Your Halloween Candy Has a Racist History

October 27th 2016

Halloween is coming, and candy sales are skyrocketing as Americans get ready to serve trick-or-treaters some sweets. That seems innocent enough, but it turns out that candy — and, more to the point, the sugar industry — has a sad, racist history.

slaves sugarWilliam Clark/Wikimedia - wikimedia.org

"Definitely there's a connection between the production of sugar cane and African slavery. They were inseparable," Philip Howard, a history professor at the University of Houston, who has written several books on sugar, told ATTN:. Sugar cane was a crucial cash crop for much of America's early years, and the mass harvesting of sugar helped fuel the Industrial Revolution and create modern capitalism, Howard said.

"Most of the African slaves that arrived in the Americas were imported to cut and haul sugar cane between 1550 and the time that it was abolished in the Americas," Howard said. That includes slaves sent to the United States, the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

sugarsRomain Behar/Wikimedia - wikimedia.org

Sugar was so highly regarded or stigmatized that even the kind of sugar you consumed would often be tied to your race, Howard said. "Crystal white sugar came to be symbolically designed for consumption by Europeans, while ... brown sugar became the preference for dark-skinned people, usually of African descent," he said.

Such racial distinctions carried over to the candy industry as sugar use grew, and marketing by the candy companies reveals the racial divide.

Candy marketing targeted particular races, historian April Merleaux, author of "Sugar and Civilization," told NPR last year: Higher-priced, fancier candies were marketed to white Americans, while cheaper candies were marketed to poorer, often Black, Americans.

The association between Black sugar cane cultivators and candy became clear in advertising, and offensive Black stereotypes found their way into marketing materials.

racist candyPublic domain/Wikimedia - wikimedia.org

Some examples of candy racism:

  • A grotesque ad for a frozen desert called the "Picaninny Freeze" featured the dark figure of a girl with big lips and a watermelon. "Pickaninny" is a derogatory term for a Black child.
  • Chocolate-covered Brazil nuts were once called "n---er toes."
  • There's a debate about whether "jimmies" — a term for candy sprinkles — has a racist history.
  • "Aunt Jemima" is a Quaker Oats brand for pancake mix and syrup, based on a Reconstruction-era stereotype of a house servant. The brand — which remains in use today — carries with it a history of racist advertising. The modern brand has been sanitized of its plantation-era connotations.

brazil nutsNick Fullerton/Wikimedia - wikimedia.org

Candy companies wanted to "produce candy for Black Americans and produce other types of candy for whites, and along with that type of production and consumption were these images that underlined the notions of inferiority among Black Americans and superiority among white Americans," Howard said.

Candy may not be a racially divided thing anymore, so don't feel too bad buying it for Halloween. But it's important to remember that even the most innocent of things can have a racist history, as so many things in this country do.

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