Twice so far this year, social media has been set alight by news that a food company would be “retiring” their well-known but problematic mascots. First it was Land O’Lakes, a century-old dairy brand, parting ways with Mia, the indigenous woman character on their butter and cheese packaging. This week, Quaker Oats, a PepsiCo subsidiary, announced that the Black woman adorning their line of Aunt Jemima breakfast products would also be removed in a redesign.
In a statement, Quaker Oats acknowledged that “Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” specifically that of a cheerful “mammy” slave or servant. This troubling background had been the subject of a viral TikTok by the Black singer-songwriter KIRBY just the day before. And, as predicted, it looks as if Uncle Ben’s rice, owned by Mars Inc., is next up for a reboot.
If you’re white, you probably don’t think much about the offensive caricatures on your groceries. If you’re Black or indigenous, however, you may see these faces as reminders of the ambient racism that white people are willing to allow and perpetuate for no reason other than their familiarity with it. Aunt Jemima has even been “updated” over the years to distance the name from its minstrel-show roots — e.g., in 1989, she finally got to take off her head kerchief to better resemble a housewife, not “the help.” These marketing maneuvers strike a cynical balance, as they recognize a rotten legacy but whitewash it instead of breaking the chain altogether.
Now that the mascots are actually disappearing, though, we’re hearing a lot of complaints from white consumers who seemingly only bought these products for the illustrations on the box.
The impression among these aggrieved butter-spreaders, rice-enjoyers and pancake-flippers is that the corporate world has begun kowtowing to the oversensitive left; that they are scrapping iconography based on which way the political wind is blowing. There’s some truth in this — it’s not as if Quaker Oats just learned of Aunt Jemima’s origins, which they’ve been subtly downplaying for decades — but it’s ridiculous to claim that canceling racist mascots is a new, Orwellian assault on our freedom and culture. It’s more like the shifting tide of capitalism. Truth is, the 20th century is littered with racist spokescharacters that have been thrown over in haste.
If you’re Gen X or younger, for instance, you may never have heard of the “Frito Bandito.”
The Frito Bandito was a short-lived cartoon mascot for Fritos corn chips, and he embodied the crudest clichés of Mexican heritage. With a gold tooth, sombrero, mustache, pistols, a penchant for armed robbery and an exaggerated accent provided by the Jewish voice actor Mel Blanc (he also did Speedy Gonzalez), you’d be hard pressed to name something about him that wasn’t insulting to Mexico.
A year after his 1967 debut, a pair of organizations formed: the National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee and the Involvement of Mexican-Americans in Gainful Endeavors. Both sought to take down ad campaigns that trafficked in concepts like the Frito Bandito, which were not uncommon at the time — the Bandito himself was popular. Frito-Lay did what it could to keep the character, cleaning up his appearance and getting rid of his guns (following the 1968 assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy), but some local TV stations eventually banned the Bandito for good, and he was totally out of circulation by 1971.
No doubt you’re aware that Fritos chips still exist nearly 50 years later; that they are, moreover, widely available and marketed without the use of xenophobic jokes. Like Quaker Oats, Mars and Land O’Lakes, Frito-Lay simply came to a point where the benefits of their branding outweighed its negative associations and public distaste.
When it came to Pillsbury’s would-be Kool-Aid competitor, Funny Face drink mix, they didn’t even wait for outcry against two wildly inappropriate flavors and their corresponding illustrations — “Injun Orange” and “Chinese Cherry” — they quickly swapped them out for “Jolly-Olly Orange” and “Choo Choo Cherry.” And that was in the mid-1960s.
Suffice it to say, America did not collapse after that concession to “PC culture,” nor does anyone continue to mourn the loss of the Frito Bandito. Neither did a 1990s twist on the concept, the Taco Bell Chihuahua, do much for that company’s bottom line: Three years into the campaign, after some Latinx leaders had called for a boycott over it, Taco Bell did away with the dog commercials and fired their chief executive due to a drastic fall in sales.
So what are the lessons here? First, that money dictates most of these decisions. Outside pressure makes a difference, but only when this activism takes a financial toll, as when Frito-Lay couldn’t air the Frito Bandito spots in certain cities and states. The second is that while the Aunt Jemimas of the world are often hurtful to the people caricatured, the absence of such logos has no material impact on white American life. They have no historical value to the average shopper. Nobody threatens to stop eating at McDonald’s when they change the jingle.
Apart from mobilizing against racist stereotypes in advertising, the best thing you can do is tune out the noise from whoever wants them preserved for nostalgia’s sake. They forget rather fast.