Last year, I went to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. and found myself really affected by an exhibit on advertising. The point of the exhibit was to show how Native Americans have been used to sell products by simply surrounding you with those products. Floor to ceiling and wall to wall in this exhibit were packages of everything from chewing tobacco to baking powder oil with a huge television screen playing a loop of Native Americans in scenes from movies, television shows, and commercials. It was a lot to take in, but that was the brilliance of the presentation because going in, I didn’t realize how common Native American imagery is in our popular culture and advertising.
I bring this up in light of an announcement yesterday that Quaker Oats and PepsiCo will be doing way with both the mascot for and brand name of Aunt Jemima. This brand has been an everyday representation of a racist stereotype since its inception in 1889, and while there was online backlash from racists, I also saw a number of people reacting the same way I did, which was “Good, it’s about time.” Granted, I stopped buying Aunt Jemima products years ago because I make my pancakes from scratch and prefer actual maple syrup. It wasn’t hard for me to say “good riddance” because I didn’t have a relationship with the brand.
That’s not the story when it comes to Cream of Wheat, though.
Most people reading this are probably familiar with Cream of Wheat cereal, and if you’re not, it’s a porridge-type farina cereal that’s prepared similar to oatmeal. You boil some water, put the dry cereal in the pot, stir it until it thickens, and add whatever you’d like. My wife jokingly calls it “bland white crap” and yes, it pretty much is the cereal equivalent of a loaf of Wonder Bread. It is also been something I have been eating since I was a toddler, is the first thing I ever learned to cook on a stove by myself, and is something I ate the other morning the same way I have been eating it for nearly 43 years. I have a very personal attachment to this particular brand, and that’s a problem because it has a very racist mascot.
Above the logo on the front of the box is a Black chef holding a bowl of Cream of Wheat. It seems innocuous–after all, a chef is simply presenting you with food–until you understand exactly who the character is. Debuting on the brand’s original packaging in 1893, his name is Rastus, which was a derogatory term for African Americans at the time and would go on to be a name of a character used in minstrel shows. In older Cream of Wheat advertisements, he is depicted as illiterate and knowing nothing about vitamins, just that Cream of Wheat was tasty and affordable. It’s very much the male version of the “Mammy” stereotype that we have seen on Aunt Jemima bottles for years and yesterday, B&G, the company that owns the brand, announced that it is “initiating an immediate review of the Cream of Wheat brand packaging.”
Now, if you read that last paragraph and were surprised by that information or just now realized there was a Black chef on the front of the Cream of Wheat box, I would say you are not alone and that is one of the biggest problems here. In fact, I’d been ignoring the image since I was a little kid, and as I have been thinking about it, I have come to realize the damage that even the most harmless-seeming imagery can do.
There are people with way more academic credentials who have studied and written about the psychology of advertising, and I imagine they can elucidate this idea better than I can in a 1000-word blog post, but as I watched racists come with their “SJW PC Cancel Culture” whining, I saw how images like Aunt Jemima and Rastus are just as dangerous as statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. They are symbols that normalize cultures of oppression and second-class citizenry for African Americans by subconsciously reinforcing the idea of white superiority.
White people would react to that statement by saying, “I’m not racist and don’t believe I am superior” and I believe they consciously think that, but that’s how normalization works when it comes to cultural and systemic racism. Normalization is a frame that allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting they are natural occurrences*. Since an image like Aunt Jemima has been tweaked over the years to be not as overtly racist, we can ignore its racist aspects and accept it as something that is just part of everyday life. As a result, the racism is an ingrained quality, and it’s why we are seeing more and more calls to be anti-racist and think more deliberately about the oppression BIPOC face in our society and then take action to change or dismantle those systems of oppression. When it comes to Cream of Wheat, this means refusing to buy more of the cereal until the mascot is done away with, and writing them to let them know (and while I was at it, telling them to re-brand Brer Rabbit Molasses).
Right about here is where a quote or a platitude would often be placed, but I think that would undermine the last several paragraphs. What I would like to see is for this reckoning with our culture’s symbols to continue. More White people need to educate ourselves about our history of racist branding and then and put pressure on those companies still using those images to change them.
*Borsheim-Black, Carlin and Sophia Tatiana Sargiganides, Letting Go of Literary Whiteness. Teachers College Press. 2019.