By Guest Contributor Suzanne Persard
Am I the last Jamaican to miss the happiness train?
After millions of hits on YouTube and a whirl of international attention, arguably the most popular commercial Volkswagen has ever aired, has been approved by “100 Jamaicans,” hailed as humorous by hundreds of other Jamaicans, and endorsed by the Jamaican Minister of Tourism.
The ad features a white man from Minnesota speaking exaggeratedly in patois, urging his unhappy coworkers to become happier with phrases like, “Yuh know what dis room needs? A smile!” Clearly, this is Volkswagen’s way of telling you, Jamaicans are happy! You should be happy, too! Buy a 2013 Volkswagen Beetle and get happy!
According to Volkswagen, those 100 Jamaicans were involved in the screening of the ad so the German automobile giant could guarantee it wasn’t racist. A speech coach was also involved, according to Volkswagen, because to parody an entire people you’ve clearly got to make sure you’ve nailed that exotic accent.
With overwhelming approval from the public in the form of thousands of virtual “likes,” and Jamaicans posting on YouTube and Facebook with notes like, “I’m Jamaican, and I approve!,” it would seem that Volkswagen has won the battle waged by blatant racialized mockery disguised as ambiguous feel-good humor.
To be fair, there are Jamaicans of many races, including Indo-Jamaicans, Chinese Jamaicans, multi-racial Jamaicans, and yes, white Jamaicans. But Volkswagen’s aim wasn’t to present the multiculturalism of the island; instead, the ad was intentionally a caricature of Jamaican people, reinforcing a national identity typecast as ganja-smoking, lazying-away-in-the-sun-at-their-own-pace island folk. You know, just like those clay souvenirs of wide-toothed Rastafarians with enormous spliffs dangling from their mouths or key chains embossed with smiley faces sprouting dreadlocks and a byline exclaiming, “No Problem!”
Matt Lauer of NBC’s Today Show responded to his colleagues’ uneasiness with the ad by saying, “I thought, ‘If you buy this car, it puts you in a happy place, and what’s happier than the memories we all have of being on beautiful islands on island time?” Matt might want to Google “neo-colonialism.” He should also check out Jamaica for Sale and Life and Debt.
The tourism that Lauer references in the commercial is not without consequences. The relationship between tourism and the Jamaican economy is complicated; it’s the Catch-22 of post-colonialism where rich Americans and Europeans come spend their money on an island whose people need these dollars. Tourists oblivious to their role in perpetuating a system that allows them to consume and walk away unscathed, while the realities of poverty plague an entire country. For the tourists that can afford luxurious stays in Negril and Ocho Rios, at the cost of thousands of US dollars per vacation, the average Jamaican earns the equivalent of $1 US per hour constructing these hotels. You can be sure they aren’t working on island time.
What about that easygoing, laid-back island attitude? At a rate of 13 percent unemployment, conflating an easygoing attitude with poverty is a detrimental conclusion. To put the gravity of Jamaica’s poverty in perspective, the US unemployment rate is about 8 percent; an unemployment rate of 13 percent is devastatingly high for a country you could pick up and drop in the middle of Connecticut.
In addition to the problematic generalization of Jamaicans as happy-go-lucky and carefree, our accent seems to lend itself to a special attention for parodying. (Remember Miss Cleo, who skyrocketed to psychic television fame with her unconvincing accent? And everyone who thought they could pull off a Cool Runnings accent?) The fact that patois is a dialect and not a language implicitly allows the media to mock the Jamaican accent in a way that would be unacceptable and unabashedly racist for any other culture.
As a dialect, speaking patois is immediately delegitimized because, according to post-colonial doctrine, English is the superior and the obvious standard. Our dialect is a stepchild to the more sophisticated speech of English and, consequently, we aren’t to be taken nearly as seriously as all those other folks who are speaking properly. Patois is assumed to be the language of the lower-class, uneducated masses, a highly problematic assumption given Jamaica’s post-colonial history. Essentially, speaking the Queen’s English is the aspiration; otherwise our very speech is deficient. Mocking our accent must be more acceptable then because our dialect is inherently downgraded via post-colonialism.
Those “100 Jamaicans” Volkswagen claims to have screened might say that we are, and hundreds more on social media sites might continue hitting that virtual “like.” As a Jamaican exhausted by parodies of our feel-good, catering-to-tourists-sipping-piña-coladas island culture, I’m ready to endure the blows for sticking to the unpopular opinion on this one. We are “out of many, one people,” but a sampling of a population is not sufficient to speak for an entire people; most of all, they do not speak for me. Stamps of approval from your Jamaican friend, major media outlets that claim we’re being “too sensitive” about race, and Volkswagen’s focus group do not equate to a post-racial society where mocking a national identity is acceptable. The very idea that Volkswagen believes a focus group is capable of screening racism–and that racism can even be screened–is in itself telling.
The reasons for complicity may be manifold, and the double-edged, neo-colonial sword of Caribbean tourism remains a social and economic conundrum, clearly reinforced by Western projections of so-called harmless stereotypes. But ads like this present an important opportunity for interrogating the structures bolstering racism, resisting mainstream narratives, and demanding accountability. When Ashton Kutcher played the role of Raj the Bollywood Producer in a similarly offensive Pop Chips ad, the masses overwhelmingly declared it to be racist and the ad was pulled. So where’s the public outcry? Are we simply as happy and carefree as Volkswagen says we are?
In the meantime, I’d like to talk to those 100 other Jamaicans. And while I’m at it, Matt Lauer.
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