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stack of pancakes on a plate with syrup pouring

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If I were a food service worker, I can’t say I’d be thrilled to be rewarded for a job well done with a spray-painted Mrs. Butterworth syrup bottle—mostly because it’s stupid, not racist as members of the University of Missouri campus are claiming after employees there were given just that.

“It’s inappropriate to give our lowest-paid employees an award representing being a faithful slave,” Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, director of diversity and outreach in MU’s School of Medicine, told the Columbia Daily Tribune.

For once though, no ill-will appears to have been truly intended. For one, Calvin Rolark, the Black supervisor of food services who came up with the idea, chose Mrs. Buttersworth’s bottle because it resembles an Oscar. Number two, Deputy Chancellor Mike Middleton told the Tribune he thought Mrs. Butterworth was white—as do most people.

“You can’t jump the gun on all of these issues,” the chancellor said. “Everything is going to offend somebody.”

The thing is, there are some discrepancies with the history of Mrs. Buttersworth. Actress Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen is said to have modeled for the Mrs. Buttersworth bottle around the time she finished her role as the young mammy “Prissy” in “Gone With the Wind.” But the first television ads of the syrup icon featured her as an older white lady, portrayed by Cliff Arquette as “Charley Weaver,” and later voice actress Mary Kay Bergman also carried on the aura of an elderly white woman as the syrup symbol we see today. If Aunt Jemima were the object in question there would likely be no doubt about the racist undertone, but Mrs. Buttersworth’s mammy history is a bit more cloudy.

The University of Missouri’s hospital wrote a letter defending it’s award choice and proceeded to state the reward will stand after workers who were not offended unanimously voted to keep it. Debra Howenstine, a doctor in the department of family and community medicine, told administrators she was disappointed with the school’s response.

“I believe this response reflects an educational deficit on the part of our institution,” she said in the email. “Mrs. Butterworth, Aunt Jemima and other Mammy caricatures represent for some the servile black woman, a female equivalent to Uncle Tom.”

Elizabeth Bryda, an associate professor of veterinary pathobiology, expressed a similar sentiment in a letter to the administration.

“I am especially embarrassed that administration did not see fit to use this as an opportunity to support and promote cultural sensitivity by requiring that a more appropriate token of appreciation be used to celebrate employee excellence.”

Despite the protest, Calvin Rolark says he’s not changing a thing.

“I’ll absolutely agree to their requests if I get to make some changes in their departments because I’m offended,” he said. “Trust me, I know of things I can find to be offended about that are much deeper than a bottle of syrup.”

What do you think about this reward choice? Is it offensive or just silly?

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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