Of Flags & Butter: An Analysis of American White Supremacy Through Symbols

confederate butter

American racism and white supremacy is not limited to the physical realm, but is also a mental phenomenon – it is possible for the mind to be colonized by racist and white supremacist ideology, just as it is possible for entire nations and peoples to be colonized and occupied by foreign powers. The ideological superstructure of a nation can thus be used as a weapon by a dominant racist ideology in order to reinforce the rule of a dominant set of ideas; those belonging to the ruling class of society which benefits from the status quo of institutionalized racism against non-European groups and modes of thought. Examples of this use of prominent symbols in the continuing process of racial objectification are the issues regarding display of the Confederate flag and the “Indian maiden” mascot for Land O’Lakes brand butter. The battle flag of the Confederate States of America and the logo of Land O’Lakes demonstrate the use of symbols to perpetuate and reinforce white supremacy in the realm of ideas through the technique of racist stereotyping and whitewashing of history, respectively. Both examples are important symbols of race that have their roots in historical events, but remain relevant to contemporary Americans.

Native scholar and activist Ward Churchill aptly describes perpetuating and implementing a white supremacist agenda through the spreading of such symbols in his book, From a Native Son: Selected Essays on Indigenism, 1985-1995. “As was established in the Streicher precedent at Nuremberg, the cause and effect relationship between racist propaganda on the one hand and genocidal policy implementation on the other is quite plain” (Churchill 450). He mentions specifically that “Land-o-Lakes [sic] finds it appropriate to market its butter through use of a stereotyped image of an ‘Indian Princess’ on the wrapper” (Churchill 450). Stereotypical and degrading images of racial minorities have been used to sell products in the United States for centuries, serving the interests of the capitalist class by selling the products themselves and reinforcing white supremacy through the use of images as an added bonus. As these stereotypical images are often associated with products that people have come to know and love, discussing the racist implications of the images and logos themselves remains a touchy subject. From Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima to Chiquita Bananas and the recent controversial Brooklyn restaurant selling Obama Fried Chicken, food commodities do not stand above promoting stereotypes and reinforcing white supremacy in American society. Racist imagery and symbols are visible everywhere, one primary example being right in the dairy section of your local grocery store – the Land O’Lakes butter mascot known as the “Indian maiden.”

Land O’Lakes Inc. itself is based in Minnesota, the home territory of the fictional Native woman Minnehaha and the real-life legend Hiawatha. Land O’Lakes decided in 1928 to capitalize on this history to sell their product, and have resisted many attempts and petitions by activists to change their logo. The “Land O Lakes” logo on their butter and other products features the famous image of a Native American women on her knees in a servile manner presenting the butter to the customer. The Native woman herself is in a traditional buckskin outfit with beaded embroidery, with two braids in her stereotypically long, straight black hair, and also wear a headdress with feathers sticking upwards. She bears a bright and cheery smile as she presents the product. The background of the logo features lakes and pines in a relaxing natural setting. The image itself is well-known and widely spread. The Land O’Lakes company is one the largest producers of dairy products such as butter and cheese in the United States, and the logo featuring the Native woman has been a mainstay of their butter’s packaging since 1928. Despite controversy, they have repeatedly refused to change it. What message does the content of the logo itself send?

The appearance of the “Indian maiden” owes more to stereotypes of Native peoples and culture promoted in the media and Hollywood than it does any reality of the Native nations that inhabited the plains of North America. The name itself “Land O Lakes” comes from a phrase used by European settlers to describe Minnesota – the land of ten thousand lakes. The name used by the company for this logo is the “Indian maiden,” a term deemed derogatory today, with most Natives preferring the terms “Native peoples” or “first nations.” The term “Indian” to mean the Indigenous nations of the Americas is based upon the European settlers’ mistaken belief they had landed in the West Indies. The design of the logo on Land O’Lakes butter exploits racist stereotypes of Native American culture and the mascot’s servile pose serves to place both Natives and women into a position of servitude to the customer, presenting them with a product as a servant would. The kneeling of the “Indian maiden” clearly puts her in a position of service to a higher power.

Every aspect of the Native woman in the logo is based on American stereotypes of Natives, from her animal skin outfit and beads, to her headdress and hair style, and even the to the idea of the slender, cheerful and naive Native princess character, epitomized in other infamous portrayals of this archetype such as the wildly inaccurate adaptations of the story of Pocahontas. The wide smile donned by the woman in the logo serves an ideological purpose as well, quite literally putting a smile on a history of ethnic cleansing and genocide of Natives. The image of the Native woman offering the butter in a servile pose is offered as a positive image, associated with a widely-consumed food product. It amounts to dehumanization of Natives and women and the further stereotyping of an entire culture, all for the purpose of selling a commodity. In this equation, someone is clearly benefiting from having descendents of Europeans ignorant about Native Americans.

The Land O’Lakes logo clearly promotes a simplistic characterization of both the history and the present of Native Americans. The efforts at cultural genocide by the contemporary United States government and U.S. companies are undeniably “concerted, sustained, and in some ways accelerating effort has gone into making Indians unreal” (Churchill 450). White supremacy does not have to be such an overt practice as vocally advocating genocide – why bother with such incriminating statements when actions speak louder than words? Propaganda through the use of symbols such as these can influence perception and opinion more effectively in a thousand subtle ways during everyday activity. Consciously or unconsciously, these images help shape our views of reality, sometimes on a mass scale. “Some of the most common stereotyping traps are various forms of romanticization; historical inaccuracies; stereotyping by omission; and simplistic characterizations” (MediaSmarts). The issue of the racist or chauvinist nature of such symbols is by no means a small issue. Symbols are powerful tools to communicate messages in a compact form, including messages of stereotypes and white supremacy.

The article “Common Portrayals of Aboriginal People” demonstrates the influence of such widely consumed media: “[f]or over a hundred years, Westerns and documentaries have shaped the public’s perception of Native people” (MediaSmarts). The Land O’Lakes butter logo can be understood in the context of its historical roots; that of both physical genocide against Native Americans and the cultural genocide within the mental realm. Even more troublesome is the origin of the Native princess archetype in the first place. “The Indian Princess is the Native beauty who is sympathetic enough to the white man’s quest to be lured away from her group to marry into his culture and further his mission to civilize her people” (MediaSmarts). From examining the logo, we can see that the composite imagery presented on Land O’Lakes butter falls within the criteria of this archetype.

Another example of a popularized and hotly debated symbol of racism is the infamous battle flag of the Confederate States of America, an unrecognized separatist state that existed from 1861-1865 in the southern slave states which declared their secession from the United States, has been the source of strong controversy and debate on the nature of symbols in perpetuating racism. Since the end of the American Civil War, use of the flag has continued, both in the form of personal use of the Confederate battle flag and the use of variant flags with the “stars and bars” and battle flag design as basis for the state flags of Southern U.S. states, such as Mississippi and Georgia, which were once part of the pro-slavery Confederacy.

Despite the flag’s history of being the battle standard for the slave states, “the flag is seen by some Southerners simply as a symbol of Southern pride, it is often used by racists to represent white domination of African-Americans” (Anti-Defamation League, Hate on Display). The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) classifies the flag as a general racist symbol and a common standard to use for racist and white nationalist groups who believe in a revanchist South. The manifestations of this phenomenon are contemporary but once again rooted in the historical context from which they arose. The design is a dark blue St. George’s Cross on a red field. The flag’s stars represent the states of the Confederacy. The popularized flag is not the state flag of the Confederacy, but rather the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, the primary military force for the Confederacy in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War. This Army of Northern Virginia battle flag was also adopted by many other Confederate military units which fought in the Civil War. The flag, therefore, is not a governmental or official flag of the Confederacy, but specifically a military standard, often being called the “Battle Flag.” In Germany and many other countries, display of the Nazi swastika and other fascist symbols has been outlawed except for scholarly reasons. This option should be considered in an American context in order to suppress the intentional glorification of slavery and racism.

The Confederate flag is undeniably a racist symbol, not primarily a cultural one. Many hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan use the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of white supremacism, and southern states have chosen to display variants based on the Confederate flags on state property. The historical role played by the military flag in question addresses a history of the American continent that is seldom told and might undermine the common perception of the United States as a bastion of freedom, democracy and justice in the world. This being the case, there is a historical falsification of the Civil War being promoted here. After the end of the Civil War, groups like the KKK unleashed a campaign of racist terror across the American South during Reconstruction. There is little attention given to these days, or to how widespread institutionalized racism was and is in the United States, and myths of a “post-racial society” abound.

Historical revisionists and Southern nationalists, as well as various neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups, now weave together stories of the Ku Klux Klan as a benevolent human rights organization, of the South’s independent spirit, and, most of all, of the supposed social and racial progress of the system of the Confederate States of America. The entire exercise of pretending to be uncertain about the racist implications of the Confederate flag only serves to muddle the issue of America’s slave history even more. The dominant ideology, to exist, must perpetuate the myth that the United States of America ever saw the emergence of white supremacy as an institution, never fought a war over slavery, never failed at Reconstruction and usher in the Jim Crow laws, and doesn’t have a problem with racism today. The main feelings evoked by the display of the Confederate flag are prejudicial and therefore the symbol itself must be considered to promote discrimination. Even when viewed by those with no obvious prejudice, the symbol encourages stereotypical and racist views.

The history of the Confederate States of America is undeniably connected with slavery and oppression of Africans. Some people may claim the flag represents the Southern heritage. But for black Americans, the flag symbolizes a dark period of history filled with slavery, racist terrorism, lynching, oppression and racial apartheid, all approved at the highest levels of the American government. As has been demonstrated, the Confederate battle flag never actually represented the Confederate government. The many versions of Confederate flags depended on the region they were used in and what Southern regiment they represented. The blatant waving of the so-called “rebel” or “Dixie” flag, a flag of bloodshed and war, a battle flag specifically designed for violence in defense of slavery, cannot help but encourage racist attitudes.

Both the Land O’Lakes logo and the Confederate battle flag are symbols which hold the power to communicate racist messages. Part of the cultural genocide in the United States for such oppressed groups is the denial of any continuing reality of unconscious racism and white supremacist thought. The symbol has the greatest capacity to influence perceptions and attitudes in the South. The meaning of the Confederate flag is not limited to history or fetishization of a particular “heritage,” but is far more complex. Advocates of such symbols as the flag’s display may argue that to outlaw or forbid their display may in of itself be whitewashing of the history of slavery and downplaying the significance of the Civil War. However, since these particular legal measures against such hateful imagery in countries such as Germany include display and recording for scholarly and historical reasons, the most emphatic proponents of display the symbol can reasonably be expected to have much darker motivations.

On the one hand, you have the Land O’Lakes logo, which appears to be a bright, warm and generous depiction of a Native woman offering butter but hides one example of many of white supremacy in American culture, and on the other, you have the militaristic battle flag of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, aggressively emblazoned with its signature red and dark blue, being justified as heritage. In both cases a rather insidious agenda of embedding white supremacy into such innocent, appealing or romanticized symbols can be discerned. There can be no assertion these symbols go without much notice – the Land O’Lakes logo with the “Indian maiden,” as she continues to be referred to by the company, has continued to adorn all their products. The Confederate flag continues to be the basis for the flags of more than a dozen U.S. states and the defining symbol for the white nationalist movement in the U.S. Although both symbols can be considered more contemporary manifestations, by no means can it be said that the many years since their origin have reduced their importance, meaning or potency as symbols.

When discussing the potential racist impact of these symbols, the issue that is often skirted and ignored in favor of individualistic reasons of personal motivation and individual freedom is that of “color blind” racism. The claim that these symbols can be divorced from the material conditions of colonialism that gave them birth owes its existence to the idealist idea of equal discourse in the context of a European-dominated society, and this relies on faith in the idea of American “color blindness” or “post-racial society” to imagine equal opportunity discourse between racist ideas, when in reality, discourse in the United States is not equal for each race and will invariably produce unequal results. The idea that the game being played is absolutely fair is an idea that benefits the party that’s winning, but the winners and the losers in American society are not usually emphasized by discourse as long as the competition can simply be deemed to be fair. The attempts to address the issues that these symbols raise without getting into the question of racism, or through the lens of “color blindness,” are really just ways to avoid acknowledgment of the very real racial discrimination in American history as well as modern-day America. In practice, this amounts an intentional failure to acknowledge white supremacy, and must be viewed in objective aid of the perpetuation of white supremacy. If humanity is ever to create a world where such stereotypes and racist imagery don’t shape our reality, we must call out white supremacist imagery for what is truly is.

Sources

Anti-Defamation League. (n.d.). Hate on Display: A visual database of extremist symbols, logos and tattoos. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.adl.org/hate_symbols/racist_confederate_flag.asp

Churchill, W. (1999). From a Native son: selected essays on Indigenism, 1985-1995. (p. 450). South End Press.

MediaSmarts. (n.d.). Common Portrayals of Aboriginal people. Retrieved from http://mediasmarts.ca/diversity-media/aboriginal-people/common-portrayals-aboriginal-people



Categories: Books, Colonialism, Discrimination, Economic Exploitation, History, Imperialism, Internet, Media & Culture, Movies, Racism, Reactionary Watch, Theory, TV, U.S. News, United States History, Women's Rights, Workers Struggle

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