So Trader Joe’s won’t cave into a 17-year-old’s demand that it scrub its shelves of products named in such a way as to suggest cultural origins outside the 50 U.S. states. Briones Bedell, a white high schooler from the San Francisco Bay area, gave it a try. She ran a petition to, in her mind, protect Asians, Latinos and Arabs from such product labels as “Trader Joe San,” “Trader Jose” and “Arabian Joe.”
Now, as far as we know, members of these groups had not organized objections to these alleged racial or ethnic insults. And the reason may be that they didn’t feel insulted. But Bedell decided they should be.
Which is itself kind of racist.
In “woke” terms, Bedell has engaged in cultural appropriation of the feelings of nonwhites. “San,” for example, is an honorific title in Japanese, which may explain why Trader-San does not seem to offend those of Japanese origin. And if people of Japanese origin have objections, they are perfectly capable of expressing them.
The high schooler’s petition gathered over 5,000 names, but you can get 5,000 people to call for a ban on pachysandra as a ground covering. At first, Trader Joe’s waffled at her demands. Then it got a grip and brushed them off.
Betraying zero sense of humor, Bedell attacked the company’s website for noting that founder Joe Coulombe had been inspired by, among other things, the Disneyland Jungle Cruise ride. The ride “has received criticism of misappropriating Indigenous culture and perpetuating stereotypes of native people as primitive and savage,” she writes, suggesting her outrage comes secondhand. Images of the ride don’t bear out those charges unless one believes that showing a human not dressed for downtown Berkeley is somehow disrespectful.
The company website was actually ribbing Joe for being inspired by a Disneyland ride, careful readers will note. And he was on it over 50 years ago.
When cultural activists take it upon themselves to defend the “other,” they must also define the other. Their complaint that white people tend to be the default in this country is not without merit, but that’s a lot less true today than it was.
One doubts that Latinos feel like the other in downtown Los Angeles. Nowadays, it’s hard to find a gathering in a large urban center that is overwhelmingly dominated by white faces, apart from a Bernie Sanders rally.
In California, whites are now only 37 percent of the population. Not only are nearly 40 percent of Californians Latino but the state’s heritage and history are largely Hispanic. What’s the problem, then, with a product called Trader Jose in San Jose?
This is not to deny that some product labels are problematic. The Aunt Jemima character originated in a 19th-century minstrel song, and the early labels depicted her as a stereotypical mammy. Her updated version in 1989, slimmed down with pearls and lace collar, passed my sensitivity test. But the parent company, Quaker Oats, has closed down the pancake mix and syrup brand.
I now fear for Stubb’s Legendary Bar-B-Q Sauce, whose label features a smiling black man in a cowboy hat. The picture is of the late Christopher B. “Stubb” Stubblefield, who was proprietor of Stubb’s Legendary Bar-B-Q in Lubbock, Texas. He looks like someone who would know something about Texas barbecue, which is why I bought the sauce.
When members of the groups portrayed express unhappiness over marketing, they deserve a listen. But no one cast Bedell & Co. to play the white savior, a criticized movie narrative in which a white character is needed to rescue nonwhite characters.
What will the woke search parties go after next? Hawaiian shirts? Oh, some already are.