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Do Your Food Products Have Racist Roots?

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Do Your Food Products Have Racist Roots?

Uncle Ben's Rice

Chris 22090/Flickr.com
Updated November 30, 2012

The images of racial minorities have been used to hawk food for more than a century. Bananas, rice and pancakes are just some of the food items that have historically been marketed with visages of people of color. Because such items have long been criticized for promoting racial stereotypes, however, the link between race and food marketing remains a touchy subject. When President Obama rose to prominence and Obama Waffles and Obama Fried Chicken made their debut soon after, controversy followed. Once again, an African American was being used to push food, critics said. Take a look around your kitchen. Do any of the items in your cupboards promote racial stereotypes? The list of items below may change your mind about what constitutes a racist food product.

Frito Bandito

In the age of Dora the Explorer, it's difficult to imagine a time when a Latino cartoon character wasn't portrayed as caring, adventurous and inquisitive--but as sinister. When Frito-Lay rolled out Frito Bandito in 1967, though, that's exactly what happened. The Bandito, the cartoonish mascot for Frito-Lay corn chips, had a gold tooth, a pistol and a penchant for stealing chips. To boot, the Bandito, clad in a huge sombrero and boots with spurs, spoke broken English with a thick Mexican accent.

A group called The Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee objected to this stereotypical image, causing Frito-Lay to change the Bandito's appearance so he did not appear as devious. "He became kind of friendly and rascally, but still wanted to heist your corn chips," explained David Segal, who wrote about the character for Slate.com in 2007.

The committee found these changes didn't go far enough and continued campaigning against Frito-Lay until the company removed him from promotional materials in 1971.

Uncle Ben's Rice

The image of an elderly black man has appeared in ads for Uncle Ben's Rice since 1946. So, just who exactly is Ben? According to the book Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Ben was a Houston rice farmer known for his superior crops. When Texas food broker Gordon L. Harwell launched a brand of commercial rice cooked to preserve nutrients, he decided to name it Uncle Ben's Converted Rice, after the respected farmer, and use the image of an African-American maitre d' he knew to be the face of the brand.

On packaging, Uncle Ben appeared to be a menial type, as suggested by his Pullman Porter-like attire. Moreover, the title "Uncle" likely derives from the practice of whites addressing elderly African Americans as "uncle" and "aunt" during segregation because the titles "Mr." and "Mrs." were deemed unsuitable for blacks, who were regarded as inferior.

In 2007, however, Uncle Ben received a makeover of sorts. Mars, the owner of the rice brand, debuted a website in which Uncle Ben is portrayed as the chairman of the board in a posh office. This virtual facelift was a way for Mars to bring Ben, an outdated racial stereotype of the black man as sharecropper-servant, into the 21st century.

Chiquita Bananas

Generations of Americans have grown up eating Chiquita bananas. But it's not just the bananas they remember fondly--it's Miss Chiquita, the comely figure the banana company has used to brand the fruit since 1944. With a sensual swagger and flamboyant Latin American attire, the bilingual Miss Chiquita makes the men swoon, as vintage advertisements of the bombshell demonstrate.

Miss Chiquita is widely thought to have been inspired by Brazilian beauty Carmen Miranda who appeared in ads for Chiquita bananas. The actress has been accused of promoting the exotic Latina stereotype because she achieved fame wearing pieces of fruit on her head and revealing, tropical clothing. Some critics argue that it’s all the more insulting for a banana company to play into this stereotype because the women, men and children who worked in banana farms toiled in grueling conditions, often falling gravely ill as a result of pesticide exposure.

Land O' Lakes Butter

Make a trip to the dairy section of your grocery store, and you'll find the Native American woman known as the Indian maiden on Land O' Lakes butter. How did this woman come to be featured on Land O'Lakes products? In 1928, officials from the company received a photo of a Native woman with a butter carton in hand as cows grazed and lakes flowed in the background. Because Land O' Lakes is based in Minnesota--the home of Hiawatha and Minnehaha--the company reps welcomed the idea of using the maiden's image to sell its butter.

In recent years, writers such as H. Mathew Barkhausen III, who's of Cherokee and Tuscarora descent, have called the image of the Land O' Lakes maiden stereotypical. She wears two braids in her hair, a headdress and an animal skin frock with beaded embroidery. Also, for some, the maiden's serene countenance erases the suffering indigenous peoples have experienced in the United States.

"Like the hoary fantasies of 'Indians' and 'Pilgrims' sharing with quiet reverence the first 'Thanksgiving,' the Land O' Lakes butter maiden helps white Americans sidestep and repress the horrific realities of what white Americans have done to Native Americans," posits blogger Macon D.

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