Trader Joe’s Issues Statement, Will Not Change Packaging Accused of Being “Racist” After All

In an apparent shift, Trader Joe’s has issued a new statement and will not change their packaging that was accused of being “racist” in a online petition.

This was the petition that started the controversy.

The Change.org 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. 

ABC reported mid-July Grocery store chain Trader Joe’s says it is changing its ethnic food packaging after more than 1,400 people signed a petition describing brands such as “Trader Ming’s” and “Trader Jose’s” as racist.

The popular food store is the latest U.S. company to announce changes in product labeling that critics say are akin to racial stereotyping.

Trader Joe’s responded to the petition on Change.org, which called on the company to “remove racist branding and packaging from its stores.”

The company acknowledged that the product naming may have had the “opposite effect” of its intent.

“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,” Kenya Friend-Daniel, a spokesperson for Trader Joe’s, said in a statement.

However, Trader Joe’s has apparently shifted and has now issued the following statement:

To Our Valued Customers:

In light of recent feedback and attention we’ve received about our product naming, we have some things we’d like to say to clarify our approach.

A few weeks ago, an online petition was launched calling on us to “remove racist packaging from [our] products.” Following were inaccurate reports that the petition prompted us to take action. We want to be clear: we disagree that any of these labels are racist. We do not make decisions based on petitions.

We make decisions based on what customers purchase, as well as the feedback we receive from our customers and Crew Members. If we feel there is need for change, we do not hesitate to take action.

Decades ago, our Buying Team started using product names, like Trader Giotto’s, Trader José’s, Trader Ming’s, etc. We thought then—and still do—that this naming of products could be fun and show appreciation for other cultures. For example, we named our Mexican beer “Trader José Premium” and a couple guacamole products are called “Avocado’s Number” in a kitschy reference to a mathematical theory.  These products have been really popular with our customers, including some budding mathematicians.

We constantly reevaluate what we are doing to ensure it makes sense for our business and aligns with customers’ expectations. A couple years ago we asked our Buying Team to review all our products to see if we needed to update any older packages, and also see if the associated brands developed years ago needed to be refreshed. We found that some of the older names or products just weren’t connecting or selling very well; so, they were discontinued. It’s kind of what we do.

Recently we have heard from many customers reaffirming that these name variations are largely viewed in exactly the way they were intended­—as an attempt to have fun with our product marketing. We continue our ongoing evaluation, and those products that resonate with our customers and sell well will remain on our shelves.

Trader Joe’s has been a unique, fun and neighborly place to shop for over 50 years. We look forward to taking care of our wonderful customers for many future decades.

– Trader Joe’s