Trader Joe’s Knows Petitions Aren’t Commandments

Trader Joe’s has long given playful foreign versions of its name to certain international product lines: Trader José, Trader Giotto, Trader Ming, and so on.

One could have guessed that amidst our racial reckoning (“the Great Awokening,” as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias calls it), these names would come under attack. This happened: A 17-year-old woman spearheaded a petition that attracted more than 5,000 signatures, asking Trader Joe’s to eliminate names that reflect “a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes.”

Trader Joe’s initially seemed inclined to rebrand, but recently decided to retain the names, insisting, “we disagree that any of these labels are racist. We do not make decisions based on petitions.”

Bravo. We must certainly submit what we consider funny to periodic reexamination, and be vigilant about the dangers of stereotyping. However, petitions must also be subject to examination and vigilance, because they can function in ways that are less progressive than puritan.

At the heart of wokeness is a paradox. On one hand, we are not to shoehorn people into preset characterizations; we are to see them as individuals. But on the other hand, we are not to deny that subgroups exist. For example, it is wrong under this catechism to say “I don’t see color” because it can be taken as not only a denial that people of color exist in subordination to white people, but also a denial of cultural differences.

Trader José and Trader Ming would seem to acknowledge the difference, no? Many would say that this misses the point. But just which point?

One might argue that although subgroups do differ from the mainstream, subgroups should define themselves, rather than have the likes of Trader José thrust upon them from the outside. But the problem here is that actual subgroup members often have different preferences than the educated white cohort who see themselves as speaking for the marginalized. For example, in the late 1990s, the Cartoon Network stopped showing Speedy Gonzales cartoons because of claims that the character was an offensive stereotype. However, many Latin Americans continued to adore Speedy, the League of United Latin American Citizens voiced its support for the character as an “icon,” and Latino message boards overflowed with love for him.

A related argument is that Trader Ming’s is, in effect, a joke, and that jokes about a subgroup should come exclusively from the subgroup itself. Because the owners of Trader Joe’s are not Chinese, it’s game over. In the post-Blaxploitation comedy I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, a “Black” GPS setting casually abuses and cusses at the driver in Black slang as if a Black person’s grouchy aunt were in the passenger’s seat. Presumably that’s okay because the movie was written by Black people, but would be “stereotyping” if written by white people.

But if the intent of the joke about a subgroup is not to harm, why is it taboo? Robin DiAngelo in White Fragility is among many these days who argue that intent doesn’t matter, and that how the message is received is sacrosanct. The problem with this seemingly innocent idea is that reception is rarely monolithic; not everyone in a subgroup will find the same joke offensive, and in many cases, well-off outsiders are the most upset.

Indeed, Trader Joe’s ultimately refused to change its branding in part because, a statement read, “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.”

A great many people seem to think Trader José is just a little joke, rather than a bark of white supremacy. To dismiss this take as mere ignorance requires a punitive kind of creativity in the name of social progress. If the decree is that a company must not acknowledge the existence of differences between human groups, then we need a crystal-clear argument for why this is unacceptable.

The teenager who started the Trader Joe’s petition, Briones Bedell, thinks she has one. Her case about the foreign product names: “They’re racist because they exoticize other cultures, present ‘Joe’ as this default normal, and then the other characters—such as Thai Joe, Trader José, Trader Joe San—falling outside of it.”

Here, however, is a counterproposal. Couldn’t Trader José be taken as a playful but progressive gesture acknowledging that in Mexico or another Spanish-speaking country, a trader named Joe would be a foreigner, a “gringo,” and that a local trader would more likely go by José?

Note the difference here between Aunt Jemima and Trader José: Aunt Jemima is a stereotype implying that Black women’s place is as jocular, none-too-bright servants, while Trader José has no traits at all—it’s just a name, implying, if anything, a person of success and influence within a Spanish-speaking country. Trader José is a harmless hypothetical that makes the diaphragm twitch because it depicts a slight distortion of reality—key to humor—in this case, Trader Joe being a native of another country and thus named with that country’s closest equivalent.

To pretend that self-described anti-racist demands must be automatically adjudged authoritative is to give in to a kind of reign of terror. In response to viewer feedback, the Cartoon Network added Speedy Gonzales back to its programming in 2002. And Speedy was revived in the underrated early-2010s reboot The Looney Tunes Show as an intelligent and genuinely funny character—but with the same accent and clothes. The world kept spinning, but this year HBO disappeared him again in its latest revival, presumably to avoid winding up in the sights of those who insist that a character many Latinos love is an immorality.

The woke have valuable lessons to teach us all. However, we depart from the liberal foundations of this society in pretending that their lessons are commandments. Trader Joe’s could be pioneering in its polite but firm  pushback against the excesses, and, hopefully, will be followed by other organizations, educational institutions, and individuals.