We’ve all heard the phrase: don’t sweat the small stuff. My problem has always been in determining what qualifies as “small stuff.”
Many years ago, when I was active in groups like the Women’s Political Caucus and other efforts to ensure a level playing field for women, I remember my impatience with efforts to focus on linguistics. I particularly recall being annoyed by criticisms of the then-female-naming of all hurricanes. Really? Wouldn’t women have been better served by, say, efforts to keep pediatricians offices open after six, so that working moms could take their children to the doctor without having to take time off work, and similar tangible improvements?
Over the years, I have grudgingly acknowledged that language does matter, but I am still conflicted when people express outrage over what we might call “First World Problems.” (I hate the way my dishwasher doesn’t completely dry the dishes–poor me! Of course, millions of people cannot afford food, let alone dishwashers, so bitching about an appliance seems morally clueless.)
The appearance of the so-called “cancel culture” has triggered my longstanding ambivalence. Where do we draw the line?
What made me think about my own recurring internal debate was an article I read a couple of months ago about an effort to make Trader Joe Markets re-name some of its foodstuffs.
The popular grocery chain, famous for its organic, gourmet, and imported foods, came in for some unwelcome notice recently when The New York Times, followed by other news outlets, focused attention on a petition condemning Trader Joe’s for its “racist branding and packaging.” The petition, launched on Change.org by a California high school student, declared that the company “perpetuates harmful stereotypes” by labeling some of its international foods with international names, such as Trader José‘s for its Mexican beer, Trader Jacques’ for its ham-and-cheese croissants, Arabian Joe’s for its Middle Eastern flatbread, and Trader Ming’s for its Kung Pao chicken. The use of these familiar ethnic names amounts to racism, scolded 17-year-old Briones Bedell, “because they exoticize other cultures.”
Columnist Jeff Jacoby pushed back with an argument that I found persuasive:
In reality, they do just the opposite: They familiarize other cultures. They present international foods as accessible and appealing. Far from portraying foreign peoples and their foods as weirdly exotic, the lighthearted branding helps make them as welcome and appetizing as traditional “American” foods. Trader Joe’s ethnic packaging exemplifies the melting pot at its most engaging, lowering the barriers between consumers of different backgrounds and encouraging Americans to explore the variety and joys of other cuisines.
Trader Joe’s customers evidently agreed–protesting the petition, and–as the chain noted in a media release–” 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,”
Jacoby argues that there is (or should be) an obvious difference between brand names and logos like the Aunt Jemima “mammy” stereotype and other names and products — like the Dixie Chicks, “Paw Patrol,” and even the Coco Pops cereal emblem — that have been criticized for no apparent reason.
It isn’t always easy to distinguish between “woke” efforts to raise sensitivity to genuine slights, on the one hand, and what has appropriately been called “virtue signaling”–accusations intended to position the accuser as more tolerant/aware/inclusive than the target of the criticism, on the other. But in a time when rightwing extremists pretending to be Black Lives Matter are fomenting civil unrest, and white supremicists are infiltrating police departments, warriors for civic justice need to make the effort.
We can sweat the smaller stuff later.