Stephen A. Fuqua (SAF) is a Bahá'í, programmer, and conservation and interfaith advocate in the DFW area of Texas.

April 2, 2007

Chairman Uncle Ben

The New York Times writes about the Uncle Ben's company's new advertising campaign, featuring "Uncle Ben" as the chairman of the company. I had no idea that "Uncle" was a racially biased way of getting around calling someone "Mister". I figured the butlerish image wasn't all on the up-and-up, but it has more negative connotations than I realized.

One question I had was — if people don't know the negative connotations today, does it matter that the name as it was originally used was racist? I grew up with the image of this character being a part of the family, and therefore had very positive thoughts about him. However, my opinion might be influenced by the fact that I had family who happened to work in advertising at Uncle Ben's in the 80s and grew up in a basically lilly-white neighborhood frequently eating the stuff (won't touch it now =).

But my question is, in this case, kind of irrelevant. There are still people who are fully aware of the way the Uncle Ben image has, over the decades, propagated the stereotype of the African American as servant, as not worthy of a formal title like "Mister," not even worthy of a last name. When speaking with a few friends, that last part stood out as a continuing sore point. So you made him chairman, but you won't give him a last name?

Vincent Howell, President of the corporate parent's food division, was quoted as saying “What’s powerful to me is to show an African-American icon in a position of prominence and authority... As an African-American, he makes me feel so proud.” That was definitely not the response I got from two out of two African Americans I queried, individuals who had "been there" during the civil rights era.

What do you think? Time to let Uncle Ben move on a be Chairman, just as they envision? Time to put him to rest? Time to give him a full name? Time for us to get over his past?

5 Comments

I was working in a grocery store in Atlanta in 1988, and that was about the time they updated Aunt Jemima's image to what it is today. Prior to that, she had the bandanna on her head and looked like she could be cooking for Miss Scarlet.

I'm not sure I'd ever directly compared the modern and, uh, not modern versions of Aunt Jemima. Found a good collection of old ads.

Wikipedia's Uncle Ben's article agrees with the disparaging use of "uncle", though it is not directly attributed to a source.

any chance we can get "uncle ben" replaced with "uncle tom"? colin powell isn't doing anything these days, right, he could probably do the ads... and "aunt jemima" could plan a transition to "aunt jeleeza" with condi sitting in, i'm sure she's going to have a tough time getting reemployed too... a nice capitalist home for token minorities that are not representative of or embraced by their minority group and find themselves having to deal with the legacy of their discredited resumes... i think it works... i think the guiness guys would agree that it's "brilliant"... someone get regis on it, when he's back on his feet... ;)

how's it going steve?

your boy,

be

That was an interesting approach to your logic. Uniquely Be. Don't think there's anything I can say to follow that up...

The not-modern images of Aunt Jemima were shocking ... not that the modern is any better, really. A little more light reading, here's an excerpt from early Aunt Jemima ad copy (taken directly from Wikipedia .. I haven't checked the source):

"On the old plantation, Aunt Jemima refused to reveal to a soul the secret of those light fragrant pancakes that she baked for her master and his guests. Only once, long after her master's death did Aunt Jemima reveal her recipe. It's still a secret."