Racism: Uncle Ben’s rice gets rebrand after criticism

Uncle Ben's rice products will now be called 'Ben's Original' and the logo of an elderly Africa American man wearing a bow tie will be dropped from packaging, parent company Mars announced on Wednesday [File: Brendan McDermid/Reuters]
Uncle Ben’s rice products will now be called ‘Ben’s Original’ and the logo of an elderly Africa American man wearing a bow tie will be dropped from packaging, parent company Mars announced on Wednesday.

Uncle Ben’s rice is getting a new name and new branding after it came under heavy criticism for promoting racial stereotypes.

The line of rice products will now be called “Ben’s Original” and the logo of an elderly African American man wearing a bow tie will be dropped from the packaging.

Parent firm Mars Inc unveiled the change on Wednesday for the 70 year-old brand, becoming the latest company to drop a logo long criticised for promoting racial stereotypes and facing intensified scrutiny as the Black Lives Matter movement enjoys a growing resurgence. Packaging with the new name will hit stores in 2021.

We listened to our associates and our customers and the time is right to make meaningful changes across society, said Fiona Dawson, global president for Mars Food, multi-sales and global customers. When you are making these changes, you are not going to please everyone. But it’s about doing the right thing, not the easy thing.

Several companies have retired racial imagery from their branding in recent months, a ripple effect from the Black Lives Matters protests over the police killing of George Floyd and other African Americans.

Quaker Oats announced in June it would drop Aunt Jemima from syrup and pancake packaging, responding to criticism the character’s origins were based on “mammy”, a Black woman content to serve her white masters. Quaker said packages without the Aunt Jemima image will start to appear in stores by the end of the year, although the company has not revealed the new logo.

The owner of Eskimo Pie also said it will change the name and marketing of the nearly century-old chocolate-covered ice cream bar. Beyond food brands, the Washington NFL franchise dropped the “Redskins” name and its logo amid pressure from sponsors including FedEx, Nike, Pepsi and Bank of America.

Geechie Boy Mill, a family-owned operation in South Carolina that makes locally-grown and milled white grits, is also planning a name change. Geechie is a dialect spoken mainly by the descendants of African American slaves who settled on the Ogeechee River in Georgia, according to Merriam-Webster.com.

We are in the process of changing our name and have developed a whole new brand. We look forward to sharing it with the public, said Greg Johnsman, owner of Geechie Boy Mill.

Since the 1940s, the rice boxes have featured a white-haired Black man, sometimes with a bow tie an image critics say evokes servitude. Mars has said the face was originally modelled after a Chicago Maitre D named Frank Brown. In a short-lived 2007 marketing campaign, the company elevated Uncle Ben to chairman of a rice company.

Dawson said months of conversations with employees, customer studies and other stakeholders led the company to settle on “Ben’s Original”. She said the company is still deciding on an image to accompany the new name.

Mars also announced several other initiatives, including a $2m investment in culinary scholarships for aspiring Black chefs in partnership with the National Urban League. It is also planning a $2.5m investment in nutritional and education programmes for students in Greenville, Mississippi, the majority-African American city where the rice brand has been produced for more than 40 years.

Mars said it has set a goal of increasing the ranks of racial minorities in US management positions by 40 percent. The company did not give a timeframe for reaching that number.

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