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Striving for Equality

06/18/2020 08:35:14 AM

Jun18

Rabbi Sam Trief

As we packed up and moved from NYC to Atlanta, there were a number of disagreements between my husband and me about what was going to Goodwill and what was moving along with us.

Our most notable argument was about a giant red banner with an image of Aunt Jemima. “Why do we need this?”, I proclaimed! “It’s a nice memory of my past life.”...said Natan.

Memory of a past life?! I knew that Natan spent time in corporate America prior to becoming a Rabbi, and that he worked in brand management at Quaker Oats. What I did not remember, however, was that he spent two years assigned to the Aunt Jemima brand.

Later that day, as we continued to pack our various boxes, I remember finding a provocative book entitled Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima.

This random find helped spark an intense discussion about Aunt Jemima and the brand’s association with plantations, slavery, racial stereotypes, and how deeply hurtful it was to so many people

Natan recalled that it was a brand that Quaker Oats often had to defend, and the company even gave him talking points to do so. In our discussion in 2016, we concluded that the company had done right by modernizing the image and addressing the controversies. But for us, it was an intellectual exercise rather than a deeply personal one.

Recognizing the deep racial stereotypes of the brand, you have likely heard that this week Quaker Oats (and its parent company PepsiCo) revealed that they will remove the Aunt Jemima image altogether, and the brand will be renamed later this year.

I applaud this decision, and see it as one concrete step that corporate America can take to rectify systemic problems. My hope, however, is that decisions like this one do not sanitize or whitewash history. When history books are written, I hope we include tales about organizations who made dynamic transitions from racial stereotyping to racial justice. Lest we forget "that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

As we mark Juneteenth this week, the date to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved peoples in America, we are mindful of all the ways we continue to perpetuate that abominable institution.

And, as we mark LGBTQ Pride Month this month of June, we are mindful of all the ways we continue to stymie the inherent freedom in all People, the unique notion upon which this country was founded. We applaud the Supreme Court's decision this week protecting LGBTQ employees. We applaud Quaker Oats and Pepsico for aligning its products with its values, and standing in real and meaningful solidarity with the Black community.

In this week’s Torah Portion, Moses sends scouts to inspect the land of Canaan in preparation for the Israelite arrival. He instructs the scouts to bring back a comprehensive report regarding the nature of the land, and to respond to a series of questions regarding the land and her inhabitants.

I wonder, if scouts were to come survey the American landscape right now, what questions would we ask and what would the report be? Is it a land that treats her inhabitants equally? Is it a land that works toward fulfilling its founding principles and values? Is it a land of security for all its inhabitants or violence for some?

These are questions which we all play a role in answering. One slow, step at a time.

May we all continue to align our actions with our values, and may this be a Shabbat of deep reflection and striving for equality.

Mon, August 3 2020 13 Av 5780