UPDATE: Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that Trader Joe’s is still changing its insensitive packaging—yay! But the bad news is that Trader Joe’s isn’t actually admitting the packaging was racist, and are adamant their decision was not influenced by the recent petition.
Earlier this month, TJ’s director of public relations, Kenya Friend-Daniel, made a statement in response to the petition, in which she admitted that the company’s “lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness” may now have “the opposite effect.” Friend-Daniel indicated that the change in packaging had been in the works for “several years,” but her statement certainly seemed to acknowledge some of the petition’s concerns.
But in a new statement, Trader Joe’s is reversing course on taking accountability, saying, “We want to be clear: we disagree that any of these labels are racist. We do not make decisions based on petitions… If we feel there is need for change, we do not hesitate to take action.” The statement continues: “Recently, we have heard from many customers reaffirming that these name variations are largely viewed in exactly the way they were intended—an attempt to have fun with our product marketing.”
Obviously, Trader Joe’s is a large company with millions of diverse customers, but this statement is deeply puzzling to me. While I’m sure “many customers” don’t have any issue with the packaging in question, it’s clear that many *other* customers do! One customer cared enough to create a petition, and thousands have cared enough to sign that petition. And regardless of the company’s intent, they were already doing the right thing, so why even expand upon their reasoning? There was no need for a second statement in the first place, and it definitely didn’t make them look any better.
For whatever reason it’s happening, it’s still a good thing that Trader Joe’s is phasing out their racially insensitive packaging. But it’s weird that the company seems so indignant at the idea that there was an issue in the first place.
Original Article: Over the years, Trader Joe’s has built a reputation as a millennial grocery hotspot for affordable basics, creative snacks and frozen treats, and foods from around the world. They’ve cultivated an accessible, laid-back brand identity, and their stores are constantly packed. Everyone has their favorite Trader Joe’s specialties, and for the most part, you can’t get their products anywhere else.
But while most of the products at Trader Joe’s are specific to the company, they don’t all have the same Trader Joe’s branding. For years, the company has applied different variations of the Trader Joe’s name to many of their ethnic foods. For example, many of their Mexican (or Mexican-inspired) products are labeled with “Trader José,” and Chinese food items are labeled with “Trader Ming’s.” But in the wake of other food brands such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s being forced to reexamine their racially insensitive branding and packaging, Trader Joe’s is the latest to feel the pressure, in the form of an online petition.
The petition, which was created by 17-year-old Briones Bedell, demands that Trader Joe’s “remove racist branding and packaging from its stores.” This includes the Trader José and Trader Ming’s labels, in addition to Trader Joe San (Japanese foods), Trader Giotto’s (Italian foods), and Arabian Joe (Middle Eastern foods). Bedell writes that the alternative branding “is racist because it exoticizes other cultures – it presents ‘Joe’ as the default ‘normal’ and the other characters falling outside of it.” These names aren’t a great look, and the fact that Trader Joe’s has a mostly white and male executive team certainly doesn’t help.
In a statement, Kenya Friend-Daniel, the national director of public relations for Trader Joe’s, said “While this approach to product naming may have been rooted in a lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness, we recognize that it may now have the opposite effect—one that is contrary to the welcoming, rewarding customer experience we strive to create every day.” According to the statement, the company decided to move away from the name variations “several years ago,” and while many products have received updated packaging, “there’s a small number of products in which the packaging is still going through the process.” It doesn’t seem like this is a process that should take “several years,” but hopefully this petition will inspire Trader Joe’s to pick up the pace and finally get this done. Friend-Daniel says the process of updating the packaging will be completed “very soon.”
But the problematic names are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the names, the petition also points out their connections to the larger inspiration behind the Trader Joe’s brand identity. According to the Trader Joe’s website, the ideas for the store’s “nautical theme” and the idea of employees as “traders on the high seas” came to founder Joe Coulombe from Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise ride and the book White Shadows In The South Seas. Jungle Cruise, which has been a staple Disneyland attraction since the park opened in 1955, has repeatedly been criticized for its insensitive portrayals of audio-animatronic “natives.” In light of Disney’s recent announcement that it will redesign the racist Splash Mountain ride, many have pointed out that Jungle Cruise is also in desperate need of some updates.
don’t be shy, fix up the whack colonialism in the tiki room and the racist caricatures in the jungle cruise as well please! https://t.co/jDEgJtvamz
— kara bradford (@karathebee) June 25, 2020
Jungle Cruise is problematic, but Coulombe’s other inspiration, White Shadows in the South Seas, is even worse. It’s a travel book from 1919, in which Frederick O’Brien recounts his experiences traveling in the South Pacific. According to the Amazon description, upon returning from his travels, O’Brien had a “thirst for all things exotic, far-flung, and gloriously ‘uncivilized.'” The description also mentions “savages” multiple times, and if the description is that racist, I’d hate to know what’s in the actual book.
With these references in mind, the whole “Trader” concept seems questionable to begin with, and according to the petition, “Many of these regions are still at a disadvantage today because of how traders ravaged their peoples, their societies, and their natural resources.” Joe Coulombe opened his first store more than 50 years ago, and times have changed, but Trader Joe’s may want to look into the inspirational materials they proudly cite on their website. The Hawaiian shirts are one thing, but the backstory is seriously problematic.
Images: jejim / Shutterstock.com; karathebee / Twitter