Friends Ask Quaker Oats to Change Its Name

Quaker Oats oatmeal boxes on display in an aisle at a supermarket. Photo by Mdv Edwards.

Citing concerns about cultural appropriation, 28 Friends and allies have signed an epistle to Quaker Oats asking the food producer to change its name, support consumer wellness, and donate to Friends’ organizations. Will Rogers, the letter’s author, first shared a draft with Friends from Durham (N.C.) Meeting and Palo Alto (Calif.) Meeting in September 2022. He sent the revised letter to Quaker Oats the following month. The U.S.-based food conglomerate, which is a subsidiary of PepsiCo, uses a picture of a Quaker man in plain dress—a dark blue brimmed hat and collarless shirt—that appears on packages of its products.

In 2021, after decades of public pressure, Quaker Oats changed the name and packaging of its pancake mix and syrup because its Aunt Jemima character stereotypically portrayed a formerly enslaved African American woman and romanticized the U.S. South before the Civil War. The company now sells pancake products under the Pearl Milling Company brand name. The brand name change inspired Rogers, a member of Palo Alto Meeting, to petition the company to stop using the Quaker name and likeness or pay for doing so.

“If it’s possible that they could change Aunt Jemima, maybe there’s a world where they could change Quaker Oats,” Rogers said. Rogers hopes to draw on the history of confrontational Quakers who spoke truth to power rather than on the legacy of those who embraced quietism. Reading Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit motivated Rogers to write the letter. The book discusses protests against the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and argues that activism can lead to avoiding a worst case scenario even if it falls short of organizers’ desired outcomes.

The company’s depiction of a Quaker man in outdated garb reinforces the stereotype that Quakers are old fashioned, the letter says.

“It’s not the kind of publicity that we as Quakers of the twenty-first century appreciate,” said Elizabeth Watson-Semmons, a member of Palo Alto Meeting who signed the letter.

The Quaker Oats brand seeks to convey the impression of “simplicity and trustworthiness,” according to the letter. However, the company has marketed its products as healthful when, in fact, they contained harmful trans fats, according to footnotes in the epistle.

In 2014, Quaker Oats settled a class action lawsuit by pledging to remove trans fats from Oatmeal to Go and Instant Quaker Oatmeal and to refrain from re-introducing the harmful ingredients for a decade.

The epistle notes that Quaker Oats earns billions of dollars annually. PepsiCo posted $79.5 billion in revenue in 2021, according to its annual report. The company has never paid the Religious Society of Friends any royalties for use of the Quaker name and picture.

“Actually, Quakers are not getting anything beneficial out of this deal,” said Faith Josephs, of Charlotte (N.C.) Meeting, who signed the letter.

The company could respond to having appropriated the Quaker name by funding Friends’ worldwide work, the letter suggests. Pearl Milling Company awards grants totaling up to $1 million a year to support educational, leadership, and wellness programs for Black women and girls. Pepsico also committed to spending $400 million for such initiatives as partnering with the National Urban League to support Black-owned restaurants and maintaining diversity among its suppliers.

In October 2022, Rogers spoke with a Quaker Oats call center representative who forwarded the letter to a manager. That same month Rogers sent the epistle to the company through its website and got a message confirming receipt. The company has not otherwise responded to the letter.

Quaker Oats did not reply to two emails Friends Journal sent to its public relations team.

The epistle is not the first conflict between Friends and Quaker Oats.  An attorney for the food manufacturer sent a cease and desist letter to the Quaker Oaks Christmas Tree Farm in Visalia, Calif., alleging trademark infringement. The farm’s owner wrote a reply explaining that the farm’s name referred to the oak trees under which Quakers worshiped on the property. The date of the letter exchange is uncertain, but Melissa Lovett-Adair, daughter of the late owner William Lovett, estimates that it occurred in the early 1990s.  

In 1990, a group of young Friends from Durham (N.C.) Meeting wrote to Quaker Oats objecting to its use of the violent cartoon character Popeye the Sailor Man in advertisements. Quaker Oats discontinued the ads.

Meanwhile Rogers continues to collect signatures via an online form linked at the end of the epistle. In doing so, he hopes to gather greater public support from Friends and allies who agree with the letter’s requests.

Sharlee DiMenichi

Sharlee DiMenichi is a staff writer at Friends Journal. Contact: sharlee@friendsjournal.org. Do you know about any Quaker news stories we should be covering? Send us tips at news@friendsjournal.org.

6 thoughts on “Friends Ask Quaker Oats to Change Its Name

  1. The use of the Aunt Jemima character wasn’t cultural appropriation, it was just straight-up racism. Suggesting that a white male in 17th-century garb stereotypes modern Quakers as old-fashioned is not even close to a good comparison.

    I can understand Friends wanting Quaker Oats to stop using that name since the company has no connection to the Society of Friends, but they shouldn’t be citing the Jemima case as a precedent here.

  2. There are points in here that feel to me to walk scarily close to (white?) people asking for a Quaker version of reparations. I don’t like that.

    As it was said above, comparing the situation of “Aunt Jemima” to the Quaker Oats guy is problematic.

    And while I don’t care for the brand, I have never felt like the Quaker Oats guy was bad publicity either. As someone who teaches 18-22 year olds Quakerism, they think its funny, and are usually surprised to learn there is no connect. That humor and surprise are actually fine teaching tools that help stick with folks. I have always found that it typically opens a door to a conversation and curiosity. I think it would be way more interesting to try and find ways to hack the Quaker oats guy to use him for our own purposes. Ha!

    However, it’s fine to not like it, as I said, I’m not a fan, but the argument is unconvincing (at best). General Mills is using the name of a religious group they have no ties to, that’s weird, and it is even more weird that they continue to choose to use “uncle larry” as their mascot. Personally, I think any use of a “Quaker” as a mascot is a very strange choice for many reasons but my main problem is about representation.

    General Mills using a white male Quaker mascot reinforces a singular identity – white and male, and now pretty old fashioned. This reproduces what a Quaker is and fixes that identity in our minds. I think that is the problem. Using these images and stereotypes we play into decentering all those Quakers who “do not fit” the stereotype.

    Quakers are global. Quakers are radically diverse: racially, politically, theologically, economically, in gender, sexuality, religiously, etc. Continuing to use brands and mascots of the old white Quaker man forces a representation that continues to reproduce an image of “a Quaker” that does not serve Quakers (or anyone else for that matter).

    This is not a Justice issue but it sure is a really weird marketing choice.

    I would like to see us Friends do better with the way we talk about, relate to, lift up, and represent Quakerism worldwide and focus our time and energy on the present concerns and needs of our communities.

  3. I asked the company long ago why they chose the mascot/icon/logo and they said there is no connection but the reason was because they felt Quakers were a symbol of integrity and honesty and they liked that. I am a birthright Quaker and we grew up eating the products as well as Aunt Jemima syrup and Uncle Ben rice. Could have been a way for my mother to help us feel comfortable with Black people around the house.

  4. Hi Friends,

    I’ve spent much of the last month+ reflecting on folks’ responses here, on Reddit, and on a since-closed Mastodon instance. Most comments indicate that this is a bad idea, with reasons why. As the person who wrote and sent the letter, I knew that asking Quaker Oats to change its name would not get easy acceptance in the world, but I did not anticipate getting eldered this heavily by Friends. It’s been humbling.

    While it still feels important to call attention to a corporation extracting profit from the name of a religion (without implying Friends’ consent), I’m also compelled by folks’ comments about cultural appropriation.

    To paraphrase: This campaign implies a comparison between Quaker Oats and more common instances of cultural appropriation (eg, appropriation of Indigenous symbols and Black culture). Since The Religious Society of Friends has not endured centuries of oppression, the comparison does not go far. The abuse endured by culture groups who tend to be named in matters of cultural appropriation is of a different magnitude than the focus of this letter.

    Similarly, it’s important to keep clear that the Aunt Jemima brand, which engenders slavery-era nostalgia for consumers, not get confused for “cultural appropriation.”

    It was a mistake for the letter to bring up the subject of appropriation without sufficient clarity about these differences, and I’m grateful for folks’ willingness to respond with their insights.

    I have an impulse to revise or amend the letter to address this, and input is welcome.

    Some Friends have suggested that it was a mistake to write and send the letter at all, citing reasons like image-consciousness and prioritizing our efforts. I’m not sure how to respond to this, and I invite folks to participate as they feel led.

    As a reference, here is a link to the letter sent to Quaker Oats: http://bit.ly/QuakerOats_Epistle

  5. I have spent time contemplating Quaker Oats and their name. I appreciate your letter. I support you and writing the letter. Here in Montana, most of our elected officials are working hard to join Greater Idaho and form an all white country. They plan to dissolve all our reservations and leave the United States. The talk openly about civil war. It maybe time to not be linked with that which is not of our leading.

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