Just hours after PepsiCo acknowledged its Aunt Jemima brand is based on a racial stereotype and it will change the name and packaging, rice brand Uncle Ben’s said it plans to follow suit by “evolving the visual brand identity.”
In an email, Sara Schulte, external communications manager for Uncle Ben’s parent company Mars Food North America, said, “We have indeed been considering a more substantive change and have begun that work even before news of Aunt Jemima.”
She did not specify what that “substantive change” will look like or what the timing will be, saying only, “We are evaluating all possibilities.”
When asked on April 21 about complaints the brand is racist and whether it had plans to remove Uncle Ben, Schulte said only, “Uncle Ben’s is a beloved brand with a rich history.” The brand dates back to 1946.
“Who is Uncle Ben? Actually, he was two people!” the brand says on its website. “The name comes from a Black Texan farmer—known as Uncle Ben—who grew rice so well, people compared Converted Brand Rice to his standard of excellence. The proud and dignified gentleman on our boxes, who has come to personify the brand, was a beloved Chicago chef and waiter named Frank Brown.”
However, in his paper Racial Etiquette: The Racial Customs and Rules of Racial Behaviour in Jim Crow America, Ronald L.F. Davis, a professor at California State University, Northridge, noted that Black men were called “Boy,” “Uncle” and “Old Man” to denote inferiority during the Jim Crow era, a period of segregation and discrimination following the Civil War that lasted roughly until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Beyond the name itself, The New York Times said the depiction of Uncle Ben with a bow tie was “evocative of servants and Pullman porters,” the African American men—many of them former slaves—who served white passengers on railroad sleeping cars from the 1860s to the 1960s.
In 2007, Mars reportedly spent $20 million to reimagine Uncle Ben as the chairman of the company. Consumers were able to tour a virtual office, which included chairman Ben’s emails, voicemails, datebook, executive memorandums and a portrait in a gold frame, but the office and title are now gone.
Schulte previously declined to discuss details “given the lapse of time.” Now, Schulte said the global brand is aware it has a responsibility to take a stand in helping to put an end to racial bias and injustices.
“As we listen to the voices of consumers, especially in the Black community, and to the voices of our associates worldwide, we recognize that now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity, which we will do,” she added.
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