Trader Joe’s to Change Branding Criticized as Racist Because It ‘Exoticizes Other Cultures’

Illustration for article titled Trader Joe’s to Change Branding Criticized as Racist Because It ‘Exoticizes Other Cultures’
Photo: Michael Nagle (Getty Images)

Trader Joe’s is the latest company to be confronted in the race-reckoning of 2020 and is now making some branding changes after being called out on the racist labeling of its ethnic food products.


From the Los Angeles Times:

The names Trader Ming’s, Arabian Joe’s, Trader Jose’s, Trader Giotto’s and Trader Joe San appear on items such as habañero and lime salsa, gyoza dipping sauce and artichoke antipasto.

The popular Southern California institution has created “a narrative of exoticism,” according to an online petition posted about two weeks ago calling for Trader Joe’s to remove and rebrand a variety of products with “racist” labeling.

Let’s be real: being all extra when branding ethnic foods in the first place has “white people decision making” written all over it. This is the kind of energy that has cringy white suburbanites giddily and awkwardly speaking broken Spanish to their Hispanic lawn-care professionals who happen to also speak fluent English. This shit gives off major “Can I touch your hair?” vibes.

Since the Black lives Matter movement has pretty much consumed America (and much of the world), a lot of white people are coming to terms with the fact that they are the only ones who view whiteness as the default for cultural normalcy—and that’s exactly what the petition is calling out.

“The 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 - they are ‘Arabian Joe,’ ‘Trader José,’ and ‘Trader Joe San,’” the petition started by 17-year-old Briones Bedell reads.

The petition also offers an interesting take on the book that apparently inspired Trader Joe’s founder Joe Coulombe to start what became a grocery empire.

We learn directly from the Trader Joe’s website that the first Trader Joe’s store:

“had a nautical theme and it was run by people who were described as “traders on the high seas.” At the time, Joe had been reading a book called “White Shadows in the South Seas,” and he’d been to the Disneyland Jungle Trip ride, and it all just…coalesced. To this day, Trader Joe’s Crew Members consider themselves “traders on the culinary seas” and are known for their bright, tropical-patterned shirts...”

The book White Shadows in the South Seas was also made into a silent film. This work demonstrates the horrific legacy of trading companies as they exploited and enslaved the South Pacific in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of these regions are still at a disadvantage today because of how traders ravaged their peoples, their societies, and their natural resources. Even though the story calls out the abuses of trading companies, (although it perpetuates other racist tropes such as that of the “noble savage” and “white god” narratives common during this period), “Trader” is still part of the grocery chain’s name. It leaves the question: What in particular about this book inspired the company?


So now, Trader Joe’s is making changes to its packaging and labels following brands like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and, fucking finally, the Washington Redskins. Of course, Trader Joe’s is claiming these changes had nothing to do with the petition and had been underway for years.

“We made the decision several years ago to use only the Trader Joe’s name on our products moving forward,” spokesperson Kenya Friend-Daniel told NPR via email. She also said that the company “had hoped that the work would be complete by now but there are still a small number of products going through the packaging change and we expect to be done very soon.”


Sure, Jan. Just hurry up and make the changes.

Zack Linly is a poet, performer, freelance writer, blogger and grown man lover of cartoons



Highly suspicious that this 17 year-old “human rights activist” only has a digital presence dating back to when the petition was launched.

Also good for TJ’s for moving forward and recognizing that sensitivity is all-important, but I think the idea was that there is an everyman “Joe” in every culture, not (like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben) to perpetuate ugly stereotypes.