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Quaker Oats to drop popular Aunt Jemima brand after it was labeled racist on social media

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By Mary Ellen Podmolik

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — The Aunt Jemima brand, which has graced syrup and other products for more than 130 years, is being retired.

Chicago-based Quaker Oats Co., a unit of PepsiCo, announced Wednesday that it will first remove the image from its packaging, with plans to change the name at a later date. The company said it made the decision as it took a “hard look” at the brands in its portfolio.

“We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” Kristin Kroepfl, vice president and chief marketing officer, Quaker Foods North America, said in a news release. “While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough.”

The death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis and the protests and unrest that followed has caused corporate America to take a look at itself and its workforces.

Companies have put out statements condemning racism, taken out ads, and promised changes inside their companies and support for black communities. In Chicago and elsewhere, many companies for the first time are making Friday a paid day off in observance of Juneteenth. It was on June 19, 1865, the day Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of the Civil War and slavery.

Quaker Oats’ announcement comes a day after PepsiCo announced a more than $400 million set of initiatives to improve black communities and black representation at the company during the next five years.

Changed packaging for the brand should begin to appear on store shelves during the final three months of the year. A name change will follow, the company said.

The Aunt Jemima image has been updated over the years to move it away from the original — and controversial — slave figure. A 1968 makeover replaced a kerchief on her heard with a headband. In 1989, she got a gray-streaked hairstyle without a headband, plus pearl earrings and a white lace collar. At the time of the 1989 update, a company executive told the Tribune the name would not be changed because “that kind of familiarity and recognition is an invaluable asset.”

Earlier this year, Land O’Lakes announced changes to its packaging for butter and cheese products to remove the image of a Native American woman. That new packaging is expected to be fully rolled out by the end of year.

Another longstanding packaging image that endures, but has been updated, is Uncle Ben, an elderly black man whose image has been the front of boxes of rice and side dishes for more than 70 years. In 2007, parent company Mars gave Uncle Ben, who first appeared in 1946, a mini-makeover. A company executive told The New York Times no significant changes were made because consumers said there was “a timeless element to him.”

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