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English 102, Lesson 12
July 18, 2021
English 102, Lesson 12
July 18, 2021
Walking through the breakfast aisle in any grocery store across America, people search for their favorite brand of syrup. After fruitlessly looking for the familiar logo, they realize that it has changed from a smiling black woman into a watermill. Many ask, "What happened to Aunt Jemima"? Recently, there has been a huge push by social media and other news sources to remove racial stereotypes and possibly offensive logos and names from corporate branding. Given the name "cancel culture", this trend has grown to include food labeling, sports logos, and even children's toys. While some of these areas deal with gender groups and political standings, most pertain to the portrayal of ethnic groups in these formats. They claim that these portrayals are based on racial stereotypes that are now hurting the present generation by continuing an untrue presentation of these cultures. However, in a recent YouTube video, Native Americans were questioned on their views about sports team's logos, such as the Washington Football Team (formally the Redskins) and the Cleveland Indians. Many Natives in this video were not offended. While this is a very small sample size, it raises the question if other ethnic groups are offended by their presentation in logos or if they see it as a silly game others play instead of focusing on real problems. Throughout this discussion, varying degrees of offense and opinions are displayed in the cancellation of Aunt Jemima, Land O' Lakes butter maiden, sports team logos, and whether these removals are beneficial to the ethnic group they portray.
Historically, many events have led up to the racial controversy being raised in today's world. These situations are proof of the American desire to provide a country where all are free to fulfill their dreams and make a better life for themselves. The Civil War was fought to free the African American slaves, and the Civil Rights movement in the '50s and '60s sought to achieve equal rights and treatment for these black Americans. Additionally, many Native Americans today are given compensation for the horrors their ancestors faced in the 1800s. Now, many are fighting to remove racial stereotypes, offensive images, and logos from companies and sports teams across the U.S.A. They claim that this will provide a more inclusive nation where the racial mistakes of the past no longer influence the future. However, unlike past circumstances, these cancellation efforts may not be beneficial to the ethnic groups they claim to help.
First of all, Aunt Jemima's past is filled with offensive stereotypes and glamorized slavery. The character of Aunt Jemima is based on a minstrel show where blackface actors in aprons and bandana headbands performed the 1875 song, "Old Aunt Jemima" (Alcorn). This caricature portrayal is extremely derogatory to African Americans and deeply offensive to their culture. Pretending to be of a certain ethnicity and then mocking that same ethnicity, these blackface actors were not only insulting, but they kept the black community from thriving. By only showing derogatory images of African Americans, they propel the idea that blacks cannot be equal to whites. Another problem with Aunt Jemima is that it reinforced the mammy stereotype of a black slave woman who was content to cook, clean, and care for her white master and his family. This form of slavery may not have been as difficult as working in the fields, but it still was oppressive. Common in the past advertising of Aunt Jemima, the representation of this pancake product, from newspapers to radio ads, projected the idea that black women are only good for cooking and cleaning for white folks. While this form of advertising is no longer happening today, its history is still problematic.
However, even though its past is racist, the Aunt Jemima brand has allowed many African American women to create legacies. For example, in the 1893 World's Fair, Nancy Greene was hired to play a living version of the Aunt Jemima character and later received a lifelong contract. This defied the norms of society where black women were not allowed to earn a living or travel the country. Because of this mobility, Greene was able to be very active in her community as a philanthropist and ministry leader, while working as Aunt Jemima. Also, she was one of the founding members of the Olivet Baptist Church, which is the oldest activist church in Chicago (Nagasawa). When Greene died at the age of 89, she had paved a path for many other women to play the part of Aunt Jemima. These women included Aylene Lewis, Lou Blanchard, and Anna Robinson Harrington, who all created legacies that went against the restrictive society. According to Sherry Willaims, founder, and president of the Bronzeville Historical Society, "removing the Aunt Jemima image could erase Green's legacy - and the legacies of many Black women who worked as caretakers and cooks for both white families and their own" (Nagasawa). She fears that these wonderful women who went against the norms will be lost in the flow of history if this logo is erased. Even though the foundation of the Aunt Jemima character is racist, it has allowed many black women to create legacies and influence their communities.
Similar to Aunt Jemima, Land O' Lakes has also canceled the character on its logo because some viewed it as a stereotype and believed it hurt Native American women. However, unlike Aunt Jemima, not as many people support this cancellation. This removal is not supported because the butter maiden, Mia, as she is affectionately known, is not a stereotype. Instead, she is an accurate representation of Ojibwe culture. In his opinion piece, Robert DesJarlait, whose father redesigned the Indian maiden, states that his father added floral designs, common in Ojibwe art, to the patterns on Mia's dress (DesJarlait). Also, he added a wooded shoreline on both sides of the lake where the maiden sits. This shoreline is a representation of the Narrows that many Natives in that area recognize. By incorporating these elements, the artist creates an authentic depiction of Native Americans in the area. Another reason some do not want Mia removed is that she is the creation of a Native American artist who was successful in a white-dominated field. Patrick DesJarlait revamped the design in the 1950s but had been incorporating Native American culture into his artwork since childhood. Preserving his legacy as an artist and the Ojibwe culture representation, are why some believe that the Land O' Lakes butter maiden should not be canceled.
On the other hand, even though some think that Mia is harmful to Native Americans, the company may have changed its logo for another reason. According to North Dakota state Rep. Ruth Buffalo (D), the butter maiden's image goes "hand-in-hand with human and sex trafficking of our women and girls ... by depicting Native women as sex objects", and many on social media call it much needed (DesJarlait). They view Mia as a racial stereotype that provides an inaccurate and damaging depiction of a Native American woman. However, Land O' Lakes did not cite racial issues for its logo removal. On their website, they announce that their new packaging is designed to connect more with their farmer-owned heritage for its 100th anniversary (Hills). They seek to enhance the connection between farmers and customers by replacing their butter maiden with images of real farmers who are a part of their company. While this is a valid reason to change the logo, many still believe that Mia was a stereotype.
Another cancellation effort that is facing the Native American community is offensive logos and names in sports teams. Many teams, including the former Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, and many college and high school level teams, have come under scrutiny for their names and mascots deemed racial caricatures throughout America. Dennis Banks, a Native American activist, exclaims, "Why do these people continue to make [a] mockery of our culture? We Indian people never looked the way these caricatures portray our culture" (Jackson and Lyons). For example, the word "redskin" was commonly used before the 1900s as an identifier but quickly grew to mean a more derogatory term that has a similar offense to using the N-word (Hylton). After years of protests, the Washington Redskins changed their name to the Washington football team, but many continued to call for change in the rest of the teams. The image of the Cleveland Indians mascot, Chief Wahoo, has been compared to a drunken Indian and was removed in 2018 (Guerrieri). Still, many wanted the name changed as well. Each tribe in America has its distinct heritage, traditions, and language, and combining these tribes into one "common" Indian image is highly offensive. There were more warlike Indian tribes in the past, but continuing this violent portrayal hurts the present generation. Because of this, many are calling for the cancellation of Native American misrepresentations in sports teams' names and logos.
Despite many calling for the removal of offensive mascots, many other Natives do not find these logos offensive. Some say that it does not matter because it is just sports and does not significantly affect our daily lives. Even though some players may become childhood heroes, the logo itself does not become the basis of our assumptions. If one believed all Native Americans looked like one mascot in a sports team logo, reality would quickly change this perception. Also, many of these team names have historical significance and meaning about Native American culture. For example, in an interview done by Will Witt, one Navajo states that the Redskins were historic fighters and that these mascots, logos, and images are the way the American culture is showing their appreciation (Are Native Americans Offended). While this is only one man's opinion, it displays that all Natives do not see these cancellation efforts as beneficial to their communities. In that same interview, one man states that "I believe, as Navajos and as Native Americans, we have larger issues to deal with the name-calling". In this statement, the helpfulness of "cancel culture" is put into question. If the benefits of these mascot changes are not obviously seen by the ethnic group it is supposed to support, then the time, energy, and money should be put toward other efforts. By not finding offense in their portrayal, many Native Americans do not benefit from logo removals.
After analyzing the positions for and against these cancellations, the question of helpfulness can be answered. In the case of Aunt Jemima, it appears that her removal can erase an amazing legacy. Even though the brand's logo was branded as racist, the original image that contained the stereotypical mammy character was removed in favor of a smiling, black grandmother figure. The main problem with Aunt Jemima was the fact that it painted a picture of glorified slavery that was socially acceptable. Now that the mammy character is no longer a part of this brand, they should focus on the positive elements of its history like Nancy Greene and the other women who played the part of Aunt Jemima. By adding a short story to their packaging, Aunt Jemima could have kept their customer recognition and honored their past at the same time. Also, a brand canceling a certain image seems like an easy way to declare that they are against racism without addressing the real issues. While some may say that removing Aunt Jemima is beneficial to African Americans, it wastes time and money that could have gone toward tackling real issues that face their communities.
Differing from Aunt Jemima, the removal of the Land O' Lakes butter maiden had some controversy with racial stereotypes but was mainly canceled for a separate reason. The company states that they changed the logo to deepen its connection to their farmer founders and owners. By removing Mia, they were able to enlarge the farmer-owned wording on their packaging. Also, making, they proudly display pictures of real farmers who are a part of Land O' Lakes on certain products. While this reasoning makes perfect sense, it is unfortunate that a landmark of Native American artwork must be removed. In 1928, Mia first appeared but was reattached to her Native American heritage by a redesign by Patrick DesJarlait in 1954. She was a beloved symbol of Ojibwe culture that adorned Land O' Lake packaging for years. Even though she was removed to honor the farmers of Land O' Lakes, the butter maiden will serve as an emblem of Native American heritage.
Most likely the most controversial out of all three cancellation discussions, the presence of Native American caricatures throughout sports teams' logos is not easily reconciled. On one side, many Natives want to be represented accurately in their portrayal across sports, movies, and media. Since each tribe has its distinct culture, characterizing all Natives Americans as warlike and savage or peaceful and complacent, is eminently offensive. However, the are also many Natives who do not care about their portrayal as much. While some images may be derogatory, they believe there are more pressing issues that are facing their community that have more of a substantial impact. These concerns, though they change from each person and tribe, are generalized by cultural preservation. Natives want their traditions, language, and culture to be passed down to their children so they will not be lost in the past. If the effort used for canceling certain logos or brands was put toward effectively teaching the younger generation about their history, the Native American culture would quickly become recognized by its true value. When it comes down to the question of whether Natives are offended by their portrayal in sport team logos, it depends on personal preference. Some believe that accurate assumptions come from their presentation in media, and by correcting that appearance, they can show the next generation what it means to be Native American. On the other hand, others believe that more serious issues are facing their community, and by fixing these problems, they can preserve the Native American culture. Both sides of this question are not easily reconciled with simple solutions, which should motivate society to find a way to benefit Native Americans across the U.S.A.
Throughout these discussions about offensive images, logos, and mascots, it is discovered that no problem raised in society has an easy solution. In the case of Aunt Jemima, removing a racial stereotype was also removing a legacy that went against the racist society of the past. Land O' Lakes wanted to honor its farmers but had to remove a symbol of Native American artwork. Additionally, many Natives differ on the question of the importance of changing the racial mascots and names of sports teams. However, even though these questions might not have clear answers, they still must be raised so individuals can understand what is happening around them. If research shows that a certain ethnic group will benefit from the cancellation of a product, then it should happen. However, if there is no distinct option, society must take the next best step.