The term ‘Oriental’ was first challenged in the late 1960’s.
Today, we’ve more or less successfully eradicated the word for the younger generations. You don’t see too many people in their 20’s and 30’s using this phrase, or even thinking of it as a phrase to be used. It’s largely considered wrong — relegated to the out-of-touch dustbin of older Americans who refuse to change.
Yet, up until now, we’ve held up certain stereotypes of Black Americans. Not just within our own culture (remember, Oriental was largely a term used to market exoticism), but within our own products and consumer culture.
Today, the Quaker Oats company announced that they’re finally retiring the Aunt Jemima brand. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t get some sort of muted recognition of doing this (although it’s about 50 years too late), but the damage is already done. Every person who ever existed in America knows what Aunt Jemima syrup is.
We have no idea what that type of messaging does to young minds. We can never know how many people will associate syrup with the ‘mammy stereotype’. Mass culture affects our perception of the world around us. We don’t know what we’re often seeing is veiled in historical precedent. We also wouldn’t accept these stereotypes in more progressive and dynamic media — but we will in our advertising because it’s so subconscious.
Nobody is a bad person for buying Aunt Jemima syrup. Most Americans were not buying this out of a sense of ‘protecting what is theirs’ i.e. the Confederate flag. They were just buying it because it was a brand of syrup that looked home-y and inviting. The corporate re-branding of Aunt Jemima should invite a larger question of how deeply ingrained these stereotypes are into our culture and how they are used to sell products to us.
The ‘mammy’ invoked on Aunt Jemima’s syrup bottle invites us into a time where an old world family may have had a family recipe. They may have passed it on generation to generation. They’re inviting us into their family’s secret.
But really, they’re keeping us at the door. They’re not showing us what is in the secret sauce — Black exploitation. The origin of the character itself is blackface, performed by Tess Gardella on both stage and screen. There’s no way that Americans who bought this product were conscious of that, they were only being tricked by the Great American Myth.
It’s so ubiquitous and pernicious that when I was celebrating the news, I quickly remembered that I had Aunt Jemima syrup within my own refrigerator. I had only bought it because it was on sale.
I took a quick look at it, and felt a sense of something changing.
I’ll never be able to buy Aunt Jemima syrup again.
And neither will you.