The Uncle Ben Conundrum

Let’s begin with this: what’s racist about Uncle Ben?

Yesterday we discussed PepsiCo dumping Aunt Jemima on the silly pretense that doing so would  “make progress toward racial equality,” thus grabbing the lead in the breakfast food grovel  sweepstakes. Even though Aunt Jemima no longer looks like a “mammy,” the idea was that she began as an offensive racist stereotype, and once a stereotype, always a stereotype. First they came for Aunt Jemima…and then it was Mrs. Butterworth. Like Althouse, who blogged about Mrs. B yesterday, I never thought of the female-shaped syrup container as having any race at all. An article in the  New York  Post claimed that the bottle was modeled after Butterfly McQueen, the black actress who played  the mentally-challenged slave Prissy in “Gone With The Wind.” That’s odd: I don’t recall Prissy being filled with syrup. This is one more example (among many) of activists desperately searching for things to be offended about  to bend individuals and companies to their will at a time when so many of those with power appear to be ready to agree to anything to prove how woke they are.

Now we learn that Mars is going to rebrand Uncle Ben’s Rice because Ben evokes a racist stereotype. What would that be? Uncle Ben appears to be a middle aged-black guy in a bow tie, and that’s how he’s always looked. What’s the theory here?

The clue may be the Cream of Wheat man, who never had a name that I was aware of.

Reportedly he’s on the chopping block too. Is it because he’s a chef? Is it because he’s smiling? Is it because he had a relationship with Aunt Jemima?

Right…it’s the food connection, right? Blacks were, indeed, often are still, though Hispanic-Americans have taken a lot of the jobs, employed as in the food industry and as domestic servants. So that’s a stereotype making any connection of food with blacks offensive? How do you justify this, then…

…which commercializes another racial stereotype?

CNN’s legal analyst Elliot Williams, who is black, writes,

Which brings us back to our favorite aunt and uncle, Jemima and Ben. Any suggestion that the two are just winsome old black people and that we should get over it, misses the point. The very fact that these characters are even part of the American consciousness in the first place is a problem.

Hold on there…Aunt Jemima was based on a slave-era archetype and an ex-slave personified her for decades. I get that the logo has a “racist” origin, and someone passed a rule that origins are all the count, not present day reality. (Unless the origin doesn’t fit the racist narrative, so something else will become the focus. As I have explained here previously, for example, the Washington Redskins, which I assume will face another round of protests by people being offended about the team name on behalf of Native Americans who mostly don’t care, was not named after the usually derogatory term for American Indians, but to evoke the Boston Red Sox, with whom the NFL Boston Braves had decided to share Fenway Park….Red Sox, Redskins, get it?)

But there is no connection that I can find between the Uncle Ben image and slavery or racism, unless it’s “Uncle” because that evokes Uncle Tom of Cabin fame—which, if true, is too silly for words. One aspect of racial equality should be that if a white middle-aged man can be called Uncle, so can a black middle-aged man; in fact, it’s discrimination if he can’t.

All I can see happening after Uncle Ben is suddenly stashed in the memory hole as offensive and racist symbolism is that blacks will soon only be able to be safely represented in advertising, TV and media in counter-stereotypical roles and occupations. No more black chauffeurs, chefs, servants, bus drivers, or bartenders; no more sprinters, football players, basketball stars, rappers or tap dancers. Definitely no black drug-dealers, pimps or prostitutes. Americans will only be able to see black computer programmers, astronauts, brain surgeons, nuclear physicists, Shakespearean actors, diplomats, Olympic swimmers and ice skaters, while any of the stereotypical representations will be regarded as affirmatively racist.

It seems to me that the goal in seeking equal treatment and opportunity for all races means avoiding these kinds of artificial restrictions in fact and fiction. I also find it ironic that in his article, Williams reminisces about how blacks were invisible in American culture when he was growing up. How does banning black faces and characters from product logos today constitute progress?

My whole life as a rice lover, I associated Uncle Ben with the rice I loved (Minute Rice…blechhh!). He did his job well, with dignity. Now he’s out of a job because of his race,

How is that racial justice?

 

 

 

27 thoughts on “The Uncle Ben Conundrum

  1. Easy fix here, Jack. Stop buying Uncle Ben’s.

    There’s a whole world of wonderful, far-more-flavorful rices out there. I keep no less than four varieties in-house – my every-day go-to is Thai-raised Jasmine; I always have either Arborio or Carnoli from Italy (sometimes both) for making risotto; I keep a Japanese-style short-grain on hand, and I’ve always got some Indian Basmati around.

    These rices are a LITTLE more work than Uncle Ben’s (which is actually pre-blanched and then dried, rather than pre-cooked and dried, like the execrable Minute). Specifically, you must wash the Thai, Japanese and Indian rices before use; there’s rice dust on them that makes the finished rice sticky if not removed – the sprayer at your kitchen sink will make short work of this. Not so with the Italian rices, but then again a risotto is a very labor-intensive process in and of itself. But the others? Once washed, make them just as you would Uncle Ben’s, and marvel at the vastly superior quality and flavor.

    And chortle that the silly buggers who defenestrated poor ol’ Uncle Ben will no longer be getting your custom.

  2. I think Ben is considered offensive because he’s smiling and well dressed even though he’s relegated to serving white folks in a restaurant or, more likely, a Pullman dining car. That sort of submission to the [white] man is degrading and unacceptable. Unfortunately, surly disgruntlement verging on outright hostility appears to be the only acceptable demeanor for enlightened people of color. I’m not sure that’s such a great idea. Nor do I think it’s all that broadly embraced by most people of color when functioning in the world wide world.

      • I’m just getting the impression it’s the whole Stepin Fetchit or Amos and Andy vibe around this. I think current hipster, woke black guys think any black man born before, oh say, the birth of Ta-Nehisi Coates who dared to even hint that he was genuinely or even sort of content with his lot in life was a traitor to his race and otherwise irredeemable and needs to be expunged.

  3. How long before these very same people complain that grocery stores are centers of oppression because there aren’t any black people on the food packages?

  4. Here is a little Cream of Wheat history. In the 1880’s, Rastus was the name of the Cream of Wheat character. In 1925, Rastus was replaced with a portrait of Frank L. White, a Chicago chef who remains on the box to this day.

      • Yes, and I have seen vintage ads with very stereotypical language, as if Rastus is speaking with a 2nd grade education.

        However, the name of the fallacy for this type of thinking is The Genetic Fallacy (“just because something began a certain way, it retains those traits”). It is a favorite of people who treat etymology as if it determines the definition of a word, or who claim the Easter Bunny is paganistic, or the Christmas Tree is paganistic, or the Christmas celebration is a paganistic solstice party, or Jesus was a paganistic human sacrifice, or any number of turns of phrase that must be banned because of their racist origins, like Gator Bait!

        -Jut

      • The name “Rastus” is a shortening of “Erastus,” a name of Greek origin meaning “beloved.” Erastus of Paneas is a person in the New Testament (Romans 16:23,) I have an acquaintance (actually a Protestant minister) whose middle name is Erastus, and he’s a white man.

  5. Speaking of virtue signalling: The North Face, a major active outerwear brand, has joined a new movement called “Defund Facebook.” The goal is to starve Facebook of ad revenue until it removes “hateful rhetoric and messages that could incite violence against protected groups.” Story: https://adage.com/article/digital/north-face-becomes-first-major-brand-join-facebook-ad-boycott/2262996?utm_source=ad-age-digital-friday&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20200619&utm_content=hero-headline

    In other words, The North Face (and other “woke” advertisers) are attempting to pressure Facebook into actively controlling the speech of Facebook users.

    This is very much akin to the ad boycotts of some companies with regard to Fox News personalities. Fox, to its credit, hasn’t caved, which is probably why you see so many My Pillow ads on Tucker Carlson’s show. Will Mark Zuckerberg demonstrate the same resolve?

    Besides, from a marketing standpoint, this is an extremely stupid move. One of the reasons that companies buy online advertising on platforms like Google and Facebook is because they’re so controllable with regard to targeting. The North Face can almost certainly set their buying parameters to reach people profiled by Facebook algorithms as being sufficiently “woke.” Besides which, if Facebook was a good promotional buy for them before all this nonsense, they’ll cut off one of their best audiences.

    So on that score alone, I hope they take it in the (sealed-seam,waterproof, breathable fabric) shorts.

      • Sounds like an opportunity for someone to open up a Facebook-like platform that doesn’t censor it’s users and, you know, COMPETE with Facebook?

  6. I will admit I had never heard of Uncle Ben’s (until they introduced “mini-bowls” a while back. The brand seems to want to suggest that was started by a humble black farmer who grew his company into a national chain by himself. Instead, it was founded by a German engineer who figured out how to produce instant rice on an industrial scale, who in turn sold the process to Mr. Mars of M&M’s fame. Contrast this to Bob’s Red Mill, which was actually founded by a guy named Bob, who wore a white beard and baret, or KFC, which was actually founded by a guy in a white suit and beard.

    There is not necessarily a “backstory” written for the Uncle Ben character that I can tell, but I was reading the story behind the Aunt Jemima brand. The vary name of the character was from a minstrel show, and even Mrs. Green (who played the original pancake lady) shared the recipe as what “she” fed her former masters in her travelling sale’s tour. Like Uncle Ben’s, the recipe is in actuality something that could be produced on an industrial scale, invented by a white newspaper editor, rather than the product of a hardworking person of color.

    The brands rely on a mythical story that really doesn’t hold up today. Without the story, the brands are worthless. Coca-Cola, for instance, romanticizes the early 20th Century, Well’s Fargo evokes protecting people’s wealth in wild west (at least before they became the bandits themselves). Today, all Aunt Jemima has going for it is that today’s parent’s grew up on it, and can feed it to their kids. There is not much more that can be done with the story. Aunt Jemima’s back story could be completely rewritten, but that white washes the brand’s history. It would not necessarily be racist to keep the brand, but it does pose a marketing challenge going forth. (I personally think naming it “Mrs. Greens” could be clever but likely too controversial).

    There are real black inventors and businessman like Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver (aside, how ironic that George Washington is becoming controversial today) who’s products we still use today. Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are rather trite and add little to today’s market.

    Removing them is no loss to society though by extension, no gain.

    • But, in a culture where we are increasingly told that people of color must see characters that look like them, how does it help to remove three people of color from popular food brands that have been beloved for generations of Americans? Furthermore, the companies are shooting themselves in the foot because they are eliminating name recognition which is one of the best ways to move product? Sure, they could call the pancakes Mrs. Green’s, but it won’t have the same warm feeling of Sunday morning breakfasts with the folks that Aunt Jemima had. Advertisers want the warm fuzzy feelings of nostalgia that come with certain brands. Ditching Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben makes advertising less diverse and will cost them money in renewed advertising to push the new names and faces of the product.

  7. The “Aunt” and “Uncle” parts of the appellations likely do hark back to a race-related origin. It was not uncommon (at least in the south; maybe elsewhere, too), even into the 20th century, for older, long-time “family” servants (a predominately black position) to be addressed as aunt or uncle. Understanding a senior in the 1960’s sometimes would rely on context to determine what relation “Uncle Josh” actually was to the speaker. To be fair, it could (less commonly) also apply to long-time but unrelated older family friends. As a kid, a friends’ parents (or friends of your parents) were commonly “Miz Betty” or “Mr. Josh”.

    • I wouldn’t be surprised…and then again, the appeal of home cooked-food and family food also gave appeal to the “aunt” and “uncle” titles. It’s still just a name, and as its a name that families of all races use, using that as an excuse to “cancel” Ben seems like a stretch.

      • Of course it’s a stretch, but we know that all it takes now is one cobbled-together grievance.

        Wonder what the takeaway should be on THIS MASCOT

        Care to give him a name?

        (Hope link works; can’t seem to post an image any more…what format works?)

        • Yes, in the South, where, you know, black people lived and interacted with white people daily, titles were important. The tremendous black guys who worked at the IH dealership by dad worked at always addressed by dad as “Mister Bob,” never anything else. The long-time, super competent and reliable head farmhand at my uncle’s farm called my uncle “Mister Bell.” It was just a respectful (and kind of endearing) cultural thing and I don’t think anyone dared to think the use of those titles in any way diminished the black guys who favored them.

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