Trader Joe's Might Change Its Labels, But Then Again, Maybe Not [Updated]

Update, July 30, 2020: Last week, it sounded like Trader Joe's was fairly receptive to the petition demanding that the store remove certain packaging whose labels, according to activist Briones Bedell, exoticize and "other" non-Western cultures with names like Trader José, Trader Ming, Arabian Joe, Trader Giotto, Trader Joe San, and Baker Josef.

"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," said Trader Joe's spokesperson Kenya Friend-Daniel at the time, acknowledging that the product labels were intended to be lighthearted and fun but might instead have "the opposite effect."

However, several days after these comments acknowledging concerns of racist packaging, Trader Joe's released a statement on its website clarifying that it isn't necessarily committed to the removal of these labels, denying "inaccurate reports that the petition prompted us to take action." In a post titled "A Note About Our Product Naming," the company wrote in part,

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.

Trader Joe's went on to explain that customer behavior is what drives change within its stores and that any products renamed in the past were altered to better "[align] with customers' expectations": "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."

What this means for the labels called out by the petition remains unclear, but the Trader Joe's statement confirmed, "We continue our ongoing evaluation, and those products that resonate with our customers and sell well will remain on our shelves."

Original post, July 20, 2020: Trader Joe is a pretty well-traveled guy, and, like a kid in a foreign-language class, he adopts a new name for every country he visits. His aliases include Trader José, Trader Ming, Arabian Joe, Trader Giotto, Trader Joe San, and Baker Josef. But now a petition declares that these names are racist and demands that Trader Joe's cut them from its packaging.

The petition, started by Briones Bedell, a California high school senior and youth human rights activist, outlines the racist history of Trader Joe's. Founder Joe Coulombe had been inspired by the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland and Frederick O'Brien's 1919 travel book White Shadows In The South Seas (which was made into a silent movie in 1928); the two "coalesced" in his mind, according to the store's website. This is why Trader Joe's stores have a pirate theme and why employees still wear Hawaiian shirts. The petition so far has received more than 2,600 signatures and a response from Trader Joe's.

"While this approach to product naming may have been rooted in a lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness," company spokeswoman Kenya Friend-Daniel said in a statement, "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. With this in mind, we made the decision several years ago to use only the Trader Joe's name on our products moving forward." She added that Trader Joe's was already in the process of removing some of the offending names and that it would be complete "very soon."

Bedell remains unappeased. "There's an abundance of products in their stores," she told The New York Times, "and I think it's still important — the petition remains important — because Trader Joe's lacks the urgency needed in the current climate to remedy the issue."

Bedell went into greater detail in her petition:

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.