Teen who created petition calling out Trader Joe's 'racist' ethnic food labels says she's glad she's 'opening up dialogue'

Megan Sims
·4 mins read

A California teenager is making waves with her petition asking for the removal of racially insensitive packaging at Trader Joe’s.

Briones Bedell, 17, of San Francisco created a Change.org petition in early July calling for the grocery store chain to change how it labels its ethnic foods. Bedell names “Trader Ming’s,” the store’s Chinese food line, “Arabian Joe,” its Middle Eastern food line and “Trader José’s,” its Mexican food line, as some examples of the “racist branding and packaging” in stores.

“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,’” Bedell’s petition reads in part.

As of Wednesday, the petition has more than 3,800 signatures. Bedell tells Yahoo Life that she is surprised by the amount of attention it has received.

“I’m absolutely floored by the national media attention and impressed by the response. I’m glad this is on people’s radars,” she says. “I’ve also gotten a lot of negative reactions, hate mail, but I’m glad I’m opening up dialogue.”

Bedell says she was inspired to create the petition after taking a class focused on human rights, which she credits as making her more aware of the cultural insensitivities around her, including at her local Trader Joe’s store.

“I used to shop at Trader Joe’s a fair amount, and all of a sudden, I noticed the branding on their ethnic foods,” she explains. “When any community is not allowed the control of the representation, it leads the way for stereotypes and caricatures.”

The activist also had a problem with what influenced Trader Joe’s founder Joe Coulombe to create the store. According to the company’s website, Coulombe was inspired by the book White Shadows in the South Seas along with the Disneyland Jungle Cruise ride.

The first store, which opened in 1967 in Pasadena, Calif., “had a nautical theme and it was run by people who were described as ‘traders on the high seas,’” the website says.

Bedell argues White Shadows in the South Seas is racist, noting in her petition that the work “demonstrates the horrific legacy of trading companies as they exploited and enslaved the South Pacific in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

“It perpetuates the myth of the white God and noble savage stereotype, but it also depicts trading companies and their ravaging of the south seas in the early 20th century,” she tells Yahoo Life. “And I think it’s problematic to list that as an inspiration for a grocery store. In addition, there is the Disneyland ride that depicts native people as savages. These two sources paired together, [along] with the insensitive branding presents this questionable image of Trader Joe’s as a brand.”

Bedell says that she is surprised that she has not yet heard from Trader Joe’s since creating the petition. Yahoo Life reached out to Trader Joe’s for comment and has not yet received a response. The company issued a statement to the New York Times acknowledging that the ethnic names were “rooted in a lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness” but that they “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.” They also went on to say that several years ago, they decided to no longer use the names moving forward.

Bedell noted that the company gave a similar statement to NYLON in 2019, but she’s not satisfied with Trader Joe’s response thus far.

“They lack the urgency needed to remedy a controversy like this one in the current climate,” she says. “These [labels] are microaggressions and the issue with microaggressions is that they inevitably escalate, and when we accept this baseline level of racism it leads to larger transgressions down the road.”

Bedells says she hopes to continue to get more signatures and that Trader Joe’s commits to a date when it will phase out the problematic packaging. If they cannot, it should then remove the products in question altogether.

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