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"There's still an appetite for that" - Jim Crow expert explains racially insensitive brands

Large corporations re-think, revamp racially charged brands.

BIG RAPIDS, Mich. — Nationwide protests against social injustice have sparked another movement. This one is in corporate America. Major companies behind brands like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben's and Cream of Wheat are changing names and or images thought to be racially insensitive.

"I was pleasantly surprised, to be honest with you," says Dr. David Pilgrim. "For years it appeared that most major corporations who had, what I would consider racially sensitive or racist representations in their brand, would do just enough to placate people and they wouldn't really get at the core of what the problem was."

Pilgrim is the founder and director of The Jim Crow Museum, at Ferris State University, in Big Rapids. He says the changes happening now are long overdue.

"One of the questions I get from people is, they'll say, 'what does this have to do with George Floyd?' And, and I say to them, this current social justice movement was set off by that horrific murder and what it does is challenges, all of us, and that includes corporations, it challenges all of us to look at the role that racism plays in the larger society and in ourselves," says Pilgrim. "I don't want to be a prisoner of the moment, but this feels like a fast train coming. You having comedians having to answer for having worn blackface. You have other corporations who either followed suit or thinking about following suit."

Credit: 13 On Your Side

Quaker Oats first introduced Aunt Jemima as the "Happy Mammy" in 1889. 130 years later the company seems to realize, for many, there's nothing happy about the brand.

"There's a very toothy smile and of course the message is that African American people are happy as servants," says Pilgrim.

Quaker Oats revised the image of Aunt Jemima in 1989 to reflect a more modern representation.

"It's a huge improvement over where they started. However, I have challenged companies and I've challenged individuals to look at the hurt, or possible hurt, of your products," says Pilgrim.

Despite the contemporary look, for many African Americans, Aunt Jemima continues to be a reminder of a very painful and hateful history.

"So after Reconstruction, from about the 1870s to the 1960s we had a period where we had a racial hierarchy in this country. Every major societal institution worked to basically re-enslave African American people, and in some cases, for example, with peonage there was actual re-enslavement," says Pilgrim. "All of this is about the suffering and the oppression which led to the Civil Rights Movement."

The period Pilgrim is speaking of is commonly known as the Jim Crow Era. He says images, like Aunt Jemima, were used as propaganda tools to dehumanize African-Americans and promote segregation and discrimination.

"The Jim Crow hierarchy could not have existed without a few things. It could not have existed without violence, for example, or the threat of violence, but it also could not have existed without millions of everyday objects that caricatured and reduced African Americans to one dimensional people," says Pilgrim. "You have the Tom, the Mammy, the Coon and the Sambo. All of these are harsh, course portrayals and misrepresentations of African Americans."

He says these images not only reflected attitudes about African Americans but also shaped attitudes.

"If you walk through the Jim Crow Museum and you look at the thousands of pieces there and you ask yourself a very simple question - if these are an accurate representation of Black people, would I want one living next door to me? Would I want one as a  member of my church? Would I want to work next one? Of course not, because the dehumanization was ubiquitous and almost complete," says Pilgrim.

That belief goes to the very core of why so many people object to those images being corporate brands.

"I have some bad news. There are no images in the Jim Crow Museum which are not currently being reproduced. And I'm not being hyperbolic. I'm telling you, that is not an exaggeration. If you look at any of the caricatures, and I'm referring to the exact images," says Pilgrim. "What that tells me is, despite some progress in our country, there's still a market for that. There's still an appetite for that."

Still, Pilgrim says he is encouraged by the current social justice movement in the country and the apparent changes in the nation's corporate culture. He hopes it will finally lead to meaningful dialogue and change.

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"These young people - as we say down home, they're not with this. This is not their granddad's thing. I mean we fought, we marched and we protested. And, I think America is better because of our efforts. But, this generation is passionate and energetic and that's, I think, in part, what makes this feel different," says Pilgrim.

He says he is equally encouraged to see corporations providing financial support as well as re-evaluating their brand image.

"These companies, or at least in a couple of instances, they are stepping up and also putting millions of dollars into social justice work. That's when you really see change. You know, changing your brand is a powerful symbolic gesture. I do believe that. But cash matters also," he said.

Pilgrim, also the Vice President for Diversity, Inclusion and Strategic Initiatives at Ferris State University, founded the The Jim Crow Museum in 1996 with a mission of educating people about the history of civil rights. The museum has somewhere between 12,000 to 16,000 items, making it home to one the largest collections of racial segregation memorabilia anywhere.

Pilgrim says the museum remains a valuable resources in the fight against systemic and institutional racism.

Credit: Jim Crow Museum

"We are receiving thousands of objects a year. We take the objects, which are typically segregation memorabilia or anti-black caricature objects, and we use them to teach about race, race relations and racism," he says. "We are now too small. The number of objects that we've received is overwhelming and we need to build a new museum. My goal remains the same. That is to bring people to the metropolis of Big Rapids and have the kinds of discussions that we've tried to have in the past and that more people are having now. These are difficult, sometimes even painful, discussions. But, the reality is, talk does matter and can lead to action."

As a precaution to reduce COVID-19 exposure, the Jim Crow Museum is closed until further notice. Pilgrim says they are currently working on a safe way to open the museum to the public. Meanwhile, he says they are offering virtual tours.

Those interested in donating to the Jim Crow Museum can do so on its website or by texting "JimCrow" to 41444.

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