Speaking as a child of the ’90s who grew up white in the Deep South before moving to Kentucky in middle school, whose parents went to great effort to try to raise him right but didn’t talk much about symbols and race, I cannot relate to people who have strong feelings that Pepsi’s dissolution of the Aunt Jemima brand is important and necessary.
Fact is, I used Aunt Jemima syrup on my French toast just Tuesday morning and didn’t think much about it. And the 2020 version of that brand is pretty tame, even though an examination of its past might draw a cringe.
But, as we have tried to communicate on both the opinion page and in the sports section in recent weeks, part of the reckoning we are going through as a country is the realization we should listen more closely to what other people tell us about their own experiences.
That doesn’t mean we should co-opt their views as our own, necessarily, but — assuming we all grasp that we can and should do better in race relations than we are now — it’s important that we understand what our own experiential blind spots are and work harder to understand why other people think and feel the way they do.
Which brings me to something that happened 10 years ago that bothered me at the time, but which admittedly I hadn’t thought much about since then until I woke up Wednesday to the news that Aunt Jemima is on her way out.
Feb. 26, 2010. East Jessamine High School, Nicholasville, Kentucky. It’s the 46th District Tournament boys basketball championship game matching Mercer County and West Jessamine. It’s one of the first games I ever covered for a “real” newspaper, as an (unpaid) stringer for the Advocate-Messenger of Danville.
The Titans lead a tightly contested game into the final seconds until some guy named Jarrod Polson ties it to force overtime, and the Colts go on to win. Polson’s heroics that postseason help cement his spot on the University of Kentucky’s basketball team.
Wait. We’re getting ahead of ourselves.
At some point during regulation, an older female relative of an African American Mercer County star gets upset about something that happened on the floor. A call or a no-call, in all likelihood — that particular detail is a little fuzzy. Anyway, sitting on the opposite side of the floor from the benches, and the West Jessamine student section, she makes her displeasure known to those around her.
Having spotted and heard this across the way, some of the Colt Crazies — to be clear, it wasn’t the entire section — quickly chanted, “Aunt Je-mi-ma!,” followed by the five rhythmic claps that often accompany four-syllable chants.
This doesn’t go on long — whether it’s because the kids realize that is either offensive or very close to it, because of the profane gesture their chant is met with from across the floor, or both.
(Full disclosure — West Jessamine is my alma mater, and yeah, seeing people from my school act like that bothered me.)
Most people would agree that an entire school, community, race or society shouldn’t be judged by the actions of a few, particularly teenagers and particularly in the high-testosterone setting of a student section during a postseason basketball game.
But, upon reflection about all of this, I was reminded of something Jason Strader said a couple of weeks ago in a conversation in his dining room that evolved into the open letter he and wife Jane wrote in our paper on June 6. He recalled a time he was coaching and heard a much worse slur than “Aunt Jemima” (you know the one).
“It just brings you back to that point of, ‘This is how they see you,’” Strader said.
That is the point here: that upon seeing a black woman express herself vocally, these kids’ minds immediately went to a caricature of a black woman, and they felt comfortable throwing that in her face.
It doesn’t mean those kids (by now grown adults), deep down, are racist. It doesn’t mean we should sanitize all references to specific races, genders and religions from our society. Quite the opposite.
It does mean we should take care that the references and symbols we use are respectful.
And that will require learning from a past that, due to ill intent or ignorance, too often wasn’t respectful. And it will require listening to people whom these things affect more deeply than they affect ourselves.
After all, let’s be real — what does it cost me for Aunt Jemima to change its branding? Only the $2.44 we paid for the bottle of syrup in the first place.
Reach ZACK KLEMME at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2658. Follow @zklemmeADI on Twitter.