As tens of millions of people worldwide took to the streets this summer to pronounce that Black lives matter, corporate America was also nudged into action. But instead of marching alongside protesters, it started eyeing its own shelves.
Quaker Oats spoke up first, announcing in mid-June that Aunt Jemima, the name and face of the brand’s syrup and pancake mix for more than 130 years, would be no more. The company said in a statement that “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.” In quick succession, Grammy-winning country music group Lady Antebellum shed the “Antebellum” — and its glamorization of the pre-Civil War South — to become Lady A. The Dixie Chicks did the same two weeks later when it dropped “Dixie.”
Plantation Rum apologized for using the word “plantation” in its name and branding. Unilever agreed to stop equating light skin with beauty by removing the “fair” from South Asian skin-lightening cream Fair and Lovely. And early this month, the faculty of Virginia’s Washington and Lee University voted to rename the 271-year-old institution to exclude its homage to Confederate general Robert E. Lee; trustees are now reviewing the name and campus symbols.
Perhaps most surprising of all is that, after years of efforts by Indigenous activists, sports teams, too, are finally relenting to pressures to abandon their stereotypical branding. the Washington Redskins football team on July 13 announced amid a review that it would drop the Redskins name and the logo, of an Indigenous chief. As the team continues to deliberate upon a replacement, it’s adopted a somewhat comical placeholder: the Washington Football Team.
Not long after Washington announced its pending name change, the Cleveland Indians baseball team, after years of public protests by Indigenous groups, said that it, too, would consider changing its name; the team added that it would consult with Indigenous groups on the decision.
On December 13, the New York Times reported that the team would move forward with the change. (The Indians had already retired their stereotypical logo, of a cartoon Indigenous character named Chief Wahoo, after the 2018 baseball season concluded.) The team will officially introduce a new name by the 2022 season.
The spring’s spate of brutal police killings of unarmed people of color — Black people in particular — have renewed activists’ calls to address, and erase, all kinds of public depictions of racism. Companies, sports teams, universities, and even musical acts have been forced to reckon with the images and messages they put forth, in some cases for generations.
Demands for these changes aren’t new, but companies’ acquiescence to them are. So, when a well-known brand changes its name to shed racist or offensive historical connotations in the wake of social unrest, is it done in earnest? And what does it really accomplish?
Historians and scholars differ on how sincere and effectual these name changes can be. A simple rebranding isn’t the systemic change America really needs, experts say, but it is a remarkable step toward the larger mission of taking to task and dismantling everyday racism.
What’s also clear is that consumers are in a unique position to weaponize social media and get results. Online, anyone can protest societal ills and direct those complaints directly at their sources, while finding a chorus of voices that agree.
“In a process where you see a lot of movement centered around the kind of changes people want to see, one of the most visible ways you can demand change is by literally turning brands to say things you think are important,” said Sonia Katyal, a legal scholar and the distinguished chair of the Haas Institute’s LGBTQ Citizenship research cluster, who has written extensively on racism in branding. “So when Quaker Oats says they’re going to retire their image of Aunt Jemima ... that’s a really dramatic statement, not just of the desire to insulate the company from criticism but also of recognition that we are in a new era of racial branding.”
Consumers, particularly consumers of color, have argued for decades that symbols such as Aunt Jemima, the Washington Redskins, and the Cleveland Indians perpetuate age-old racial stereotypes about Black and Indigenous people. But these criticisms have often been ignored or inadequately addressed. Aunt Jemima received incremental redesigns without fully being distanced from the stereotype’s post-Reconstruction past, for example, while various owners of the Redskins have defended the team’s name as a crucial part of its legacy.
Aunt Jemima is perhaps the oldest and most enduring example of a brand built on a Black stereotype, “an outgrowth of Old South plantation nostalgia and romance grounded in an idea about the ‘mammy,’ a devoted and submissive servant who eagerly nurtured the children of her white master and mistress while neglecting her own,” Riché Richardson, an associate professor at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center, wrote in a 2015 New York Times op-ed calling for the brand’s retirement.
That explicitly mammy-inspired branding has rankled Black consumers practically since the brand hit the market in 1889. In the early 20th century, they pushed back against Aunt Jemima’s design. In Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, author Marilyn Kern-Foxworth cited a 1932 study in which Black men and women were asked their opinion of Aunt Jemima’s advertising. Most takes were negative: “I am prejudiced intensely against any picture of [a] former slave mammy,” one man responded. “I made my opinion about slave advertisements a long time ago, and the picture of Aunt Jemima would make me pass it by,” a female participant said.
Brand owner Quaker Oats addressed some concerns about Aunt Jemima’s image in the late 1980s when it gave her more of a modern housewife look, sans do-rag. The name, however, has remained a pain point.
“The image had been evolving, but not the title,” said Theodore Carter DeLaney, professor of history emeritus at WLU and co-founder of the school’s Africana studies program. The name, he said, maintains the idea that “she would be referred to as an aunt even by white families because she had somehow been more than a cook, but a nanny.” Although Aunt Jemima’s updated, uncovered hair revealed a stylish perm, DeLaney added, her modernized look made her outdated name stand out that much more.
Recognizing that America’s threshold for Black representation has changed dramatically, Quaker Oats stated that it would scrap the Aunt Jemima branding entirely.
Other groups publicly disavowed their names soon thereafter: Country act Lady Antebellum became Lady A, with the members writing on Instagram that they were “regretful and embarrassed to say that we did not take into account the associations that weigh down this word [Antebellum] referring to the period of history before The Civil War, which includes slavery.” (Just as regrettable and embarrassing, though, is that the group has since filed a copyright claim against a Black artist who has performed as Lady A for more than 20 years.)
When the Dixie Chicks dropped “Dixie,” a reference to the land south of the Mason-Dixon line — or, the heart of the Confederacy during the Civil War — they explained the decision by saying only, “We wanted to meet the moment.” Fair and Lovely, a hugely successful skin-lightening product marketed in South Asia, is now called Glow and Lovely. And petitions to change the names of Southern towns named after plantations have gathered traction online.
Other plainly racist branding, like that of the Washington Redskins, held out for much longer. The Washington, DC-based football team has been known by the slur — a term that gained prominence among white people in the 19th century and is even recognized in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “usually offensive” — since 1933. Although some Indigenous folks have said they’re unbothered by the name, the term “redskin” was conceived as, and has always been, a pejorative.
“By the turn of the 20th century [redskins] had evolved to become a term meant to disparage and denote inferiority and savagery in American culture,” the National Congress of American Indians explained in a 2013 report on the deleterious effects of Indigenous stereotypes in sports.
Since the 1960s, activists have protested offensive team names and logos, including the Redskins and the Cleveland Indians. In 1972, the Washington Post reported, advocates from the Indian Legal Information Development Service and elsewhere met with Edward Bennett Williams, part-owner of the Redskins at the time, to ask that the team drop the name, replace it with one that was epithet-free, and encourage other NFL teams to do the same. What they instead walked away with was a rewrite of the team cheer, “Hail to the Redskins,” and a promise that the cheerleaders would no longer wear “Indian-style” wigs — effectively brownface.
Twenty years later, the first of several lawsuits filed against the Redskins by Indigenous people sought to remove the team’s trademark, citing it as disparaging, but the Redskins inevitably managed to maintain rights to the name. Another lawsuit, decided in 2014, pitted a younger group of Indigenous activists against the Redskins organization. When, amid the trial, USA Today asked majority owner Dan Snyder whether he would consider renaming the Redskins, his response was plain: The Redskins, he said, “will never change the name of the team.”
“We’ll never change the name,” Snyder reiterated when prodded. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
Katyal cites Snyder as the roadblock that had held the Redskins back from achieving any level of Aunt Jemima-like evolution. “I cannot think of another team that has been so steadfast in its refusal to change,” she said. “Most other teams at least try to rebrand or seek a partnership with a Native American tribe. That’s not always a perfect solution either, but most brands are much more responsive.”
In 2017, Snyder and the team prevailed in the legal battle to maintain the Redskins’ trademark after the Supreme Court ruled in a separate case that banning “disparaging” trademarks violated the First Amendment. But now, nearly 90 years after the Redskins first adopted the moniker, the team has finally reconsidered what kind of message it was sending by blatantly using a slur in its name.
It seems like a very belated hallelujah, just like Aunt Jemima’s — but one perhaps possible this year, amid the momentum gained by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, the Redskins, the Indians, Lady Antebellum, the Dixie Chicks, and so on — their names are reminders of the worst aspects of US history. So why did it take until 2020 for owners and artists to take action?
Recent protests have advocated for racial equity of every kind, including in the marketing of consumer products, Katyal said.
“One of the big tenets of the Black Lives Matter protests, which has not happened before on such a wide scale, is that the symbols of enslavement and colonization are being literally pulled off of their pedestals,” Katyal, referencing statues of Confederate soldiers that activists have beheaded or knocked down across the country, told me. “So what you have is this mood where anything ... that might be construed as a symbolic form of respect for discrimination or oppression has basically literally been lifted by these crowds and disposed of.”
Symbols of the Confederacy are an obvious place to start when dismantling paeans to a more oppressive era. The state of Mississippi said in June that it would petition to redesign its flag, which for more than 100 years featured the Confederacy’s flag within it, and voters in November approved a new replacement. Around the same time, NASCAR banned racers from using any Confederate symbols in another win against American racism.
But brands can serve as symbols glorifying a racist history, too, if less obviously. The police killing of George Floyd in May helped Americans see the racial biases inherent everywhere, said Shirley Staples Carter, associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of South Carolina.
“People are beginning to see these [brand names as] stereotypes, these emblems of slavery and Black oppression that’s been part of the cause of systemic racism that would lead to police brutality, treating people like they’re not human,” Carter told Vox. “George Floyd’s death did that for many people — it resonated.”
DeLaney suggested that the movement’s ability to capture such a wide set of eyes, however, is thanks to another big phenomenon in 2020.
“What is different about this conversation [about race] is, I think, not so much Black Lives Matter, but it’s largely a result of what’s been going on in the US in the last few weeks ... the pandemic,” said DeLaney. “One of the things that has happened is that people have been sheltered at home to a large extent. ... As a result, you are seeing things that you might not have seen, had you not been hunkered down at home.”
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter have given the owners of stereotypical brand names less cover to hide behind.
In response, brands, bands, sports teams, and more appeared to be instituting long-sought changes to their products as damage control — namely, out of fear of the economic effects a consumer revolt could have if they’re canceled before they’ve had a chance to address the wrongs. The Redskins make a compelling case for this interpretation: Snyder’s decision to even consider changing the name came after FedEx, Nike, and PepsiCo threatened to pull their sponsorships, with each asking the franchise to rename itself, and minority owners reportedly looking to sell their stakes.
But it feels disheartening and cynical to call the actions of such companies wholly preemptive or fearful, Carter said. He echoed Katyal’s contention that brands are going through the same sort of racial awakening as consumers.
“I think it’s more than just reactive,” he said. “I think it’s the beginning of some real changes.”
The real changes that Black Lives Matter and its supporters seek, however, are social, economic, and political — wide-ranging systemic shake-ups to permanently rework the system that allowed such names to be marketable in the first place.
“We can begin with retitling Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben and renaming buildings and removing Confederate statues, all these emblems of slavery and oppression, but we also need to deal with the larger and more difficult issue,” said Carter. “The systemic racism that needs to change in our society.”
But branding, like all media, wields an important power in culture. Media is where many people see their identity reflected back at them. Regardless of whether they like football or pancakes or country music, people can be deeply affected by the messages those products implicitly or explicitly send.
“Someone asked me, ‘Do you really think it’s racist?’” Carter said of Aunt Jemima, which was inspired by a tune called “Old Aunt Jemima,” composed by Black comedian and performer Billy Kersands and later popularized as a minstrel song. “And it has to do with its origin, of course. It has that very racist origin, and the fact that it’s so stereotypical of how people perceive the role of Black women in society, I think [the name change] is important, and it will be impactful.”
It can be traumatizing for people of color to encounter brands that perpetuate prejudices against them, Katyal said. Indeed, studies have shown that experiencing racism and discrimination can negatively affect one’s mental health. But acknowledging and then removing these racist images can be empowering and inspiring, no matter how minor that image may seem to the wider public.
“The sheer emotion that happens for people who are people of color when they see these symbols being taken down is a recognition that these individuals are being seen,” Katyal said. “I totally get why one would be cynical about that, but I also think that it’s so important for young people to have that feeling that our movement made these changes happen.”
Katyal has a much simpler retort to the naysayers who find these changes insubstantial or irrelevant. “It’s so much easier to retire an image or change a brand than it is to dismantle the very structures of economic and political injustice,” she said.
But it’s definitely a start.
Allegra Frank is an associate culture editor at Vox. She covers music, the internet, and video games.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Washington and Lee University trustees announced they would remove the reference to Robert E. Lee in the university name. Faculty members voted to do so; trustees are reviewing the name.