That VW Super Bowl Ad from a French-Jamaican perspective

Oah la! la!

DR SONDRé COLLY-DURAND Observer writer

Monday, February 18, 2013

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PARIS, France — One very obvious fallout from the now famous VW super bowl commercial is the extremely polarising reaction it has garnered. There are basically three distinct camps.

The non-Jamaican patronisingly shocked outrage

Many who have come out vocally against the advertisement have never set foot on Jamaican soil, but somehow possess that surround-sound racist radar. One Internet site which bills itself as pro-diversity did not even recognise Jimmy Cliff who is featured in the VW sister ad and commented that it showed "a Pied Piper-singing guy who is the only featured Black person... and he's dressed like a street person".

Seriously, they can smell racism for miles and are not shy in lambasting its perpetrators, without attempting to do at least a little research before rushing to save us from ourselves. Obviously, since they jump on every and any possible hint of racism, the rules of probability ensure that of course, at times they do hit their mark and manage to unearth a true racist. However, crying wolf too many times does dilute the strength of the message and takes much-needed attention away from true racist acts which should mobilise us all.

In this, I'll single out a couple for analysis. On the CNN programme Starting Point, which first unveiled the ad, the New York Times columnist Charles Blow said: "I don't like it at all, it's like blackface with voices."

Now, the 19th- and early 20th century minstrel show theatrical make-up known as blackface was indeed offensive as it reinforced the "happy-go-lucky plantation darky" stereotype at a racially charged time in the United States of America. During the banter that ensued on the same programme, Wall Street Journal's senior editorial director, Chris John Farley, chose that moment to divulge his Jamaican origins. Hitherto he seemed to have closeted that information because his female co-anchor expressed astonishment at this sudden confession. Farley then used newly outed Jamaicanness to add power to his distaste of the advertisement.

This esteemed, accomplished Jamaican has never seen it fit to highlight the island with all the visibility that his public persona platforms affords him, but as soon as someone else dips into the Jamaican brand and highlights one of their many core attributes, his dormant Jamdown genes are suddenly revived and enraged.

Then there is Barbara Lipman billed on the Today Show as an "ad expert". She went on to negate what Jamaicans thought of the ad, gasping: "...Maybe Jamaicans didn't find it offensive...They are showing happy people because they have black accents." That means that wherever you see black people on this Earth, they will be sporting a yardie accent. All the continent of Africa, in Europe, in the United States of Americans, in Canada, in Mexico, you get the drift... We have somehow managed to do what the Mormons have failed to do — convert planet earth.

So for this camp, which totally ignores the racial composition of the island, speaking in a fake foreign accent is definitely racist. Using this premise:

i) Oh boy, do I have some racist Jamaican friends who incessantly channel the Paris Hilton's "white" Valley accent!

ii) Our own Honourable Mrs Louise Bennett-Coverley might have been the catalyst for the above show of reverse racism when she wrote: "Not even lickle language bwoy? /Not even little twang?"

The Diaspora-spawned or schooled Jamaican shocked outrage

Now for this category, there is Dr Lisa Tomlinson, a Jamaica educator living in Toronto, Canada. Her take on the ad and her breakdown of its ramifications gives us a different prism through which to comprehend the indignation. In a letter to the editor published in this newpaper on February 8, she states: "In a racialised society where your culture is only validated through ridicule and stereotypes, the VW advertisement takes on a much deeper meaning." 'Deeper meaning', huh? That reminds one of the pool table scene in the movie Boomerang, when Martin Lawrence's character tells Eddie Murphy's that in the game the white ball dominates and success is accomplished when it pushes the black ball off a green table, which represents Earth, "because of the White man's fear of the Black man's balls!"

In her concise, well-developed exposé, Dr Tomlinson goes on to deplore the one-dimensional, care-free label that Jamaicans have been plagued with in the media. In the piece where she attacks the Canadian education system for, according to her, equating the Caribbean accent with a learning disability, the reader gets an inkling of how stressful it must be growing up in a culture in which one feels so isolated and marginalised, that the knee-jerk reaction, which is a part of our natural defence mechanism arsenal, kicks in on a whim.

She sums up by warning against accepting media representations at face value, arguing that behind the seeming embrace of the Jamaican culture is a more sombre attempt by 'The Man' to keep black people locked down at the lower rungs of society through an astute, underhanded, long-running compartmentalisation technique.

However, we have to acknowledge that tourism is a major sector of the Jamaican economy and that the Jamaica Tourist Board has been selling the island as the place to come and "feel alright". Usain Bolt, our most famous Jamaican at the moment, is an alien of an athlete who is shockingly laid- back and stress-free for all the feats he performs. When he DQed in Daegu, he famously reassured reporters and cameramen waiting to immortalise the agony of defeat, "Looking for tears? Not going to happen. I'm OK."

The fact that the Jamaican Government has not had the good sense to adequately harness and monetise brand Jamaica's true potential is yet another proof of the care-free Jamaican. Instead of bickering, our take-away from all this should be that we need to seriously channel this vibe to OUR advantage.

As a Jamaican who was born, schooled and bred on the island but who has since lived in Europe for over a decade, bringing up children in a country where they are in the "visible minority", I do see where she is coming from. I sometimes catch myself almost compulsively analysing advertisements in which black people appear, questioning the motives and foaming at the mouth. Having worked summers in the tourism industry on the island, when this happens I have the luxury of comparing Jamaicans general attitude to race and using that as a litmus test to gauge my reaction.

Jamaican children of the diaspora don't necessarily have that opportunity and I sympathise with them. To them, I offer two recommendations:

i) Chill Winston

ii) "it no good fi stay inna white man country too long." Mutabaruka

The born-and-bred Jamaican embrace

And what of the overwhelmingly positive response from Jamaicans on the ground? Do we negate their views and pretend that the natives just aren't sophisticated enough or need to "cast the scales off their eyes" as one exasperated British-bred Jamaican quipped?

The most important point is that, if Jamaicans in Jamaica are happy, then we all should try to adjust our critical lens and respect their views. As the director of corporate and commercial strategy from the RJR Communications Group, Yvonne Wilks, explained, VW spent over US$8 million for a one-minute ad. They chose the Jamaican accent out of the tens of thousands at their disposal. To Jamaicans in Jamaica, I lift my hat and say like our legendary Super Cat:

i) Dem nuh worry we

ii) Don dada, a we run things.


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