Changing Societal Norms and Culture Requires Reexamining Our History

[On race and society] 

By: Christopher Ryan Crisanti

Published: June 21, 2020

The murder of George Floyd has provoked discussion of racism and social justice into other areas of society, such as sports and pop culture. While some contend this is inappropriate or unnecessary, the reality is that change is only possible through reshaping societal norms and how we think about racism. The bridge to reshaping norms and culture first needs to begin with reexamining American history.  

This is apparent in two recent examples: The Quaker Oats Company’s discussion to rename and rebrand Aunt Jemima products due to its racist history and the removal of confederate moments by various municipalities across the country.

First, there are some who assert that Aunt Jemima was not built off a racial stereotype. While this argument can probably be defeated by simply Googling early images of the product’s branding, some may still not view it as racist because we are shaped by our societal norms and culture. In effect, context behind those images is needed to show why it is racist. 

The character of Aunt Jemima was first introduced at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and was played by a Chicagoan named Nancy Green. While Green was a former slave herself, Aunt Jemima was caricatured as a black “mammy” house cook dressed in an apron and bandana that was content and “happy” in her current role making and serving pancakes. 

According to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, “mammy” branding escalated upon the marketing of Aunt Jemima; perpetuating a fictional narrative that slaves or house workers were not only content in their role, but also inferior and uneducated.

This is not only apparent in the image of how “mammies” were depicted – with overly dark black skin, excessive wide grin, and personality of servitude – but how Aunt Jemima’s vocabulary was personified as elementary at best. Some of these words included “wif,” “dese,” “dey,” “yo,” “Lawsee!” and “I’se in town honey.” An older radio commercial even has the song “Dixie” playing in the background while Aunt Jemima confesses her “happiness.” 

Some may be content with the use of racist symbols as long as wealth is created and the fruits of labor are evenly distributed. Contrary to perception, there is no evidence that Nancy Green died a millionaire. Moreover, heirs of Anna Harrington – the second person to play Aunt Jemima – sued Quaker Oats for $2 billion in 2014 claiming the company had exploited her (and others) image without properly compensating them. While a judge eventually dismissed the suit, hardly any evidence exists on how much previous actors were actually paid; leaving society to assume that actors who have played Aunt Jemima were properly compensated. After all, why wouldn’t they?

The history of confederate monuments is perhaps one of the most misunderstood due to institutional and societal norms over the years intentionally shaping how we think about such symbols, without regard to the real truth behind their erection. 

The most common defense of tolerating such symbols in public space is that they are a part of American history and we must preserve them. Moreover, individuals who oppose removing the monuments claim that the monuments represent their “culture” and “heritage” and removing them would diminish their pride and identity as a Southerner. 

Not often discussed, however, is when most of the monuments were erected and why they were erected. A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center indicated that the majority of monuments were erected in the early 1900s, not shortly after the War or during Reconstruction. The data also illustrates a spike in monuments built beginning in 1954.

What explains the spike in confederate monuments in the early 20th Century? It is no coincidence that the timing directly relates to the growing racial tension during this period. The Plessey vs. Ferguson court case in 1896 upheld Jim Crow laws, further perpetuating segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement. The NAACP was formed in 1909 in response to fight for social justice. The production of The Birth of a Nation (1915) provoked one of the first protests for racial justice, while also reviving the KKK. America grappled with race riots throughout the late 1910s and early 1920s, such as the Red Summer (1919) and Tulsa Massacre (1921). In effect, historical evidence suggests that the intent of building confederate monuments was to help maintain and preserve racial superiority in the wake of contemporary events and for future generations.

Society needs to discuss and rethink the purpose of controversial symbols in public space. If the goal is to memorialize important figures in American history and preserve their legacy, allowing confederate monuments may perhaps be the most un-American due to one basic truth: confederate officers were traders to the union. 

There is context behind all symbols and images. They have the potential to shape our thinking on issues overtime, sometimes even without consciousness because some have become so ingrained in pop culture and society. It is up to us on whether we have the courage to reexamine history, rethink certain issues and reshape our societal norms and culture or allow it to suppress the truth and continue to hoodwink future generations.  

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