Bay Area Teen Petitioner Responds to Trader Joe’s Reversing Packaging Renaming

After committing to phasing out controversial labels from their international goods, Trader Joe's has reversed its stance.  (iStock)

After announcing to discontinue racially stereotypical labels from its international food products, Trader Joe’s walked back those promises late last month refuting criticism that the branding isn’t racist or harmful. On July 21, a spokesperson for the grocery chain made a statement about phasing out international derivatives of the Trader Joe’s brand including Trader José’s and Trader Ming’s. That first statement came on the heels of a petition started by Oakley high school student Briones Bedell that has garnered over 6,000 signatures. Bedell started the petition in early July pointing out that the company labels and imagery on global food products relied on harmful stereotypes and caricatures.

Despite the company’s change of heart regarding its branding, Bedell isn’t letting up on her fight for Trader Joe’s to recognize the harm its marketing perpetuates and profits off of.  Bedell draws a clear line between Trader Joe’s founder Joe Coulombe’s aesthetic inspirations for the company’s to Western colonialist fantasies of foreign lands. Most recently on her Twitter account, Bedell pointed out an Oklahoma themed reusable bag from the grocery chain that references the Trail of Tears as a feature of the state along with the state tree, the Eastern Red Bud and the Sooners as native landmarks of the state. “Who would celebrate the Trail of Tears or treat it as a source of pride—let alone design, produce and sell reusable grocery bags highlighting a government-sanctioned atrocity that killed and brutalized thousands of Native Americans?” she asked in a Tweet. 

KQED spoke with Bedell to get her thoughts about the company’s inconsistent statements and what comes next in her fight towards eliminating detrimental language and imagery in food and beyond. Responses have been edited for style and clarity.

KQED: How are you feeling about Trader Joe’s backtracking on their commitment to changing their labels?
Briones Bedell: I'm disappointed and quite frankly, surprised at what seems to be a complete reversal of their previous commitment for removing labels from international foods that Trader Joe’s had previously described as not being conducive to creating, I think their words were, “a welcoming, rewarding customer experience.” 

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I'm glad that this issue has invited a discourse about depictions of race and ethnicity at Trader Joe's. However,their choice of racially insensitive packaging, I think is ultimately symbolic of more complex issues, especially when it is embedded within their broader corporate brand philosophy. For example, a book titled White Shadows in the South Seas [was] an inspiration for the founder of the company in creating the brand. This book goes as far as to celebrate the myth of the noble savage and the white God narratives and it relies heavily on these aspects of exoticism that we can see mirrored in their branding of international foods. I think Trader Joe's, given this context, becomes an all too convenient device to talk more broadly about our society's ingrained edifices of imperialism and how our current systems continue to reflect these tendencies. Again, to reiterate, [this branding] is not cultural celebration or representation. I mean, the brands are shells of the cultures that they claim to represent. They're only caricatures and vague ideas and stereotypes — not anything of actual substance. It becomes a tool of othering and insidious microaggression given this essential context, especially given that they're profiting off of these stereotypes. 

How does your framing around this come about? What was your education like about these subjects?
Prior to this petition specifically, I had an interest in protecting intangible cultural content, specifically traditional cultural expressions Previously, I had presented at venues such as the World Intellectual Property Organization and the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums. My prior interest in these subjects made me sensitive to what I perceive as a trivializing impact of Trader Joe’s branding which then compelled me to speak up about it. I've been grateful in my upbringing and education to have had mentors and supporters who have encouraged me to question sources of authority. [It’s one thing to see when] something wrong or something feels off. But it's another thing to be able to explain the how and why of it. I've been grateful for that. 

Have you found something specific or notable about how exoctizing and othering happens in the world of food as opposed to the art world?
When we talk about, like art that's in museums and intellectual property and cultural content, sometimes that's very inaccessible or just not as available as something like food, which is one of the most basic ways that we interact with and are introduced to cultures outside of our own. Food, generally, in comparison to other activities, is cheap. When I was doing more research about Trader Joe's marketing and marketing in general, using, you know, caricatures and exoticism to market food, I put the pieces together. I think that we can consider the internationally branded labels as being representative of a broader marketing tactic that employs that same exoticism, because the products are considered alternative to a Eurocentric cuisine that's perceived as the “normal”. The marketing is intended to allow a consumer who has relatively little economic capital but a lot of social capital to build up perceived sophistication, virtue, worldliness and knowledge through their engagement with food. And actually, Joe Coulombe who established the esthetics of the brand, he had a particular customer base in mind. He described his customers frequently, [as] over-educated, underpaid. 

There's not necessarily anything wrong with engaging with cultures other than your own, and I think it's a good practice. But the irony here is that it's often in this context when it's marketed [as] exotic food, it's often at the expense of those very cultures that they're drawing from. Boxing out those same communities in their own neighborhoods, otherizing them. 

It also romanticizes the ongoing effects of imperialism, which have been particularly profound and severe in the Pacific region when we're talking about tiki. Using tiki to hawk products to gain a profit [when] tiki often draws on religiously important motifs and in various specific cultures.It's not only in poor taste, but it's this example of rampant cultural appropriation that's gone unchecked for decades. 

Briones Bedell is confident her petition is engendering conversations around harmful stereotypical depictions of non-American cultures.
Briones Bedell is confident her petition is engendering conversations around harmful stereotypical depictions of people and cultures across the globe. (courtesy of Briones Bedell)

 What do you think are the company’s intentions around this marketing, and how does it matter?
This has been a big point of contention within the discussion.How can you prove intent? I would say that I belong to the school of thought that says it doesn't necessarily matter what the intent was. I think ignorance lets the company say it didn't understand. Although I don't buy that this company didn't understand that these symbols would be inappropriate, offensive and even racist. We don't generally use ignorance as a free pass for the individual who's perpetuating racism in their personal lives. And so why should we apply this to a multi-billion dollar corporation who is putting out imagery and labels that perpetuate exoticism, romanticize imperialism? 

Trader Joe's, with the amount of revenue it pulls in, with the amount of different communities it serves, it has over 500 locations [in the nation], certainly could afford to and would do well to allocate more time and money to reviewing how their brand may perpetuate racial stereotypes and how they can rectify that. I think in this current moment in particular, there are people who have been reluctant to comment on race and the ramifications that it has on American citizens, are now entering that conversation. We're talking about issues of race much more openly than we ever have before. As a white person, I can say I know a lot of white people that were very reluctant to have frank conversations about race prior to even just this summer. I think in the light of recent events and a trend for years now [where] consumers are increasingly looking toward companies to support or align with their ethics and your personal philosophies, Trader Joe's would do well [to] really sharpen its message on diversity and inclusion to their loyal, almost cult like fan base. 

 What does a moment like this call for from where you sit with this petition?
Since the petition has started, I’ve got a significant amount of backlash from a variety of different groups. People who tend to self identify as conservative have decried it as an example of cancel culture, oversensitivity or political correctness. Then people who identify themselves as on the left or liberal tend to say that this is diluting the real tangible impact of very measurable impacts of racism in other spheres.

What I am incredibly unclear on and disappointed in is that [Trader Joe's] is waffling on their position. There's been an incredible amount of backlash [but] there's also been increasing support, and especially recently. And I'm just happy that is opening up a dialogue and again, continuing these discussions about race and ethnicity that we're having currently in the U.S. Racism at all levels, systemic racism particularly, can be addressed and weeded out. I think that Trader Joe's had an incredible opportunity to clarify their brand messaging and they speak so often about this [in] their PR statements about this welcoming and rewarding customer experience.

I think their incredible lack of clarity on this issue with the ethnically branded products reflects very poorly on the integrity for the company and their commitment to their stated goals for diversity and inclusion. In conjunction with the more recently discovered, culturally insensitive and racist caricatures being used to sell their goods as well as that Oklahoma bag with Trail of Tears on it, I think it necessitates deeper work and a closer look at policies and procedures internally as a company. Ultimately, at this point, my hope and our hope, the supporters, would be that Trader Joe’s will make a commitment again to those stated goals and take a firm stance on the necessity for cultural sensitivity, anti-racism and include that recognition that the continued perpetuating of imperialistic narratives in any form is harmful. 

I've been very grateful to receive a lot of feedback on the petition, whether positive or negative, because I know that it's starting conversations more broadly. But I am unsettled by the amount of ignorance and misinformation out there regarding the problems associated with things like cultural appropriation [and] the need to protect cultural content. And if nothing else, I hope to continue that conversation and continue to get the word out. 

Have you heard from Trader Joe’s personally throughout these past two months of doing this work?
I have not heard from Trader Joe's regarding the petition. The closest that I've gotten to that is that they reference the petition vaguely on their announcement on their website. But no, there's been no direct contact. 

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 How are you using this to create public education around imperialism in food spaces?
There's been a lot of people that I've encountered that just haven't even heard of the words like exoticism or even realize that imperialism is a thing that happens in the United States or that it's relevant to our history as a diverse nation. That's been an incredible opportunity within itself, and I hope to continue to raise awareness about these issues and the very deep lasting impact because the truth and the legacy effects are ongoing. It's not over. I think the first step is just recognizing that there are people who aren't even aware that it's a problem. And so when they encounter this, there's kind of a knee jerk reaction like “What do you mean? This sounds very over sensitive or very foreign” because many of us just unfortunately just haven't been introduced to it. So I hope that can resolve that. Like I said before, you can point out that something is off or something is wrong but having the ability to explain how or why and when, that's really the crucial part of this. I hope that Trader Joe's will get rid of the ethnic branding and revise the policy. But again, this issue is far broader. It concerns so many different people, communities. It opens the gates to all sorts of conversations. It's just a reexamination of what we find acceptable.