The racist origins of the Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima branding

Christel Deskins

Since 1946, Uncle Ben’s products featured a picture of an elderly African-American man Uncle Ben’s is the brand name of a partially-boiled rice product which was first introduced in America in 1943. The brand, based in Houston, Texas, was introduced by Converted Rice Inc., which was later bought by Mars, […]

Since 1946, Uncle Ben's products featured a picture of an elderly African-American man

Since 1946, Uncle Ben’s products featured a picture of an elderly African-American man

Uncle Ben’s is the brand name of a partially-boiled rice product which was first introduced in America in 1943.

The brand, based in Houston, Texas, was introduced by Converted Rice Inc., which was later bought by Mars, Inc.

The produce became popular in Britain through the British Armed Forces during the Second World War.

Since 1946, Uncle Ben’s products, including its much-loved microwave rice packets, have featured a picture of a well-dressed elderly African-American man – said to be based on a famous head waiter at a Chicago hotel.

Meanwhile, Mars Inc, the company who own the brand, say the name Uncle Ben refers to an African-American rice-grower, famous for the quality of his rice.

The name was chosen by Gordon L. Harwell, an entrepreneur who had supplied rice to the armed forces in the Second World War, as a means to expand his marketing efforts to the general public.

The Aunt Jemima character is also claimed to have racist origins as it is based off the stereotype of the ‘mammie’ (or mammy) a black woman who worked for white families and took care of their children. 

The term ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ in this context is said by some to refer to how white southerners addressed older black people or African American slaves because they refused to give them courtesy titles such as ‘miss’ or ‘mister’. 

The Aunt Jemima image has evolved over the years to meet socially acceptable standards of the times, but the brand could not shake its history of racial stereotypes and connections to slavery. 

By 1989, Aunt Jemima had lost weight, abandoned her kerchief and looked more like a typical modern housewife.  

Many women have been tapped as Aunt Jemima over the years, with the first being Nancy Green in 1890, according to the pancake company’s website. 

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