Commentary

HS Senior's Petition Calls Out Trader Joe's For 'Racist' Branding

An online petition calling for Trader Joe’s to change some “racist branding and packaging” has garnered widespread attention in the media and a response from the retail chain that it is on the case.

“The grocery chain labels some of its ethnic foods with modifications of ‘Joe’ that belies a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes,” reads the change.org petition started by Briones Bedell. 

“For example, ‘Trader Ming’s’ is used to brand the chain’s Chinese food, ‘Arabian Joe’ brands Middle Eastern foods, ‘Trader José’ brands Mexican foods, ‘Trader Giotto’s’ is for Italian food, and ‘Trader Joe San’ brands their Japanese cuisine,” it continues.

The petition had received nearly 2,200 signatures toward its target of 2,500 early Monday morning. More tangibly, it had attracted the attention of the retail chain.

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“Kenya Friend-Daniel, Trader Joe's national director of public relations, said in a statement that while its approach to branding its Chinese food as ‘Trader Ming’s’ and its Mexican food as ‘Trader José’ may have begun as a ‘lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness’ the company now recognizes it had the opposite effect,” writes  UPI’s Darryl Coote.

“‘With this in mind, we made the decision several years ago to use only the Trader Joe's name on our products moving forward,’ Friend-Daniel said, elaborating that all products would be in the same packaging ‘very soon.’

“‘Packaging for a number of the products has already been changed, but there’s a small number of products in which the packaging is still going through the process,’ she said.”

Bedell, 17, “said ‘the branding remains on shelves and unaddressed’ at her local Trader Joe’s in the San Francisco Bay Area,” Allyson Waller writes  for The New York Times.

“There’s an abundance of products in their stores, and I think it’s still important -- the petition remains important -- because Trader Joe’s lacks the urgency needed in the current climate to remedy the issue,” she said.

Bedell’s bio reads: “Youth human rights activist interested in protecting intangible cultural content. California high school senior.”

Bedell also cites Trader Joe’s for promoting the “the fact that the founder, Joe Coulombe, took inspiration in building the Trader Joe’s brand from a racist book (later made into a silent movie) and a controversial theme park attraction” -- namely “White Shadows in the South Seas” and the Disneyland Jungle Cruise ride.

“The common thread between all of these transgressions is the perpetuation of exoticism, the goal of which is not to appreciate other cultures, but to further… distance them from the perceived ‘normal.’ The current branding, given this essential context, then becomes even more trivializing and demeaning than before,” she writes.

Friend-Daniel apparently did not address these issues in the statement sent to several news outlets.

“The first Trader Joe’s store opened in 1967 in Pasadena, Calif., and today the chain has more than 500 stores across the United States. Its founder, Joseph Coulombe, died in February at 89,” the NYT’s Waller writes.

Several other companies have announced in recent weeks they are revising offensive brand names in response to outside pressure. 

“Last month, Quaker Oats announced that it was retiring the 130-year-old Aunt Jemima  brand and logo, acknowledging that it was based on a racial stereotype. Uncle Ben's and Mrs. Butterworth's quickly followed,” CNN Business’ Chandler Thornton and Alicia Lee remind us

Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream said on June 19 that its Eskimo Pie  brand would be renamed. Washington’s NFL franchise announced  July 13 that it is dropping the “Redskins” name and Indian head logo, bowing to recent pressure from sponsors and decades of criticism that they are offensive to Native Americans,” writes  Kelly Tyko for USA Today.

“The products' rebranding announcements -- considered long overdue by experts, historians and some consumers -- come at a time when companies face increasing pressure to boost diversity efforts and combat racism in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Memorial Day,” she adds.

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