The Eskimo ice-cream treat has cooled down Danes on hot summer days and comforted them even in winter since the 1920s. The crunchy chocolate-coated bar with a vanilla filling – and its blackcurrant-flavoured cousin, the Kaempe Eskimo (Giant Eskimo) – are an integral part of Danish confectionery culture, bestsellers in the tiny Nordic kingdom that ranks seventh in the world for ice cream consumption per capita.
But when Danes flock to the ice-cream stand this time next year, things will look a little different. As a worldwide debate on racial injustice leads brands to rethink racist names and imagery, Danish company Hansens Is has decided to change the name of its Eskimo treat to O’Payo (the type of cocoa used in the coating). Still, the moniker lives on: The biggest players in the Danish ice-cream market, Frisko (owned by Unilever) and Premier Is, are sticking with it.
“Initially we decided against changing the name – because it’s always been called Eskimo,” Hansens Is said in a statement when it made the announcement in June. “But after doing some research, it became clear to us that the word reminds the Inuit people of a past of degradation and unjust treatment. We never thought about that before.”
Many people applauded the move. “Eskimo has a pejorative meaning for many Greenlanders so I think it’s only fair to show this level of respect to us,” said Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, who represents the Greenlandic party Inuit Ataqatigiit in the Danish Parliament. The word is widely interpreted to mean “eater of raw meat,” she explained.
Juno Berthelsen, an activist and co-founder of the indigenous Greenlandic association Nalik, agreed that the term is racist and should no longer be used.
“The word was imposed by colonialists and, in fact, the Inuit Circumpolar Council and Greenland officially abolished the use of ‘Eskimo’ and replaced it with ‘Inuit’ in 1980,” he said, adding he was thrilled to see Hansen’s Is show “progressiveness, respect and solidarity.”
Dividing the waters
Greenland is home to 55,000 inhabitants, most of who are Inuit. It became a Danish colony in the 18th century and later a Danish province. In 1979, home rule was established, and in 2009 Greenland increased its autonomy through a referendum. According to Mr. Berthelsen, Greenlanders have historically been exposed to systematic racism and violent colonial practices aimed at eradicating the Inuit culture. “The abolition of the word ‘Eskimo’ … was the result of decades of efforts by Inuit activists across the Arctic,” he says.
But when it comes to ice cream, not all Greenlanders see what the fuss is about.
Joori Lundblad, a 56-year-old resident of Sisimiut in mid-western Greenland, was surprised that a snack could cause such a stir. “My friends and I laugh about this exaggerated debate and we actually felt like eating a Giant Eskimo when we first read about it.”
She said it’s important that people know the word “Eskimo” is not offensive to everyone. “I’m proud to be Greenlandic and I’m proud to be an Eskimo. Nobody needs to change that.”
Discussions have raged on Facebook. In a comment to Ms. Chemnitz Larsen, one person wrote: “Aaja, when we were young, we loved dancing to the music of the Eskimos,” referring to a popular local rock band of the 1960s. “We were proud to be world famous. The word does not bother the older generation – just ask your parents.”
But the debate about the word extends beyond ice cream. The National Museum of Denmark recently removed the word Eskimo from its longstanding Arctic Exhibition, and the University of Copenhagen renamed its Eskimology Studies (believed to be the world’s only degree of its kind) to Greenland and Arctic studies.
Two schools of thought
Despite Hansens Is’ move, the moniker will live on in the frozen-food aisle. The biggest players in the Danish ice-cream market, Frisko (owned by Unilever) and Premier Is, are sticking with it for their versions.
“The Kaempe Eskimo has always been a popular product in Denmark and it is not our impression that the name is perceived as offensive among Danish consumers,” said Sandhya Forselius, communications manager at Unilever Nordic.
As co-founder of the organization Unstereotype Alliance, in partnership with the United Nations, Unilever has tackled the use of stereotypes in advertising, she said. “As part of our work, we have committed to re-evaluating the imagery we use across the 400 Unilever brands.”
Premier Is has taken the same stand with its bestseller. “So far, 90 per cent of the messages we have received from consumers support our approach, but we intend to talk to interest groups and retailers so we get a full picture of the situation,” said Claus Dahlmann Larsen, chief commercial officer.
Nalik, Mr. Berthelsen’s association, has launched a campaign encouraging consumers to complain directly to the companies in hopes that they will succumb to public pressure.
Should they change their minds, Premier Is and Frisko would join an array of global companies rebranding products that feature racist words and imagery. Pepsi will retire the Aunt Jemima name, for example, and Mars will change the brand identity of Uncle Ben’s Rice.
Most notably, Premier Is and Frisko would be in line with another decision to drop an Eskimo brand.
The original Eskimo Pie, sold in the United States, will be getting a new name, according to Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream. “We are committed to being a part of the solution on racial equality,” head of marketing Elizabell Marquez told CNN, “and recognize the term is derogatory.”
Editor’s note: An earlier online version of this story had Juno Berthelsen's name misspelled.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.