by Bruce Dunlavy

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The recent killings of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks have provoked more public outcry over racial disparities in policing than the many similar incidents that have preceded them for as long as there has been a concept of race. Demonstrators are out in force every day, not only the United States, but also in countries all over the world. The American policing and justice systems are under international attack more than at any time since perhaps the Sacco and Vanzetti case.

At the same time, the glorification of “Confederate heroes” is also being called out, with demands that statues of such men as Robert E. Lee and Nathan B. Forrest be removed from public places of honor, and that the names of U.S. Army bases – there are at least ten – named after Confederate generals be changed.

This week, Pepsico subsidiary Quaker Oats announced that it will retire the name and image on its Aunt Jemima breakfast food products, and Mars, Inc., said it will make changes to its Uncle Ben rice products. Land O Lakes, a farmer-owned dairy producer, has already removed a depiction of a kneeling American Indian woman from its packaging after nearly 100 years of use.

Aunt Jemima had been on pancake-mix packaging since 1889. Why has it taken over 130 years to remove the image? Is it bigotry that put her there and kept her all these years until the company’s leaders have seen the light? I doubt it. I think the reason is the old-fashioned business reason – bad PR hurts sales, and public sentiment is clearly different in 2020 than in 1889. Of course, the Aunt Jemima people have known that for a while.

The original “Aunt Jemima” was a stock character in minstrel shows of the 1800s – the smiling, cheerful Mammy who took care of the owner’s family and ran things in the plantation kitchen. Even the name, like that of Uncle Ben, has its roots in the South of slavery times. Slaves who served their masters faithfully until old age might be allowed to enter a semi-retirement in which their work was diminished. They were then given the honorific title “Aunt” or “Uncle” as a term of patronizing affection. After the Civil War, emancipated African-Americans who were of advanced age and who acted in deference to white expectations might also be addressed as “Auntie” or “Uncle.”

Over the years, Aunt Jemima became less and less of a stereotype. She became slimmer and her use of non-standard English was curtailed. Her head scarf was made smaller in 1968 and finally eliminated in 1989. Here’s how she looked and talked in the 1890s:

In the mid-Twentieth Century:

And most recently:

Image credits: discount99.us, archive.org, and walmart.com

There was also a series of actors employed by the company to perform as Aunt Jemima at appearances nationwide. The first was a Chicago domestic worker and former slave named Nancy Green, who portrayed the character as a traditional “Mammy.” Over the years, more contemporary-looking women played the part. It is easy to see that the heavy stereotyping changed with the times, but it remained a stereotypical representation. The manufacturer was always behind the times, following public sentiment rather than informing it. Now Aunt Jemima is going the way of the Frito bandito.

Is this an example of bigotry, now finally brought to an end because everyday Americans had had enough of it? I am inclined to think that bigotry is too strong a word. The dictionary definition of bigotry is “the regard or treatment of the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance,” and I don’t think the history of the Aunt Jemima brand fits that description. It had its origins in bigotry, but those origins were transmuted into something else in the minds of most white people.

If you are a member of a minority, your minority status is a part of your thinking every day. It affects how you act in society, and – most importantly – you are conscious of that. If you are white, you don’t spend much time thinking about being white or what it means to be white. I explored this in an earlier post.

Thus white, Anglo males have historically not needed to notice what Aunt Jemima represented or how she came to be on a box of pancake mix, just as whites did not have to take notice of what a “flesh-colored” Band-Aid® looked like.

But is that bigotry? I suggest that in most cases it is not bigotry; it is something more subtle and insidious. It is insensitivity.

There is a bit of word history making the rounds on social media these days. It calls out the racist origins of certain words and phrases. There are variations, but in general the terms include:

  • gyp – originally a reference to the Roma (then known by the pejorative term “Gypsies,” as it was wrongly believed that their origins were in Egypt), who were stereotyped as migratory practitioners of fraud; the derogatory term Gypsy is still around in other contexts, including “gypsy cab” for an unlicensed taxi and the traveling tree-eater “gypsy moth”
  • sold down the river – a description of the practice of slaveholders in the Upper South selling recalcitrant or unruly slaves to plantations the Deep South (the five States from Louisiana east to South Carolina), where work was harder and masters were harsher; “the river” is the Mississippi, with its terminus in the slave-trading city of New Orleans
  • grandfather clause – after the Civil War, free African-Americans were denied the right to vote by laws making persons eligible to vote only if their grandfather had voted
  • “Long time no see” – originally a reference to an American Indian or Chinese immigrant’s broken English
  • “No can do” – an imitation of the perceived way Chinese immigrants spoke, which is also the source of “no tickee, no laundry,” “chop-chop,” and other expressions
  • Paddy wagon – from the common Irish first name Paddy (diminutive of Patrick) and referring the supposed need for police to haul so many Irishmen to jail for their drunken, brawling habits
  • “going Dutch” or “Dutch treat” – American vernacular is rife with slurs against the Dutch (or perhaps the Deutsch, meaning Germans), such as Dutch courage (for liquor), Dutch uncle, and Dutch auction.  A “Dutch treat,” in which each person pays his own way, is no treat at all.

There are plenty more such terms used all the time in America. Some should be obvious – “Indian giver,” for example, or the colloquial verb “to jew (down)” – but many users of these terms don’t think about their origins. Nor do they think about the way an American Indian might feel hearing the phrase “off the reservation” used to mean “out of control.” It should not take more than one admonition to make these people aware that their language might be offensive to others.

There is a general rule about being offensive in such a way, and that rule is: You don’t get to decide whether someone else is, or should be, offended. “I didn’t mean anything by it” is a fatuous excuse. Of course you meant something; otherwise why did you say it? You may be excused, at least the first time, for not thinking about or even knowing about the possible offense your speech may cause. But you also should stop saying things that are offensive to others. If you truly did not mean to offend, then next time find another way to express what you want to say.

The issue is made more problematic by the fact that there are terms that used to be innocuous but aren’t any more. Most people know that the word “gay” doesn’t mean what it used to and no longer use it to describe someone feeling happy. There are also words that still retain their original, and harmless, meaning but are prone to cause trouble if used in conversation or discussion. “Niggardly,” for example, derives from the Old Norse word hnoggr, meaning “stingy,” but I would not use the word today because it sounds like something it isn’t. Likewise, a “faggot” is a bundle of firewood sticks, but nobody today should even think of using it.

There are also people who have gone beyond the facts to create false derivations. A widely circulated story says “rule of thumb” is a phrase of misogynistic origin that ought not to be used because it comes from an old law that a husband could beat his wife with a stick up to the width of his thumb. This is untrue; there never was such a law. The phrase originated with rough-and-ready measurements on the job by workers who used the width or length of their thumb as an estimate. Likewise, the term “to welsh” (refuse to pay money owed, usually from a lost bet) may or may not have its origins as a slander on the people of Wales (opinions of etymologists disagree). Should we retire these phrases anyway?

What about terms that whose origin is so obscure that it is not obvious? “Hip, hip (hooray)” was co-opted in early Nineteenth-Century Germany as a call to beat up Jews. It had no connection with that before then, and has had none since, so unless one is made aware (and most people aren’t) there is no way of inferring it from the term itself.

What do we do to avoid stirring up problems? I try to avoid the use of any term that might cause problems in any context except an academic one. I make an effort to be aware of terms that refer to certain races, ethnicities, nationalities, colors, etc., that might be in my own speech or writing. If someone calls me out on something I say, I want to be ready to acknowledge my ignorance, learn, and try to do better in the future.

Above all, I want to work on having an open and honest mind, free from inappropriate or unfair attitudes. Hopefully, my use of language will reflect that, but at its basis it comes down to the message one means to convey. As George Carlin taught us, there are no bad words. There are bad thoughts. There are bad intentions. And there are words. I don’t want my words to suggest bad intentions. The occasions for unintended insensitivity, however, are very real.