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Symbol logic: Racial imagery and sensitivity meet head-on
No Grease’s blackface stirs memories some Americans would just as soon forget
 
Published Thursday, July 22, 2010 9:26 am
by Herbert L. White

PHOTO/CALVIN FERGUSON
Brothers Damian and Jermaine Johnson, owners of No Grease Inc., defend their use of a blackface caricature as their corporate logo.

Image is everything, especially when it conjures up stereotypes.


When Jermaine Johnson created a blackface character that became the corporate logo of No Grease Inc., a chain of Charlotte barbershops, twin brother Damian was apprehensive. Given the history of race relations in America, he had cause to be nervous.


“I said, ‘Boy, we’re going to get some heat on this,’” Damian Johnson said. “And then we’re in the South, too.”


No Grease’s imagery has expanded the debate between free speech and racial sensitivity. While some have raised concerns over the image since the brothers opened their first shop 13 years ago, the debate has picked up steam with the launch of No Grease’s third shop uptown at Time Warner Cable Arena.


“The (Center City) stage was bigger and greater for people to tell their opinion of our image,” Jermaine Johnson said. “(Previous debate) was definitely more urban, more inner city. It was an in-house thing. People came into the shop and that was the start of the dialogue.


“We always had criticism of the logo since the very first time they saw it, but it was an in-house thing and we talked about it among people who patronized our business. As we became more mainstream, people could express their likes or dislikes without taking in the history behind how long we’ve been in business.”


Newspaper articles and blogs criticizing the symbol have become the topic of conversation in Charlotte lately. The Johnsons insist the logo is a good marketing tool with historical significance.


“It’s not controversial; it’s a conversation that needs to be ongoing,” Damian Johnson said. “It’s a part of our history that should matter.”


Offensive marketing images are as American as apple pie. Old-school symbols like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben played up stereotypes of black servitude in the 1920s, but they would have company over the years. The Frito Bandito, a Mexican character introduced by Frito-Lay in 1967 and discontinued in 1971, sparked protests among Latinos and was the focus of congressional hearings. The Taco Bell Chihuahua campaign from 1997-2000 was similarly criticized.


Steven Cox PhD, a marketing professor at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte, said those images are more explosive in an era of zero-tolerance stereotyping.
“You need to consider racial stereotyping because people are much more sensitive than they were many years ago,” he said. “We all know people look at those things and companies are much more concerned about that than they were earlier.”


Jermaine, a graphic artist, created the blackface image in high school in Buffalo, N.Y. – long before No Grease – as an acknowledgement of a part of 20th century Americana. “I was inspired by the minstrel show,” he said. “That was our first form of entertainment.”


When the brothers went into business, Jermaine’s creation was put to work as the antithesis of No Grease corporate message – a community-oriented enterprise that pays attention to details as well as its brand. No Grease consists of three shops and a barber school.


“The image was so much stronger, it was so in your face,” Jermaine Johnson said. “It was no grease (in clients’ hair), no blackface, no shucking and jiving, no buffoonery, no step and fetch it. That was the power behind a not-so-ordinary barber shop.”


Businesses tread a fine line in how images are received and interpreted in a multicultural society, Cox said. Racially charged presentations can create backlash beyond a single demographic group’s sensitivities.


 “We’re always going to have changing standards in what is appropriate or inappropriate,” he said. “It’s not just a situation of what the community that’s being offended thinks. Sometimes, it’s the larger community that’s offended more.”


The Johnsons plan to keep No Grease’s logo intact. The publicity, they insist, has sparked needed conversation about stereotypes without adversely affecting their fiscal bottom line.


“This is a business and when you have an opportunity to have your business in the forefront of advertising and media, it’s a tool,” Damian Johnson said. “If a tool isn’t working for you, then you pull it out. If it’s demeaning to people, we have to deal with that in conversation.”

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