What’s in a Name? Rebranding Racist Legacies

The renaming of products has become an increasingly central issue in identity politics today and is often used by far-right groups to mobilize support.

Traditional Dutch “moorkop” pastry © Marc Venema / Shutterstock

A sudden controversy has exploded in the Netherlands. In March, the Dutch department store HEMA began selling a traditional Dutch pastry under the name chocoladebal (chocolate ball) instead of moorkop (referring to the head of a dark-skinned person). HEMA followed in the footsteps of a small baker who believed the racist connotation left the chocolate-glazed pastry with a bad aftertaste. The change didn’t go unnoticed. The baker was forced to close after angry customers refused to leave his store unless he gave them a moorkop. On Twitter, he was accused of being an NSBer — a reference to those who collaborated with the Germans during the Second World War.

Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, joined the discussion by tweeting in outrage over HEMA’s decision. Twitter users employed hashtags of other products with racial connotations, such as jodenkoek (Jew’s cookie) and witte vla (white custard), to signify the double standard. Opponents of the change planned to boycott HEMA. The department store had earlier received a backlash for using the words “Happy Spring” instead of “Happy Easter” and by removing Sinterklaas products with the controversial blackface.

Politicization of the Past

The name change is not the first one of its kind. A piece of candy called jodenvet (Jewish fat) was renamed borsthoning (chest honey). Likewise, a chocolate-covered waffle was renamed from negerzoen (Negro’s kiss) into Buys Kiss, after its manufacturer, Buys. The same product had earlier been rebranded in Germany as Schaumküsse (cream kisses) and as Angel Kisses in the UK. But not all contested products lose their names. Calls for changing Gypsy sauce into spicy sauce in Germany and the Netherlands have been unsuccessful. Similarly, Austrian ice cream producer Eskimo has not changed its name despite criticism.

These name changes fit the broader trend of rebranding historical and national traditions. The character of blackface in the Dutch Sinterklaas celebrations has become a figure covered in chimney smudges. In a similar fashion, the Amsterdam Museum now refers to the Dutch Golden Age simply as the 17th century, to signify the role of slavery in this period. In response, Thierry Baudet, leader of the Dutch far-right party Forum for Democracy, vowed to launch a documentary series to remember the Golden Age and its heroes.

This politicization of the past is also reflected in conflicts surrounding the naming of streets and buildings. In France, street names are under attack for their association with the slave trade, in Spain because of references to its former dictator Francisco Franco, and in Poland and Ukraine communist-inspired names are removed under the de-communization law. In the Netherlands, names of controversial heroes from its colonial past have become contested. The J. P. Coenschool in Amsterdam, named after the director general of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), Jan Pieterszoon Coen, changed its name in 2018, but the Coen tunnel in Amsterdam still carries his name. An art center in Rotterdam got rid of the negative connotation it had with VOC officer Witte Corneliszoon de With. Newly built neighborhoods are also not safe from this war on words, appointing committees of historians and experts to select inclusive street names.

Emotional Response

Opponents of such changes are often labeled as racists. However, the issue lies deeper. In 2017, the Netherlands Institute for Social Research, in its analysis of population perspectives, mentioned that strong pessimism amongst the Dutch arises from the fear that the Netherlands will no longer exist due to these politically correct changes. Respondents in the study expressed the view that everything is becoming an issue nowadays. One interviewee argued that while at first it was just the blackface character, Zwarte Piet or Black Pete, coming under attack, now it is also Christmas and soon enough it would be the moorkop.

This emotional response to losing traditions fits with what Roger Petersen, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describes as one of status-based resentment. These name changes can provoke groups to perceive their own status as losing supremacy. This perception of status loss is even more visible when other groups seem to gain a more superior position. These changes in group hierarchy can trigger feelings of resentment, such as the outrage about British chain Marks and Spencer’s decision to sell hijabs and halal ready-meals. Arie Hochschild, in her ethnographic study of US President Donald Trump’s supporters, describes a similar scenario of people who feel left behind while others are “cutting in front of the line.”

Creating fear about fading traditions seems to be an effective strategy for gaining attention from the far right. So much so that this victimization frame is also employed to falsely claim that other traditions are under attack. When Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn rebranded its Christmas fruit loaf as feeststol, or “feast stollen,” for marketing purposes, this was depicted as an act of self-Islamization. Similarly, British chocolate manufacturer Cadbury’s was falsely accused to have renamed its Easter eggs to Gesture Eggs to allegedly please Muslims. Product names, therefore, fit far-right online tactics of posting content that evokes high emotional responses and often focuses on a clearly identified outgroup who is to blame.

These examples underline how names have become central in identity politics today, and they form a complicated one. Despite renaming products, it can take decades before words are actually gone from daily use and dictionaries. While product names and street names are altogether a different issue, it is important to reflect on the decision behind the change.

When it comes to streets named after controversial heroes, some argue that keeping these names might allow for a better discussion of the dark pages of our history. After all, our history will not change by removing the names. Removing names is a political act, and would be considered dangerous when done by those who we politically disagree with. This is all too clear in Poland, where the capitalization law has proven painful for regions such as Katowice and Lodz, that struggle with commemorating their local history. It is important to reflect upon where to draw the line.

Ms Ofra Klein is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate in Department of Political and Social Sciences, European University Institute. See her profile here.

© Ofra Klein. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

This was originally posted at CARR media partner, Fair Observer, here.