Trader Joe’s is one of my favorite grocers. What other store stocks lemon ricotta ravioli and cookies designed for dunking? Not to mention the company’s witty humor, conveyed in the names of its sub-brands—Trader Ming’s Chinese food, Arabian Joe’s Middle Eastern food, Trader José’s Mexican food, Trader Giotto’s Italian food, and Trader Joe San’s Japanese cuisine—as well as its newsletter, Fearless Flyer. So, I was disappointed to hear that people have taken offense to these names, demanding “that Trader Joe’s remove racist branding and packaging from its stores.”
The meaning of the word “racism” seems altogether lost on the misguided, white California high-school senior who started the petition—and, apparently, on the 5,000+ people who have “signed” it. “Racism” means judging people or groups on unchosen characteristics, such as skin color, instead of on the content of their character, the skills they’ve developed, or other chosen characteristics. Actual racists—such as the vanishingly small minority of people today who are bigoted enough to join the Ku Klux Klan—deserve ridicule and ostracism. And a grocer who celebrated, say, National Socialism, with products such as “Extra Aryan White Bread” or “Goebbels’ Turkey Breast” would too.
But naming a product to reflect the culture that originated it is—if anything but playful—an act of justice: It is an acknowledgment of those who created and/or popularized the good.
The high-schooler insists, though, that “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.” A commenter on the petition echoed this outrage, writing, “We have really got stop [sic] otherizing every damn thing in the global pantry.”
A few questions come to mind: Are different cultures, well . . . different? Self-evidently, they are. And is there harm in acknowledging such differences? Shall we demand that pub owners stop naming their watering holes Gallagher’s or Paddy Murphy’s so as not to “otherize” Irish people? Shall we demand that Miguel’s Mexican and Luigi’s Pizza be renamed “Joe’s-Just-Like-Every-Other Restaurant” so as not to “exoticize” Mexican or Italian cultures? What a boring and culturally unappreciative world these snowflakes seem to be asking for.
And if Trader Joe’s had, from the start, gone with some plain-jane names instead of acknowledging the cultures from whence their products derive, wouldn’t those who choose to be offended by everything be crying “cultural appropriation”? Undoubtedly.
I was distraught when media outlets reported that Trader Joe’s had kowtowed to the petitioners’ demands—as if this company, which supplies delicious and creative foods at excellent prices, had done something wrong.
Fortunately, it turns out that these reports were erroneous. Trader Joe’s released a statement saying, “We want to be clear: we disagree that any of these labels are racist,” and, “We do not make decisions based on petitions.” Amen. The statement describes the decision, made “decades ago,” to use Giotto’s, José’s, and the like, saying, “We thought then—and still do—that this naming of products could be fun and show appreciation for other cultures.”
Trader Joe’s—a “fearless flyer” in its own right—serves as an exemplar for other companies and deserves everyone’s support.
The company’s statement (which has been shared 9,700 times on Facebook, and which I encourage you to share, too) is a beautiful response to America’s growing “cancel culture,” wherein children are taught to find offense in the most innocent—or even morally-correct—actions. Those who oppose this irrational trend should applaud Trader Joe’s—and celebrate with some ice-cold Trader José’s Mexican-style lager.
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