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Tearing Down the Colors That Blind: RIP, Aunt Jemima

 “Rewarding Reads” is a space for articles and personal essays meant to be thought-provoking and informative for human resources professionals, from sharing the “human” perspectives on workplace issues to book reviews of business titles we find inspiring. Have an essay or blog post to share? Contact us at workspan@worldatwork.org.

Editor’s Note: This article represents the opinion of the author and not the views held by WorldatWork.

When I was young, like most kids, I enjoyed dressing up for Halloween. My parents encouraged this behavior by creating handmade costumes. No store-bought superhero garb for this boy! Besides, it always was more challenging — and affordable — to see what we could find in the attic. Call it a life lesson in resourcefulness and invention.

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When I think back to the 1970s, I see the many costumes I wore and the thrill of pretending to be someone or something else. Mom worked feverishly to make me look the part — one year, a cheerleader, the next year, a knitted crayon — yes, a yellow Crayola crayon!

Dad also took part in the fun, one year turning me into a robot made from scrap metal and random warehouse parts and fire-resistant gloves. It was a fun, thrown-together tradition and remains a treasured childhood memory, except for one Halloween that has stuck with me for the last four decades.

That fateful Halloween morning, my mom had an idea, a stroke of housewife ingenuity. (Yes, our family of misinformed males labeled Mom a housewife, even though she held a full-time job.) As she served breakfast to her husband and three sons — waffles and syrup, if memory serves correctly — an iconic food brand inspired Mom to dress me as Aunt Jemima.

The costume has become a story of legend in my family. My second-grade teacher, in fact, was so amused by the get-up, she took me from classroom to classroom and pranced me before my fellow students. As a blooming introvert unable to express the horror of being cast in the dreaded spotlight, I stood mortified by the attention while laughter filled the hallways.

Later that day, it somehow got worse.

After running home from school, wanting to tear off the hideous costume but still game enough to go trick-or-treating, Mom suggested we do the usual neighborhood rounds in white suburbia before visiting my aunt and uncle at their apartment building in the diverse border city of Hackensack, New Jersey.

By this time, it was dark. And the notion of extending the day as Aunt Jemima — complete with blackface, wig, bandana and wooden bowl and spoon — was uncomfortable, but the lure of more candy trumped any awkwardness.

Memory is a funny thing. When I think about getting out of Mom’s Buick at dusk on a city street, I see a scared little boy recognizing that he is in a foreign place, not necessarily safe or welcome. I think about the men and women of color standing in front of the building and sitting on the stoop, strangers whom I would have to shove past to get to the apartment. I think about them mocking me, reprimanding Mom, making us regret the decision to dress me in blackface.

This is all I remember from that Halloween in 1973. I doubt my memory is accurate, but I have no doubt that it is true.

No Laughing Matter
On the heels of the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests, Quaker Oats on Wednesday announced its decision to retire the more than 130-year-old Aunt Jemima brand and logo. In its announcement, the company acknowledged the logo’s origins are based on a racial stereotype.

When I scanned the headline, it brought back memories of what should be a bygone era, a time when dressing up a little white boy as Aunt Jemima could draw uproarious laughter in one town and rebukes and scorns in another.

These transformative times continue to exacerbate the great divide in this country. The decision to rebrand and rename Aunt Jemima syrup has raised the ire and eyebrows of consumers who believe the move to be nothing but an exploitative PR play to appease “blue snowflakes.” On the flip side, social justice warriors (and allies of the Black Lives Matter movement) understand that the sheer existence of Aunt Jemima speaks volumes about a hurtful, unconscionable past.

In part, Quaker Oats made a practical business decision to retire a worn and tired brand that has seen better days. In larger part, Quaker Oats made a long overdue statement from Corporate America: “We no longer accept racial stereotypes.” I see it as a symbolic and compassionate gesture. It tears at the fabric of a society in dire need of healing and reparation. I see it as a welcome sight for sore eyes.

We can no longer be complicit and silent in pardoning the sins of our slave-owning forefathers. In a woke society, white people should step aside and listen to their black friends and colleagues. Listen to those most deeply and directly affected by the transgressions of our relatives.

Aunt Jemima may represent an innocent image for some of us. She may forever be a condiment in the kitchen of our childhoods. We may not relish the thought of her absence. We want her to remain a part of things, perhaps, because we don’t like to think about systemic racism and how it indeed colors our past.

I’d like to close with biblical scripture that fits my frame of mind, as I watch old friends on Facebook tear each other down over a dated brand of syrup.

“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” — 1 Corinthians 13:11

About the Author

Dan Cafaro Bio Image

Dan Cafaro is the director and editor-in-chief of publications at WorldatWork.  


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