As many of you know, I spent a few years working at PepsiCo after graduating college in my early 20s. I worked in brand management at their Quaker Oats Division, and spent my first two years assigned to the Aunt Jemima brand. Along with a couple of other employees, I helped manage everything brand-related from the marketing to the budget, to new products, supply chain, and advertising. As the months went on, I became very passionate about the brand and wanted to learn everything I could about it, including the history of the larger-than-life, black woman that donned all of the brand’s packaging. As I searched, I purchased a provocative book that I came across entitled “Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima.”
I began to learn about the Aunt Jemima image’s association with plantations, slavery, racial stereotypes, and how deeply hurtful it was to so many people. It was a brand that Quaker Oats often had to defend, and the company even gave us talking points to do so. At that point in my life, I felt the company had done right by modernizing the image and addressing the controversies. But then again, I’m not black, and for me it was an intellectual exercise rather than a deeply personal one.
Fast forward fifteen years, and Dr. Riche Richardson of Cornell University wrote this insightful and fascinating essay, bringing added urgency to the matter. And now, five years after that, as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to gain momentum, Quaker Oats came to a bold and courageous decision. Recognizing the deep racial stereotypes of the brand, you have likely heard that Quaker Oats revealed this week that they will remove the Aunt Jemima image altogether, and the brand will be renamed later this year.
I know some people may disagree with me, but I applaud this decision, and see it as one concrete step that Corporate America can take to rectify systemic problems. My hope, however, is that decisions like this one do not sanitize or whitewash history. When history books are written, this brand and its history should be highlighted and elevated as a dynamic transition from racial stereotyping to racial justice. Lest we forget “that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
As we mark Juneteenth today, the date to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved peoples in America, we are mindful of all the ways we continue to perpetuate that abominable institution.
As we mark LGBTQ Pride Month this month of June, we are mindful of all the ways we continue to stymie the inherent freedom in all People, the unique notion upon which this country was founded. I applaud the Supreme Court’s decision this week protecting LGBTQ employees. I applaud Quaker Oats and Pepsico for aligning its products with its values, and standing in real and meaningful solidarity with the Black Community.
This week in the Book of Numbers, Moses sends scouts to inspect the land of Canaan in preparation for the Israelite arrival. He instructs the scouts to bring back a comprehensive report regarding the nature of the land, and to respond to a series of questions regarding the land and her inhabitants.
I wonder, if scouts were to come survey the American landscape right now, what questions would we ask and what would the report be? Is it a land that treats her inhabitants equally? Is it a land that works toward fulfilling its founding principles and values? Is it a land of security for all its inhabitants or violence for some?
These are questions which we all play a role in answering. One slow, step at a time.
May we all continue to align our actions with our values, and may this be a Shabbat of deep reflection and striving for equality.