Trader Joe's has responded to criticisms about its packaging by announcing that it is in the process of eliminating labels that use ethnic-sounding names intended to be humorous.
The offending products bear such labels as Trader Ming’s for foods and condiments related to Chinese cuisine, Trader José's for Mexican-style products and Trader Giotto’s for Italian-themed items.
The company has come under fire in part from a petition, posted for about two weeks, on the Change.org website. It had collected more than 2,000 signatures by Sunday night.
The labels, which offer variations of the Trader Joe's name, exploit "a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes," according to the petition.
The attention on Trader Joe's comes amid a nationwide reconsideration of branding that has accompanied the Black Lives Matter movement. Land O’Lakes has removed a Native -American woman from its products. Meanwhile, the images of Black men and women on product lines such as Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben's and Mrs. Butterworth are in for a makeover, if they survive at all. The Eskimo Pie name also is becoming history.
"The Trader Joe’s branding is racist because it exoticizes other cultures — it presents 'Joe' as the default 'normal' and the other characters falling outside of it — they are 'Arabian Joe,' 'Trader José,' and 'Trader Joe San,'" the petition says.
The company said in a statement that it decided several years ago to use only the Trader Joe's name on its products and has been in the process of updating the ethnic-sounding labels.
“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,” company spokeswoman Kenya Friend-Daniel said.
Packaging for a number of the products has already been changed, and the company expects to complete the process “very soon,” she said.
The petition was posted by Briones Bedell, 17, who is about to start her senior year at a San Francisco Bay Area high school. Her family has shopped occasionally at the local Trader Joe's, and she said Sunday night that offending labels remain throughout the store. Her family isn't patronizing Trader Joe's for the time being.
She said she was encouraged by the company's response but wants Trader Joe's to commit to a timetable for removing the products with the ethnic-themed labels. She added that she is far from the first person to call public attention to this matter.
While she understands that there are financial costs to relabeling or removing products, "the petition remains important because Trader Joe's lacks the urgency to deal with this issue in the current climate,” she said.
In her petition, Briones also calls into question the company's story about the origin of the market's mildly nautical theme. At the time, founder Joe Coulombe "had been reading a book called 'White Shadows in the South Seas,' and he’d been to the Disneyland Jungle Trip ride, and it all just…coalesced," the company's web site says.
Although the 1919 book by Frederick O’Brien portrays white capitalists as destroyers of native culture, critics, including Briones, have accused the narrative of "perpetuating the myth of the noble savage and the white god." The book was made into a 1928 silent movie that was considered a technical and artistic landmark at the time.
The petition also criticizes the use of stereotypes in Disneyland's Jungle Cruise.
The first Trader Joe's opened in 1967 in Pasadena, and offbeat humor has long been the rhetorical soundtrack for good deals on an eclectic and sometimes unpredictable line of products. The privately held chain has expanded to more than 500 stores nationwide, pledging a mantra of no artificial flavors, preservatives or genetically modified ingredients in its store brands.
Local stores have been no less popular during the coronavirus pandemic, offering to spray hand sanitizer on customers and disinfecting all carts and baskets between uses.
A testament to the chain's popularity — and its appeal to the conscious consumer — is that two other Trader Joe's petitions also have gained traction on the Change.org site. One calls for the company to reduce plastic packaging — it has 124,000 signatures. And another begs the company to open a branch in Beaumont, Texas — it has more than 2,800 signatures.
But just as Trader Joe's transformed when it began focusing as much on selling granola as liquor, standards for acceptable mainstream humor also have evolved.
Referring to the book, the Disneyland ride and the Trader Joe's labels, the petition says, "The common thread between all of these transgressions is the perpetuation of exoticism, the goal of which is not to appreciate other cultures, but to further other and distance them from the perceived 'normal.' The current branding, given this essential context, then becomes even more trivializing and demeaning than before. What at first seems, at worst, insensitive, further is called into question."
Briones said that her issue pales next to police brutality, which literally takes lives, but that the current climate of activism is a ripe moment to question "microaggressions" that build up to greater harms.