Quaker Oats announced in June the name and image of Aunt Jemima's syrup will be changed due to "racial stereotype." (Quaker Oats Company)
Brentwood School

Opinion: What we can learn from the racism behind the Aunt Jemima brand

As I swing the door open to my favorite diner, the bell hanging from the entryway signals my arrival. A waitress leads my family to our seats, and I don’t even bother unfolding the menu. I know exactly what I want. It’s the same thing I eat every morning: Pancakes!

I impatiently gaze out the window, watching car after car skid by while dreaming of that tower of delicious fluffiness. Then, I smell it — the fresh scent of perfectly cooked batter. I reached beside my plate for the one thing that could truly complete my not-so-nutritious breakfast: Aunt Jemima syrup, that sugary waterfall that adds just the right amount of sweet. Though, I was not as ecstatic as I usually am.

The previous night, I was having dinner with my family friends, and our conversation steered away from the flavor of our chicken and toward something much more serious. Quaker Oats Company, which owns Aunt Jemima syrup, had made the decision to change the logo and mascot due to its racial connotations. Everyone around the table was overjoyed by this idea. According to them, this had been long overdue and it was finally time for change.

Now, about to drench my pancakes, I found myself keenly analyzing the bottle. It advertised such a friendly face. One that, for years, I had simply associated with my favorite breakfast. How could a syrup be racist? It seemed so innocent with this joyful woman plastered over the cover. I was determined to get to the bottom of it.

All around the world, people are finally beginning to unite and collaborate to spark change through the Black Lives Matter movement. I think in order for change to be ignited successfully, we have to educate ourselves. In history class, we are taught that unless we learn about past events, it is inevitable that we will repeat them. The only way to prevent that is to learn more and become more aware. I started off by reading about the Aunt Jemima brand. I wanted to understand the racism that hid behind the label. 

I discovered that Aunt Jemima is affiliated with and utilizes the Mammy Archetype. Ferris State University, through their Jim Crow Museum, works to spread awareness on this and many other topics.

The FSU Jim Crow Museum website states that they use “objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice.”

As I searched into the depths of their website, they covered pages upon pages on the Mammy Archetype.

“Mammy is the most well known and enduring racial caricature of African American women,” the Jim Crow Museum website reads. “From slavery through the Jim Crow era, the mammy image served the political, social, and economic interests of mainstream white America. During slavery, the mammy caricature was posited as proof that Black people — in this case, Black women — were contented, even happy, as slaves. Her wide grin, hearty laugher, and loyal servitude were offered as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery.” 

The Mammy Archetype was used as a way for slave owners to portray an image of African American enslaved women ultimately being satisfied with their position. Not only is this extremely offensive and racist, but it is also the definition of a lie. Slavery was one of the most horrific events in American history, and it is embarrassing to be an American and know that our country has wronged those who are a part of our American community.

The fact that Aunt Jemima has plastered a Mammy Archetype onto their labels is downright wrong. The brand recently spoke out and made the public aware that they “recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype. 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.”

Finally, after over 130 years, Quaker Oats Company has recognized their wrongdoing and are finally taking a step in the right direction by changing the name of Aunt Jemima and getting rid of this massively stereotypical mascot. This is only the beginning.

Along with Quaker Oats, several other private businesses have been changing their symbols that have been long held to be racist and derogatory by communities of color. Splash Mountain, for example, a well-known children’s ride at Disneyland, has been recently called out on its offensive and racist origins. According to Forbes, the ride is based off of a 1946 Disney film called “Song of the South,” which glosses over and depicts race relations in a romanticized way.

After learning about this, I wondered if the immersion children experience at a ride like Splash Mountain contributed and reinforced stealthy racism in young minds. It seemed that Disney was posing the same question because they have finally come to an intelligent decision to reinvent the ride’s theme based off of a new Disney film, “The Princess and the Frog.” Not only is this a great step toward change, but this movie in particular is one of the very first Disney princess films to star a woman of color. So progress on multiple fronts! 

Obviously, these are just two examples of companies changing out of many others who need to, but the big picture is that as a community we are finally coming together to ignite change. After all, we must start somewhere. But as we see the movement gaining traction and really making change, it’s also important to understand how widespread and deeply ingrained some racists acts have been. 

Although expressing your support through an Instagram post can be a great way to participate, I know we can all do better. Usually, before I fall asleep at night I read a couple chapters out of a good book or finish up a movie. But now, I find myself curled up under my covers engulfed in articles regarding horrendous issues that communities of color face everyday.

We need to independently educate ourselves however best we can. This may take form in attending a peaceful protest or even just reading a book at your local library. I personally found that reading articles and educating myself on the history of racism in our country not only motivated me to want to work harder to spark change, but it also helped me better understand the horrors that others have to face daily.

The news gives a lot of information and is a big part in the movement, but it does not give you the entire picture, especially with each source’s biases. It is entirely different to hear a perspective from someone who has truly dealt with racism and bigotry. I highly recommend searching the internet as well for some educational pieces written firsthand by someone who has been dealing with racism themselves.

When it was brought to my attention that something as seemingly insignificant as pancake syrup could be a racist symbol I was downright frightened. It is truly important to understand the context of these symbols and what they mean to the communities they are representing and affecting. I believe in our community and I think we can truly make a difference if we all do our part.