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Take this Joe and shove it

In the couple weeks since I’ve written I have taken a much needed vacation, drank my share of a very large bottle of vodka, and avoided deep thoughts at virtually all cost. 

I’ve also done a bit of mourning, primarily for Gus (aka Skeletor), the feline friend I thought would never leave us; and for my kids’ youth. As a parent, nothing shakes you up quite like watching your twenty-somethings do exactly what you’ve groomed them to do – leave – right in front of you, in real time.

Hence the vodka.

As I’ve tried to return to work and writing simultaneously I’ve been challenged by three things overall:
  • Limited time and capacity 
  • An unusually robust calendar of NEW AND IMPROVED stuff going on with work
  • And the mounting shittiness of an election cycle in high gear
I could talk about the first one, but that’s boring. I could talk about the second one, but I’m not sure many would be as interested as I am. And the third one…well, what is there to say? Federal troops firing on protesters in the Pacific Northwest. Violent resurgences of COVID in battleground states. Daily threats and dodges from virtually every elected official and aspiring candidate.

Yuk. Who needs more of that crap?

So I’m going to go with a reliable, tried-and-true topic close to my heart and never far from my consciousness. Trader Joe’s.

Ah yes, those of you who read regularly know I love reading and writing about TJ’s almost as much as I love shopping there. I love people who freak out in the middle of the store because they are supposed to wear masks. I love people who wait in line for an hour and dish on their latest existential crises in front of nearby neighbors. I love it all.

Today my love is tested. In an editorial in the Wall Street Journal entitled, Say It Ain’t So, Trader Joe’s, I learned that an online petition posted by a high school senior in (where else?) California is being credited with my favorite snack food purveyor removing the lighthearted, only mildly racist store brands created to market their ethnic foods. 

For those not indoctrinated, consider what I made myself for dinner last night: I microwaved a bag of Trader Ming’s veggie fried rice and added some chicken and healthy dollop of Trader Jose’s chile corn salsa. See what they do there? They take their ethnic foods and instead of calling them Trader Joe’s brand, they call them Trader-Something-That-Sounds-Italian-or-Mexican-or-Chinesey

A PR flack from the company has gone on record as saying the following: “While this approach to product naming may have been rooted in a lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness, 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.” She then acknowledged that they are shit-canning the brand names, in their best PeeWee Herman voice: We meant to do that.

Et tu, Joe?

Now let’s rewind a smidge. The 17-year-old high school senior is named Briones Bedell. I Googled her, and she is blindingly Caucasian. Why does this matter? I know in my heart it shouldn’t, but I needed to look because in her online petition she opens with, “We demand that Trader Joe’s remove racist branding and packaging from its stores.” Then she amps it up a notch by telling us TJ’s founder, “took inspiration in building the Trader Joe’s brand from a racist book and a controversial theme park attraction [Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise!!], both of which have received criticism for romanticizing Western Imperialism and fetishizing non-Western peoples.”

Yeah, she said it: “romanticizing Western Imperialism and fetishizing non-Western peoples.”

I think you can agree with me, this is a kid desperately in need of a lime green prom dress, a clandestine sixpack and a regretful journey to second base with Tommy from her AP Women’s Studies class. If that sounds disparaging to an otherwise cerebral, articulate and outspoken young American standing up for truth in history, integrity in human relations and equality for all…well, I'm sorry. But unless this is a college entrance essay gone horribly awry I feel she has gone down a dark path of little merit.

Why are young people so quick to judge the perceived shortcomings of those that have gone before? I'm not saying they aren't right to want to improve, to correct issues and constructs that have created deficits - unacceptable ones - in our society. I can get behind that 100%.  But do we have to cancel the strides made by anyone of consequence because they were not perfect; because they were born into a limited, skewed culture of inequality; because they were only able to move the ball down the field instead of changing the game as we know it? 

I feel it's too easy today to sit in judgment of people we can learn about but can’t hope to understand, armed with a world wide web full of information but perfectly willing to ignore context and withhold empathy. 

Case in point: People recently have taken Lin-Manuel Miranda to task for creating a billion-dollar enterprise romanticizing a founding father who DIDN’T DO ENOUGH to oppose slavery, and using people of color to seal the deal. That's one way to look at it but I'm here to tell you, it's the wrong way. Instead, they could be celebrating a visionary genius who a) did more to advance equity and inclusion in pop culture than anyone since Elvis Presley; and b) was thoughtful enough in his rendering to force his characters to reckon with the moral divide at all. That’s context, near as I can tell.

In her petition Briones wrote:

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.” 

Really? Is that true? Or are you taking a moment in time in which fundamental social policies and even governance is under intense scrutiny, and applying that urgency to cookies? Is cutesy-branding that is exposed only to those people who choose (wisely) to shop at a Trader Joe's the thing we should be working on right now, or is it nuance that distracts us all from the important questions and creates ill will among an entire class of people who don't want to feel shamed for one more thing, especially when it comes to dark chocolate coconut almonds that taste like an Almond Joy had a baby with an angel? 

Maybe the original Joe liked pirate books and riding the jungle boats at Disneyland. Should I care? Walt Disney was widely remembered as an anti-Semite but I never once paused to consider that before sitting down with a tub of popcorn and watching The Avengers or plunking down a few thousand dollars for a week with my family at The Happiest Place On Earth. If every gift we can trace back to Walt Disney's vision is negated by the allegation that he didn't like Jews, who loses?

But it's not all about Briones and her detailed, performative rage. It's also about Trader Joe’s, because they (like Miranda and Jimmy Fallon and so many others) are taking the bait and going on the apology tour. Sure, they say the decision to phase out these brands was made years ago and maybe it’s true – maybe not. But the message it sends is horseshit. 

Have you ever been to a Trader Joe’s? Have you ever seen the people who work there? It looks like a Colors of Benetton ad had sex with the Insane Clown Posse. Nothing screams inclusion and diversity and equality and community like a goddamn Trader Joe’s. 

So why cave, Joe? Why do that? 

You’re not a nonprofit organization. You’re not funded with taxpayer money. This is America and you’re a capitalist enterprise. Are you worried black people won’t come to Trader Joe’s anymore for fresh produce? Don't be: As long as your bananas ripen the way they are supposed to, and my local supermarket can’t seem to stock a banana that doesn’t go from green to brown without seemingly even an hour of yellow, I’m buying your bananas, Joe. 

Oh wait – are you worried the sanctimonious, suburban posers won’t come and buy your chocolate chip Dunkers® and sweet potato gnocchi anymore? That's your demographic, after all. You’re worried some 17-year-old pisher and her Twitter account can stop traffic to your stores, is that it?

I wish you’d reconsider that position, Joe. I wish it so hard. Because the thing about Americans is, we like our stuff. And you have great stuff. And the thing about human beings is, we want to do the right thing – as long as there’s a reasonable chance of success. We humans like to fight, but the ones who survive, the ones who succeed, fight the battles they can win. 

That’s why George Washington, arguably the greatest leader our country has ever known, set his slaves free after he died. Because he was a great and moral and compassionate man who lived in Virginia in the 1700s, and who knew, in order to lead, he needed to be aspirational. He needed to be of pure intention but reasonable expectation. 

Where has all the reason gone? Wouldn’t it be easier to all come together over a stack of peanut butter Joe-Joe’s and a tall glass of almond milk if we weren’t alternately trying to tear everything down and simultaneously defend ourselves from burning along with the landscape? 

There are so many things we need to do better, and only one way to do them: together. It won’t be done by people of color alone; it can’t. It won’t be done by spoiled, Silicon Valley kids with trust funds and the self-righteousness of youth.

The work only gets done when a majority of us agree on the goal. The goal, not the journey. If we focus on the journey there will always be someone on the bus to find fault. And then the loudest voice wins. And we all know where that has gotten us in the past.

If we focus on alignment, the things that tie us together rather than the stupid minutiae and hyperanalysis that underscore our differences, we can win.

We can pick our battles. If we agree on the objective.

What do you say, Joe? It's a small world, after all.


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