Pumpkin spice and privilege: seasonal products appeal to certain groups more than others

Rose Bak

A plea from the one white girl who hates this Fall favorite.

Photo by Mazniha Mohd Ali Noh on Unsplash

“What’s the deal with you white girls and pumpkin spice?”

My friend Christine posed this question to me early in our friendship. We were waiting in line at Starbucks where signs announced the return of the pumpkin spice latte like it was the second coming of Jesus Christ.

A group of girls behind us chatted animatedly about how the pumpkin spice lattes were “finally here”.

Christine looked at me and rolled her eyes.

“I don’t understand why you white girls are so obsessed with pumpkin spice and thigh gaps.”

I couldn’t answer that question, partly because I really hate pumpkin and all things pumpkin spice, and partly because I’ve never been one to follow the trends. But the question did stick in my mind.

“Why is there so much fascination with pumpkin, particularly with white women?” I wondered. “Am I the only white woman who hates pumpkin spice?”

The prevalence of pumpkin spice products

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have probably noticed that every year from October through December it’s all pumpkin spice, all the time in this country. Pumpkin spice lattes are particularly beloved.

Seattle-based coffee giant Starbucks arguably is the company that put this sweet and frothy beverage on the map. First introduced as part of a seasonal menu in 2003, the pumpkin spice latte immediately found a cult following.

Year after year the pumpkin spice option outsells other seasonal favorites like the salted caramel mocha, eggnog latte, and peppermint mocha. The coffee giant estimated that they sell 424 million pumpkin spice lattes every season.

To make a pumpkin spice latte, espresso and steamed milk are combined with “a blend of pumpkin and seasonal fall spice flavors”. The drink is topped with whipped cream and pumpkin spice topping.

In addition to the latte, Starbucks also offers a pumpkin cream cold brew and a variety of pumpkin flavored baked goods.

When the PSL became a cultural phenomenon, it didn’t take long for everyone from Dunkin Donuts to Peets to Caribou coffee to get in on the PSL bandwagon. Even Mcdonald's offers a McCafé version.

Soon a plethora of non-coffee pumpkin-related products started appearing on store shelves. I went into Trader Joe’s recently, where I saw the following pumpkin or pumpkin spice “seasonal” items: bread, coffee cake, granola bars, cookies, ice cream, bisque, protein smoothies, bagels (regular or gluten-free), samosas, cereal and, of course, pumpkin spice coffee.

This is just a small sampling. There was something pumpkin related in every single aisle. It was crazy.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

How did pumpkin spice lattes become inextricably tied with race and class?

It turns out my friend is not the only one who has noted the strong correlation between whiteness and love of all things pumpkin. People of color and lower-income women have long remarked that the pumpkin spice fervor seemed to be mostly from white women, especially younger women who were middle-class or upper-class.

Researchers also took note of the correlation.

In a study called “The Perilous Whiteness of Pumpkins,” a group of researchers looked at the relationship between pumpkins and whiteness, with a special emphasis on the ubiquitous Pumpkin Spice Latte from Starbucks.

Lead researcher Lisa Jordan Powell notes that:

"Pumpkin spice lattes are firmly hitched to discussions of white female identity and consumerism as both a dismissive, racially coded slur and a rallying counterpoint”.

In other words, if you are not on the pumpkin spice bandwagon, you’re not one of the cool girls with money who wear pink on Wednesdays. (Side note, if you don’t recognize this reference, I encourage you to watch the 2004 movie “Mean Girls” right away).

Powell theorizes that pumpkin spice lattes became associated with white people of a certain class because they are perceived as a luxury item. Pumpkin spice lattes are significantly more expensive than regular coffee.

Buying these seasonal lattes is a treat for those who can plunk down $4.95 or more for a sweet and frothy concoction.

They are also easy to find, but only during the fall. You can indulge in your love of pumpkin spice on almost any street corner in America. But then the holidays pass and the drinks disappear until the following fall, creating a sense of scarcity that only increases their cache.

Pumpkin spice lattes are the McRib of the coffee world.

Powell noted:

“Starbucks PSLs are products of coffee shop culture, with its gendered and racial codes…Their fluffiness, lack of substance, and triviality, regardless of attempts to dismiss them as ‘basic,’ make them ultimate luxuries and hence markers of distinction and white privilege.”

When this study first came out a couple of years ago, the authors were excoriated by people who called the study frivolous or were outright angry that the study called out white privilege.

The PSL study “is merely another example of cultural Marxism attempting to both undermine a traditional symbol of American history and culture and belittle a particular socio-economic class,” one commentator complained.

He goes on to claim that the research is based on the “general narrative that’s become accepted as dogma at universities though it’s not entirely provable — in this case, systemic white privilege.”

The commentator, like the author of every angry article I found denouncing the study, appears to be white. There is nothing white people hate more than having their privilege pointed out to them.

Cultural significance aside, I really don’t understand why people like this stuff.

Pumpkin itself is a sweet squash with an icky texture. And most “pumpkin spice” items don’t even have any pumpkin. Instead, it’s usually a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and clove — all spices used in Thanksgiving and Christmas pies to mask the yucky taste of pumpkin.

Why make a latte based on something people try to hide the taste of?

Fellow white women, this obsession with pumpkin and pumpkin spice has gotten completely out of hand. It’s over-the-top and embarrassing for white people everywhere.

I propose that it’s time to embrace some of the better flavors of fall, like cranberries and gravy. Now that would make a good latte.

#pumpkin #psl #fall #privilege #trendy

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Rose Bak is a freelance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon with her family and special needs dogs. She writes on a variety of topics including local news, homelessness, poverty, relationships, yoga, and aging. She is also a published author of romantic fiction. For more of Rose's work, visit her website at rosebakenterprises.com or follow her on social media @AuthorRoseBak.

Portland, OR

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