Tom Slater

Farewell, Uncle Ben

Farewell, Uncle Ben
Uncle Ben on a shop shelf, for now (Getty images)
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The mini cultural revolution unleashed by the Black Lives Matter movement, this campaign of cleansing society of any reminder of a more racist past, has been remarkable in its speed and scope. Statues have been toppled. Sitcom episodes have been memory-holed. Actors have been forced into grovelling apologies for once playing a non-white character. Now, perhaps inevitably, they’ve come for the rice products.

This is the news that beloved rice brand Uncle Ben’s is set to scrap its brand character – the eponymous fictional rice farmer – for some reason or other to do with Black Lives Matter. The reasoning behind this will be curious to most. After all, Uncle Ben is not a racist caricature, mocking black people. He’s just black. But in the name of anti-racism, food giant Mars feels it is time for him to go.

‘As we listen to the voices of consumers, especially in the black community, and to the voice of our associates worldwide, we recognise that now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity, which we will do’, Mars said in a statement. ‘Racism has no place in society. We stand in solidarity with the black community, our associates and our partners in the fight for social justice.’

This is nutty even by the standard of the past few weeks. The idea that a kindly looking African-American gentleman on a packet of microwaveable rice is somehow fuelling racism is one even the more woke would struggle with. The only petition I can find calling for this has a mighty 500 signatures. It claims that Uncle Ben is actually an ‘Uncle Tom’, which one can only hope is a joke.

Some people over the years have criticised the brand. A New York Times piece from 2007 discusses the ‘contentious history of Uncle Ben as the black face of a white company, wearing a bow tie evocative of servants and Pullman porters and bearing a title reflecting how white Southerners once used “uncle” and “aunt” as honorifics for older blacks because they refused to say “Mr” and “Mrs”.’

But if Uncle Ben does bear an imprint of racism and Jim Crow, it is one that few today would recognise, or certainly get that upset about. I mean, we’re talking about rice here. In 2007, in an attempt to reckon with his ‘contentious’ history, Ben was made ‘chairman’ of the company. On a website, you could look around his ‘office’, leading to complaints that it didn’t feature any books by civil-rights figures. This level of scrutiny of fictional characters is absurd.

Unfortunately, common sense has been the first casualty of this culture war, as companies and brands have rushed to make statements that are ultimately trivial if we’re supposed to be talking about tackling racism. Many seem to be acting without really thinking, harried by the ‘bold’ moves of others. The Uncle Ben announcement comes after Quaker Foods announced it would be dropping Aunt Jemima syrup, a character whose origins track back to a more explicitly racist minstrel-show stereotype.

Many on the anti-racist left are trying to distance themselves from the excesses of this moment. But they have to take responsibility for this hysteria. For years, their hypersensitivity and determination to see racism everywhere has led us into endless niche debates that are of zero consequence to anyone. If you remember, the last time we were talking about rice and race was when Dawn Butler MP accused Jamie Oliver of cultural appropriation over his ‘jerk rice’ pouches.

This obsession with trivialities is how we’ve ended up here: with the image of a black man being removed from a rice packet in the name of anti-racism. A once proud movement for equality has been reduced to a bad joke.

Written byTom Slater

Tom Slater is deputy editor of Spiked

Topics in this articleSociety