Uncle Ben’s Rice will change its name to Ben’s Original and update its packaging in response to the protests about racism that have been seen around the world this year, but it is not only brand name changes that have become part of the debate on racism.
Since its launch in the 1940s, the packaging of Uncle Ben’s Rice has featured a smiling, grey-haired black man. However, amidst this year’s global protests against racism, the brand has faced growing criticism for its perpetuation of racial stereotypes. Mars Foods says Uncle Ben’s was inspired by a Texas farmer known for his high-quality rice, and the man who posed as the face of the brand was a Frank Brown, the head waiter at an upmarket Chicago restaurant, but the story is disputed.
Over a decade ago in 2007, the company tried to move the brand away from the idea of a servile “happy black cook”, with a marketing campaign that say Uncle Ben become the chairman of the board. But today the brand has accepted the best move for the future of the brand is to leave its previous name and imagery behind and rebrand to Ben’s Original. Similarly branded items on US supermarket shelves such as Aunt Jemima’s and Mrs Butterworth’s syrups, which have also agreed to update their names and branding by 2021.
In a statement Mars said: “We understand the inequities that were associated with the name and face of the previous brand, and as we announced in June, we have committed to change…The brand is not just changing its name and image on the package. It is also taking action to enhance inclusion and equity and setting out its new brand purpose to create opportunities that offer everyone a seat at the table.”
Where brands have been accused of perpetuating racial stereotypes, the purposeful mispronunciation of people’s names has also become a topic of discussion amongst anti-racism campaigners in the UK and across the pond. In particular, it is argued that the consistent mispronunciation of vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris’ name by President Trump and his allies is “micro-aggression” designed to belittle the well-respected lawyer and politician.
Around the world immigrants have long faced difficulties with people in their new home mispronouncing their name. These mispronunciations are a natural part of moving through a diverse, multilingual world, but research has shown that when coupled with hierarchical power they can have long-term negative impacts. Rita Kohli, a scholar who co-authored a 2012 study on names and cultural disrespect says that these negative interactions can potentially prompt immigrants to internalize the racism and come to believe their culture or aspects of their identity are an inconvenience, or even inferior.
Names are central to people’s individual, family, and ethnic identity, but they are not immovable. Changing your name is a simple process that millions of people do each year whether for marriage, heritage, religious conversion, or many other reasons. However, if we are to live in a multicultural society it should be for us to learn how to pronounce someone’s name, and not call on them to anglicise their name to “fit in”.