The Real Reason People Are Unhappy With Aunt Jemima's New Name

After PepsiCo announced on February 9 that its Quaker Oats pancake and syrup brand Aunt Jemima will be renamed Pearl Milling Company — replacing a 19th-century face with a 19th-century place — the response on social media was mostly negative (via CNN). The reasons people are unhappy with the name change vary, but some people on Twitter said they thought the new name was even more racist.

According to the recently updated Aunt Jemima website, the name "Pearl Milling Company" refers to the mill in Missouri where the self-rising pancake mix that became known as Aunt Jemima was first made, in 1889. Aunt Jemima's face was replaced with an image of the old mill. The colors and lettering on the new packaging are similar to the old. The old-timey feel of the product remains, without the racist imagery that was based on a 19th-century minstrel song that evoked nostalgia for slavery and the antebellum South, according to The New York Times. Quaker Oats had announced in June that it would change Aunt Jemima's name, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and nationwide protests calling for racial justice. The Pearl Milling Company brand name will show up in stores this June.

To some, "Pearl Milling Company" sounds racist, too

In a corporate statement, PepsiCo said it consulted with customers, employees, "cultural and subject-matter experts," and "diverse agency partners" to make sure they were being inclusive in their rebranding.

Among many others on Twitter, Karlous Miller, a Black comedian and a cast member on MTV's Wild 'n Out, was not impressed. "I'm not buying it," he tweeted, and he seemed to mean that both figuratively and literally. Twitter user @ThE_KiD_o_O replied, "That s*** seem more racist than the first one." Then Vas of the Minnesota artists' collective Velvet Rasputin followed up with, "It doesn't seem more racist, it is." Vas linked to a Wikipedia page outlining the history of Pearl Milling Company's racist owner.

Some threads in the Twitter conversation leveled their criticism at the new name, "Pearl Milling Company." Never mind that this seems like a really long name for pancake batter. The 224 Podcast tweeted, "Pearl Milling Company sound like the plantation they had Aunt Jemima [...] at! I'm not falling for the trap!" For some, the name "Pearl" evoked a racist image similar to Aunt Jemima. "Pearl still sound racist, they gotta change it again," Twitter user @JOJU_POWERFUL said. User StrangeCreations tweeted, "Pearl is Aunt Jemima's baby sister right?!" According to the Aunt Jemima website, the word "pearl" refers to a particular way of grinding grain into flour that was used at the mill. That might be the reality, but in the world of marketing, perception is reality (via Forbes).

Some on Twitter feel no connection to Aunt Jemima's new name

If Twitter accurately reflects the broader base of people who buy pancake mix and syrup, then the main problem with Aunt Jemima's new name is that many people don't feel any connection to it. Some expressed distrust that the corporate leaders at Quaker Oats and PepsiCo really had good intentions. A Twitter user who goes by Malik commented, "Maybe they should ask blk folks if we were ok with the name before changing it. This shows there's no POC [people of color] helping make those decisions."

"Yup," @OraculiDelphia replied. "Ultimately it's all performance until they give the brand to a black woman." In that same vein, a Twitter user calling himself Boom Boom Manceeni weighed in: "Unless a Black woman name Pearl Milling is the new owner, I'm not buying."

To its credit, the new Pearl Milling Company plans to donate $1 million to nonprofit organizations working to empower Black women and girls, according to the PepsiCo statement. Meanwhile, the soft drink and snack food giant says it is investing $400 million over the next five years in Black businesses and communities. PepsiCo says it will also strive to "increase Black representation" at the company.

Some are prepared to switch brands after Aunt Jemima's name change

Aunt Jemima's name change backfired in yet another way. Some people suggested that a Black woman's image on the syrup and pancake mix was empowering or at least relatable. "Trying (to) replace us any way they can," lamented Twitter user HiDLites. Someone with the Twitter handle @All_Cake88 said, "It was Jemima smile on the bottle that made me feel like the syrup on them pancakes gonna be just right." @RetroHendrix tweeted, "I'm just refilling my Aunt Jemima bottle."

Still others on Twitter were prepared to switch brands after the announcement that Aunt Jemima would soon be known as Pearl Milling Company. "Looks like we'll be buying Mrs. Butterworth's from now on," @Vinny2316 tweeted. The only problem is, right after the makers of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben's rice both announced name changes last year, Conagra Brands stepped up to say they would review the branding of their Mrs. Butterworth's syrup, too. Even though the grandmotherly mascot is a bottle shape rather than a logo, some have linked its appearance to harmful racial stereotypes, according to USA Today.

Finally, a few people said they never bothered with these mainstream brands. In his syrup recommendations, a Twitter user who goes by Tushka Lusa referred to a few authentic Southern recipes. "We grew up off Blackburn or Steen's cane syrup," he said. "Or mama made her own."