Corporate America's year of name changes and racial reckoning

by Matthew Lavietes | @mattlavietes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 10 February 2021 10:18 GMT

Boxes of Uncle Ben's branded rice stand on a store shelf inside of a shop in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, New York, U.S., June 17, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Image Caption and Rights Information

In a year of protests against racial inequality, U.S. brands, teams and music groups from Aunt Jemima to the Redskins dropped names widely viewed as racist. Did the changes go far enough?

By Matthew Lavietes

PepsiCo Inc said on Tuesday its pancake mix and syrup products would be sold under the new name "Pearl Milling Company" after the company dropped the "Aunt Jemima" brand logo last year, acknowledging its roots in a racial stereotype.

The more than 130-year-old brand logo, which featured an African-American woman named after a character in 19th-century minstrel shows, came under fire amid a national debate over racism and racial inequality in the United States.

PepsiCo's decision was part of a nationwide corporate response to protests over the treatment of African Americans and police brutality after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020.

Here are four firms that have changed their names in the last year and, either been applauded by civil rights experts, or probed on what comes next:

LADY ANTEBELLUM

In the weeks following the police killing of George Floyd, country music group Lady Antebellum changed their name to Lady A, saying they "did not take into account" the name's association with slavery in the United States.

"Antebellum" is a term used to describe culture in the Southern United States before the American Civil War when slavery was an accepted practice.

THE CLEVELAND INDIANS

American baseball team, The Cleveland Indians, announced in December it would change its name after criticism from fans for using a moniker many deem racist.

Expressing that “it’s time,” owner Paul Dolan said that after months of internal discussions and meetings with groups, including Native Americans who have sought to have the team stop using the moniker used since 1915.

UNCLE BEN'S

Hours after PepsiCo's announcement, the makers of Uncle Ben's rice, Mars Inc, declared that it would also change its name and brand logo, saying at the time that it stood "in solidarity with the Black community."

The rice brand is known for its white-haired African-American man named after a Texas rice farmer.

Some observers welcomed the moves, but said they did not come soon enough.

REDSKINS

The National Football League's (NFL) Washington franchise dropped its "Redskins" team name in June, which is widely seen as a racial slur against Native Americans, after 87 years.

The club adopted the temporary moniker "Washington Football Team," whereas Cleveland said this week that it will continue using the "Indians" name through the 2021 season and until a new one is identified.

Gregory Smithers, an American history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University whose research focuses on indigenous people, said that in the future, organizations should proceed with caution before using symbolism from cultural minorities.

"Whether it's governments, companies wanting to advertise its products, or professional sports teams, if you want to use Indigenous imagery and culture in your marketing you can't simply steal it; you must consult," Smithers said.

"That, to me, is the ethical minimum."

This article was updated on date/time (example: Wednesday, 10 February 2020 10:23 GMT) to reflect PepsiCo Inc announcing its pancake mix and syrup products would be sold under the new name "Pearl Milling Company"

Related stories:

Protests lead brands to speak out against racism. But will they act?

U.S. firms urged to set targets to get Black women in top jobs

'Treated like crap' - Black women march for equality in U.S. protests

 

(Reporting by Matthew Lavietes; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

 

We want to hear from you: what critical stories and perspectives are missing from our coverage of systemic racism around the world?

Your responses to our short survey will help shape our reporting.

You can submit your response anonymously. If you provide an email address, we may follow up with you for more information. Any information you share with us will remain strictly confidential and will be used only in accordance with our Privacy Statement.