Chairman Uncle Ben
April 2, 2007
The New York Times writes about the Uncle Ben's company's new advertising campaign, featuring "Uncle Ben" as the chairman of the company. I had no idea that "Uncle" was a racially biased way of getting around calling someone "Mister". I figured the butlerish image wasn't all on the up-and-up, but it has more negative connotations than I realized.
One question I had was — if people don't know the negative connotations today, does it matter that the name as it was originally used was racist? I grew up with the image of this character being a part of the family, and therefore had very positive thoughts about him. However, my opinion might be influenced by the fact that I had family who happened to work in advertising at Uncle Ben's in the 80s and grew up in a basically lilly-white neighborhood frequently eating the stuff (won't touch it now =).
But my question is, in this case, kind of irrelevant. There are still people who are fully aware of the way the Uncle Ben image has, over the decades, propagated the stereotype of the African American as servant, as not worthy of a formal title like "Mister," not even worthy of a last name. When speaking with a few friends, that last part stood out as a continuing sore point. So you made him chairman, but you won't give him a last name?
Vincent Howell, President of the corporate parent's food division, was quoted as saying “What’s powerful to me is to show an African-American icon in a position of prominence and authority... As an African-American, he makes me feel so proud.” That was definitely not the response I got from two out of two African Americans I queried, individuals who had "been there" during the civil rights era.
What do you think? Time to let Uncle Ben move on a be Chairman, just as they envision? Time to put him to rest? Time to give him a full name? Time for us to get over his past?