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Quaker is dropping the Aunt Jemima image and name after recognizing they are ‘based on a racial stereotype’

This post has been updated.

In 1966, the Aunt Jemima brand launched a new syrup to go along with its popular pancake mix. The slogan, according to the company’s timeline, was “Aunt Jemima, what took you so long?”

That’s the question many people are asking after the iconic brand announced on Wednesday that it is changing its name and retiring its mascot, a black woman whose character was originally based on the stereotype of the enslaved “mammy” who raised her master’s white children.

“We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” Kristin Kroepfl, vice president and chief marketing officer of parent company Quaker Foods North America, said in a news release.

After Aunt Jemima was retired, companies are rethinking Uncle Ben, Cream of Wheat and Mrs. Butterworth

In its 130-year history, Aunt Jemima had evolved. In 1989, the company noted that she had debuted a more “contemporary look,” with pearl earrings and a lace collar in place of her original headscarf. The brand has been criticized over the years for retaining even the modernized mascot, but in recent weeks, fueled by protests after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police and calls for racial equity in all aspects of American life, attention had shifted to the brand.

In a TikTok video that has been viewed more than 3 million times, the singer Kirby posted a video in which she explained to viewers how to “make a non-racist breakfast.” She brandished a box of Aunt Jemima mix while reciting some of the brand’s history: how its creator got the name from minstrel shows (“think: blackface” she says), how the original mascot was a woman who traveled around for the company, making pancakes “and telling stories of the good old South.”

“Black lives matter, people,” Kirby says as she dumps the contents of the box down the sink. “Even on the breakfast.”

In its news release, the company said that packaging without the image of Aunt Jemima would begin to appear in the fourth quarter of the year and that after that, the company would rebrand.

“We are starting by removing the image and changing the name,” Kroepfl said in the release. “We will continue the conversation by gathering diverse perspectives from both our organization and the Black community to further evolve the brand and make it one everyone can be proud to have in their pantry.”

The Aunt Jemima brand, which is owned by PepsiCo, pledged to donate at least $5 million over the next five years “to create meaningful, ongoing support and engagement in the Black community,” the news release said.

The Jemima code erased the work of black cooks and writers. I had to break it.

After the announcement, journalist and author Toni Tipton-Martin said the move “acknowledges” falsehoods in culinary culture that she has written about extensively, and she connected the announcement to the recent Black Lives Matter protests. In her book “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks,” Tipton-Martin described Aunt Jemima as a symbol of the false idea that “black chefs, cooks and cookbook authors — by virtue of their race and gender — are simply born with good kitchen instincts. It diminishes the knowledge, skills and abilities involved in their work and portrays them as passive and ignorant laborers incapable of creative culinary artistry.”

Of the company’s decision on Wednesday to drop the Aunt Jemima brand, Tipton-Martin tweeted: “This acknowledges that our ancestors’ names, proficiencies, and values have been weaponized and monetized, not equalized;exalts elements associated with real black cooks; and validates calls for truth and equity being demanded by young people in the streets.”

In a series of tweets, food activist and speaker Devita Davison explained the history and origins of the “mammy” figure. The character was typically overweight and ugly and therefore “de-sexualized” and undesirable, she wrote, which meant “white women & by extension, the white family, was safe.”

Davison suggested that the promise of a $5 million donation was insufficient, tweeting, “Not only has Quaker Oats made billions selling Aunt Jemima but for a century they reinforced the archetype of the portly, asexual & Black woman caretaker; which furthered the absurdity that Black women will bear any burden, not because they have to, but because we live to.”

Shortly after the announcement, some had other suggestions for steps the company could make, also suggesting it should go further. “Quaker Oats should compensate the estates of the black women — Nancy Green, Lillian Richard, Anna Robinson, Anna Short Herrington, Ethel Harper — whose likeness was used by the company to make billions of dollars from 130 years of cultural appropriation,” CNN commentator Keith Boykin suggested on Twitter.

Others shared a satirical — and perhaps prescient — article from the Onion that imagined the iconic brand rebranding as “Sheila,” whose mascot is an “African American woman who wears a suit, carries a briefcase, and isn’t an aunt per se, though she is godmother to the child of a dear friend she met as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College.”

Some conservatives, including talk show host Wayne Dupree, criticized the move, claiming that the product isn’t racist.

Others shared advertising images from the company’s history full of racist stereotypes. Noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out one such example in which the character of “Aunt Jemima” appears to help a white family, with a caption that reads “Glory be! How dem golden cakes makes folks sing wid joy!”

“It’s not that Aunt Jemima was a symbol of a racist past, she was the very embodiment of a racist past,” he wrote. “She will not be missed by anyone who knew that.”

The move also prompted more calls for the retirement of other problematic mascots in corporate America. A spokeswoman for Uncle Ben’s rice, whose products feature a smiling black man whose name and image evoke Jim Crow-era stereotypes, said the brand was planning changes. “We recognize that now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity, which we will do,” read an emailed statement from the company.

“As a global brand, we know we have a responsibility to take a stand in helping to put an end to racial bias and injustices,” it read.