vein, two country music groups with suspect southern names are shortening their names, as well. Are we to believe that Lady Antebellum and the Dixie Chicks are just now discovering the racist etymology of their stage names? If so, they’ve either been painfully naive or willfully ignorant all these years. It’s a step in the right direction, but remember, we’re running a marathon and the race is not given to the swift.
At first glance, this all looks like progress, but looks can be deceiving. Indeed, they are steps in the right direction — at least in the incremental sense. The catch is that these minor, common sense name changes are being marketed as major shifts in the dominant culture. In reality, a lot of the removal or changes to racist branding serves to ease white guilt as much or more than actually helping the victims of racial oppression.
For example, realtors in the state of Texas — the home of Juneteenth — have moved to stop referring to the rooms of a house as “master” (e.g. master bedroom, master bath, etc.) because it has an association with American slavery. John Legend summed up the situation perfectly when he tweeted, “Real problem: realtors don’t show Black people all the properties they qualify for. Fake problem: calling the master bedroom the master bedroom. Fix the real problem, realtors.”
Changing names hardly makes a dent when combating racism. What’s needed is for these companies to start advocating for systemic change. Until they do, this pandering is more about erasing reminders of white guilt than pushing for legitimate improvements that positively impact the Black community and other historically oppressed peoples.
Instead of doing the real work of dismantling the systems of oppression that uphold white supremacy, they’re making symbolic gestures that don’t really change the racial reality of America. It’s important to obliterate images and names that are blatantly or subversively racist, but the reasoning behind the current fad is arguably due to these names and stereotypes being triggers for white guilt. This speaks to white guilt’s baby cousin, white fragility.
Yes, we should be removing racist imagery in marketing and official titles. The flip side is that it will take more convincing action to effect real change by people and institutions making amends than they are currently doing. If they were genuinely motivated to do this for progressive reasons, it would have happened long ago. What it all boils down to is brands are using a form of self-serving virtue signaling that’s become such a trend nowadays. They’re morphing their identities to distance themselves from their racist pasts, but doing little to nothing in the present moment that comes close to getting in the trenches themselves or backing frontline activists that are advocating for legitimate systems change.
Overhauling a brand is expensive, but in this case, necessary. The fact is that these companies have raked in millions of dollars using racist branding over the years. Now they want to contort their position to meet the moment and try to capitalize on the current political zeitgeist that is sweeping the world. The question still remains, who benefits from changing a racist brand’s image?
The average white person may sleep a little better at night thinking the world is changing because Quaker Oats, which is owned by Pepsi, decided to retire Aunt Jemima. The brand was based on a character from a minstrel show. It was introduced at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 using an actual servant named Nancy Green portraying the fictional slave character of Aunt Jemima and there is no record of her being compensated for her service or likeness. In addition to changing the name, it would be respectable for Pepsi to pay some restitution to Green’s descendants.
These hollow gestures are seemingly meaningless when the president is sharing a video of one of his supporters shouting “White Power” at protestors and nooses mysteriously pop up, coincidentally targeting Black people in professional spaces and public places. Black men are being found hanging from trees across America. This comes at a time when it is more imperative than ever that we protect Black women. To think, there are people out there who are upset that they won’t be able to have a racist breakfast with Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth’s in the foreseeable future.
Last time we checked, Native Americans are still being mocked by professional sports teams. The only change in 2020 we were excited about, Harriett Tubman replacing racist President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, was delayed by the US Treasury and US Mint because of — you guessed it — racism. Time will tell how the current wave of scrubbing capitalism of racist imagery will play out.
If brands are changing names and images all for show, and not putting their money where their mouths are, this whole exercise is tantamount to putting lipstick on a pig. While these actions should be applauded, we’re not about to start giving out ally cookies.
We demand a less racist society that is transformed from the inside out, not merely on the surface. Case in point, apparently, Jersey Mike’s thinks that changing the name of their BLT (bacon, lettuce, and tomato) to the BLM (bacon, lettuce, and ‘mato) is the way to end racism. It’s becoming clear that the beneficiaries of racist name changes are more than likely corporate board members, and not the people who have been mocked and belittled by racist imagery in marketing throughout the centuries.