A new Change.org petition accuses Trader Joe’s of exoticizing ethnic foods with their nicknames such as “Trader Giotto’s,” “Trader Ming’s” or “Trader José.”
The company has now responded and says they will make changes.
The petition started by Briones Bedell reads:
We demand that Trader Joe’s remove racist branding and packaging from its stores. The grocery chain labels some of its ethnic foods with modifications of “Joe” that belies a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes. For example, “Trader Ming’s” is used to brand the chain’s Chinese food, “Arabian Joe” brands Middle Eastern foods, “Trader José” brands Mexican foods, “Trader Giotto’s” is for Italian food, and “Trader Joe San” brands their Japanese cuisine. Furthermore, the Trader Joe’s company takes pride in the fact that the founder, Joe Coulombe, took inspiration in building the Trader Joe’s brand from a racist book and a controversial theme park attraction, both of which have received criticism for romanticizing Western Imperialism and fetishizing non-Western peoples. 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?
Likewise, the Disneyland Jungle Cruise Ride has received criticism of misappropriating Indigenous culture and perpetuating stereotypes of native people as primitive and savage. The ride features animatronic people only identified as “headhunters” and “natives” dressed in some sort (of which culture it is unclear) of traditional dress, performing a dance, and playing music – and threatening violence toward visitors. It has been criticized as exoticism at its worst due to its exhibition of humans as an attraction that otherwise focuses on animals. Given the extensive history of “human zoos” in the United States, this attraction is unacceptable. In addition, these animatronic people only seem to serve as the punchline of jokes as part of the ride’s experience. This particular display of exoticism is especially confusing in the context of Trader Joe’s because it again leaves the question: What in particular about this theme park ride inspired the company?
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 book, White Shadows in the South Seas is racist because it perpetuates the myth of the “white god” and the “noble savage” stereotypes. It becomes even more racist in context because the founder of Trader Joe’s said that he was inspired by this book in some way when creating his company, a book which shows traders’ exotification of non-Western peoples turned into violent exploitation and destruction. The Disney Jungle Cruise is racist because it displays caricatures of non-Western peoples alongside exotic animals, as an attraction at a theme park to be gawked at.
The common thread between all of these transgressions is the perpetuation of exoticism, the goal of which is not to appreciate other cultures, but to further other and distance them from the perceived “normal.” The current branding, given this essential context, then becomes even more trivializing and demeaning than before. What at first seems, at worst, insensitive, further is called into question.
Per the SF Gate, Trader Joe’s has responded:
UPDATE: The company responded to calls to change the packaging on its international products with the following statement:
“While this approach to product naming may have been rooted in a lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness, we recognize that it may now have the opposite effect— one that is contrary to the welcoming, rewarding customer experience we strive to create every day,” said Kenya Friend-Daniel, national director of public relations for Trader Joe’s. “With this in mind, we made the decision several years ago to use only the Trader Joe’s name on our products moving forward. Since then, we have been in the process of updating older labels and replacing any variations with the name Trader Joe’s, and we will continue do so until we complete this important work.
“At this time, I don’t have an exact date but we expect to have the work completed very soon. Packaging for a number of the products has already been changed, but there’s a small number of products in which the packaging is still going through the process.”