Four weeks ago, California high school senior Briones Bedell targeted grocery chain Trader Joe’s via Change.org, asking the company to remove “racist branding” from its international food products. The petition quickly gained thousands of signatures and national media attention, rousing the interest of CNN, Fox and the New York Times. Although a spokeswoman initially suggested that Trader Joe’s would rename the products, the company quickly backtracked. In an announcement posted on 24 July, the grocery chain stated: “We want to be clear: we disagree that any of these labels are racist. We do not make decisions based on petitions. We make decisions based on what customers purchase, as well as the feedback we receive from our customers and Crew Members.”
Trader Joe’s refusal to bow to online influence seems to go against a current trend spurred by the George Floyd protests, which has included a renaming of Quaker Oats’ Aunt Jemima and Mars Food’s Uncle Ben. Such brand changes seek to rectify racist messaging. Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben originated from stereotypes of African-Americans (the mammy and the Tom) and the use of them in branding may have continued to promote such stereotypes. However, Bedell’s case against Trader Joe’s seems weaker, and only tenuously connected to the current national reckoning. While meaningful change in society is warranted, Bedell’s proposal does not seem to be particularly meaningful. Bedell has good intentions—she describes herself as a “youth human rights activist”—but it is difficult to see how harm has been caused by the branding at Trader Joe’s.
Bedell writes that Trader Joe’s “labels some of its ethnic foods with modifications of ‘Joe’ that belies a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes.” She cites the company’s use of Trader José’s on the packaging of Mexican food, Trader Giotto’s on Italian food and Trader Ming’s on Chinese food as examples of harmful stereotyping, while not delineating any of the stereotypes involved. These names are legitimately used within the cultures they are part of and José is a cognate of Joseph (Joe). Although not commonly used in Italy today, Giotto is a recognizable name most often associated with the Florentine painter and architect Giotto di Bondone. Ming is a Chinese surname. If using such names is exoticism—and these names are used in a way that is neither a distortion nor a misrepresentation—then anything remotely cultural can be considered exotic.
Bedell discusses two influences on Trader Joe’s founder Joe Coulombe, both cited in the “Our Story” page of the company’s website: a book called White Shadows in the South Seas by Frederick O’Brien and the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland. Bedell writes that White Shadows in the South Seas “calls out the abuses of trading companies.” She believes that Coulombe’s main takeaway was to venerate these exploitative traders by calling his company Trader Joe’s. That may be a fair criticism, but the company’s website only describes the adoption of the book’s nautical theme and claims that they are using the word trader to describe “traders on the culinary seas”—modern-day salespeople in the food business, essentially. Bedell also calls out examples of white God and noble savage stereotypes in both the book and the Disneyland ride as examples of exoticism. However, it is unclear how these specific strands of exoticism reappear at Trader Joe’s. Bedell does not consider the fact that Coulombe could have been selectively influenced by these sources: borrowing the nautical theme of the Jungle Cruise Ride, for example, while ignoring its white God and noble savage elements—since there is no evidence of such imagery at Trader Joe’s.
The Trader Joe’s brand is kitsch, as they admit: “a couple [Trader Joe’s] guacamole products are called ‘Avocado’s Number’ in a kitschy reference to a mathematical theory.” Kitsch is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.” Even if Trader Joe’s is guilty of kitchifying Mexican, Italian and Chinese culture—and kitsch is, of course, subjective—tongue-in-cheek kitsch is shaky ground for accusations of something as severe as racism. The accusation further falls apart when we realize that Trader Joe’s is an equal opportunity kitsch-maker, since it also kitschifies foods from Italy, a culture of mostly white people.
The Trader Joe’s controversy ties into cancel culture, of which cultural appropriation is a central tenet. The mildest cases of cultural appropriation are treated as grave injustices: see, for example, the controversy over a white American wearing a cheongsam to her high school prom. But participating in another culture with good intentions should be celebrated, not discouraged. Calling out bad-faith distortions of other cultures is worthwhile, but the Trader Joe’s controversy represents cancel culture at its most questionable.