Pancakes are Not Cancelled

June 17, 2020


We cannot change history, but we can change the way that history is represented.

Over the last few weeks, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, a number of brands are modifying their logos and/or policies. As one might expect the public response has been mixed.

People are angry that brands like Aunt Jemima are changing the image on their bottles of pancake syrup. Comments range from “they are changing history” to “it’s nostalgic” to “why do all these brands suddenly need to be PC.” Rather than simply telling people they are wrong, which is usually not effective, I’d like to discuss how and why we got here.

Timing is Everything

We can argue all day that as a society, we should have been paying attention earlier. We should have done better earlier. But we didn’t and that, unfortunately, is history we cannot change. However, the momentum that is happening around Black Lives Matter is forcing us to address a myriad of issues. That is why it feels like this change is sudden. It’s not that racism didn’t exist previously, it’s that we weren’t being forced to confront it and, as humans, we avoid confrontation. But here we are, so let’s break it down so we can learn and change together.

Covert Racism

First, I want to acknowledge that if you did not previously recognize covert or subtle racism, that is OK. It’s normal to not know what you didn’t know. This is not an excuse, but it applies to many things in life. We don’t know until we are taught and school is now in session. What’s important is that, as part of our education, when someone points out that something is offensive, that you do not immediately dismiss them. Instead, listen to their perspective and try to put yourself in their shoes. This is not easy and inconceivable for some people. But try anyway.

To be honest, I never really thought about Aunt Jemima. When the announcement was made by Quaker Oats to replace her image and rename the product she is famous for, I did my homework. I learned that the entire character is based on a vaudeville-style performance featuring a white man in “black-face.” In case you aren’t sure, this is not OK. While it is astonishing that this portrayal has been idolized for over a century without widespread pushback, I applaud the company for taking action now.

I’ve seen a lot of people name call companies for being “PC.” Political correctness (PC) is a term used to describe language, policies, or measures that are intended to avoid offense or disadvantage to members of particular groups in society. For some reason, taking measures to avoid being offensive is perceived as, well, offensive.

This is not the first time a company has taken a socio-political stance and certainly won’t be the last. In fact, company cultures’ land on both sides of the political aisle. Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby were founded on conservative ideals and have created their own flavor controversy through the causes they support.

Nike created a stir when they hire Colin Kaepernick as their spokesperson. The result of the partnership brought them customers while others rejected them going so far as to burn shoes they purchased from the company.

None of these positions are by accident. These companies understand that their socio-political affiliations are part of their brand and their overall marketing strategy and use this approach to their advantage.

Of course, as consumers, we have the right to buy from companies that align with our views. In fact, one study revealed that seventy percent (70%) of Generation Xers (ages 35-54) and 54% of millennials (ages 18-34) are likely to stop shopping at a company that supports an issue they disagree with compared to 37% of baby boomers (ages 55+). The trend towards being socially responsible is growing and Quaker is just one organization that sees the importance of CSR.

That said, I want to go beyond the branding perspective. We know why brands make these decisions, timely or not. What’s really on my mind is the resistance to change and the uproar over the “Cancelled Culture” as it’s being labeled.

Sure, you have memories of eating homemade pancakes with your siblings on a Sunday morning with Aunt Jemima’s smiling face staring at you from the bottle. Nostalgia is a beautiful thing. However, if it’s now explained that the iconic bottle plays into a negative stereotype and is racist, why would one argue against changing it? Why are some people angry about a logo, but dismiss the frustrated cries from the black community? Did anyone cry a river when Dunkin Donuts shortened to Dunkin? Pepsi has changed their logo almost a dozen times, but no one is boycotting them for it. Again, I’m the first to claim ignorance for my own lack of understanding. But, now that I have been informed, I support Quaker’s decision and the decisions of other companies who are trying to right a wrong.

So What is The Anger All About?

“Enough is Enough.” “This has gotten out of control.” “Very Sad.” These are not the comments related to the killing of unarmed black men. These are comments made about a brand. While these comments were incredibly disheartening, I also discovered that when people took the time to research the meaning behind Aunt Jemima, their perspective shifted.

“I looked it up and I get it now.” “I had no idea. Now I understand the change.” These are some of the attitudes of people who previously had no idea Aunt Jemima was an offensive depiction of a black woman. Once they paid attention, the light bulb went off.

There are a multitude of factors that explain why the Black Lives Matter movement is finally getting the attention it deserves. It’s been the perfect storm of circumstances that have reminded us that liberty belongs to all Americans and it’s our responsibility to speak up and to explain what is broken. It’s complicated and the more time we take to learn, the more we can progress.

I understand why people might think the world has gone crazy. Tensions are high and emotions are fueled. People are defensive, on edge, and want to hold onto their perceived sense of normal. But normal wasn’t working. I try to see it from your perspective. Can you try and see it from someone else’s?

P.S. You can still enjoy pancakes smothered in syrup on Sunday mornings. They taste even better without stereotypes.