Turning Uncle Ben into Chairman of the Board

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

At a time when we’re seeing various institutions acknowledge and apologize for their involvement with the slave trade (the state of Maryland and Brown University are two recent examples), it’s sad to see one company so enthusiastically reviving a brand that was built on slave imagery.

The New York Times discusses a new campaign from Uncle Ben’s Rice that is attempting to give Ben a makeover:

Uncle Ben, who first appeared in ads in 1946, is being reborn as Ben, an accomplished businessman with an opulent office, a busy schedule, an extensive travel itinerary and a penchant for sharing what the company calls his “grains of wisdom” about rice and life.

Check out the Uncle Ben’s web site for a glimpse at the campaign.

Uncle Ben is a perfect example of the Tom caricature. From the excellent Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia web site:

The Tom caricature portrays Black men as faithful, happily submissive servants. The Tom caricature, as with the Mammy Caricature, was born in ante-bellum America in the defense of slavery. How could slavery be wrong, argued its proponents, if Black servants, males (Toms) and females (Mammies) were contented, loyal servants? The Tom is presented as a smiling, wide-eyed, dark skinned server: fieldworker, cook, butler, porter, or waiter. Unlike the Coon, the Tom is portrayed as a dependable worker, eager to serve. Unlike the Brute, the Tom is docile and non-threatening to Whites. The Tom is often old, physically weak, psychologically dependent on Whites for approval.

During the antebellum era, whites would often refer to elderly black slaves as “uncle” or “aunt.” It was a way of bestowing some respect without going so far as to treat them as actual equals by calling them “Mr.” or “Mrs.” This means that the very names of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are directly descended from the culture of slavery.

Let’s take a look at the history of how Uncle Ben came to be, shall we? From the Times article:

According to Ms. Kern Foxworth’s book and other reference materials, there was a Ben — no surname survives — who was a Houston rice farmer renowned for the quality of his crops. During World War II, Gordon L. Harwell, a Texas food broker, supplied to the armed forces a special kind of white rice, cooked to preserve the nutrients, under the brand name Converted Rice.

In 1946, Mr. Harwell had dinner with a friend (or business partner) in Chicago (or Houston) and decided that a portrait of the maitre d’hotel of the restaurant, Frank Brown, could represent the brand, which was renamed Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice as it was being introduced to the consumer market.

This story is really the epitome of packaging and selling and profiting from blackness. Basically, they used the likeness of some random black man to represent the real Ben, and went on to make millions and millions of dollars from this brand. And something tells me that neither the maitre d’ nor the original Ben ever saw a cent of that fortune. [And by the way, the business unit that produces Uncle Ben's rice is called Masterfoods USA. No comment.]

Of course, Masterfoods USA trotted out their Official Person of Color to demonstrate how un-racist the brand is:

Vincent Howell, president for the food division of the Masterfoods USA unit of Mars, said that because consumers described Uncle Ben as having “a timeless element to him, we didn’t want to significantly change him.”

“What’s powerful to me is to show an African-American icon in a position of prominence and authority,” Mr. Howell said. “As an African-American, he makes me feel so proud.”

…So about 18 months ago, the company and agency decided “to reach out to our consumers” and gauge attitudes toward Uncle Ben, Mr. Howell said. There were no negative responses or references to the stereotyped aspects of the character, he said. Rather, the consumers “focused on positive images, quality, warmth, timelessness,” he added, and “the legend of Uncle Ben.”

That encouraged the idea that “we could bring him to life,” Mr. Howell said, sensitive to “the sorts of concerns that are important to me as an African-American.”

Barf.

This rebranding campaign is really the epitome of putting lipstick on a pig.

  • Uncle Ben is still grinning and wearing a bowtie. There’s nothing Chairman of the Board-esque about that image.
  • Uncle Ben still has no last name. When’s the last time you heard a powerful man referred to by his first name? That’s Mr. Gates to you, not Bill.
  • He’s still Uncle Ben. No matter what fantasies you weave about him being the Chairman of the Board, his very name still comes from the culture of slavery.

Just get rid of the brand altogether. There’s nothing worth salvaging here.