The Reason You Find the Volkswagen Commercial Racist

Is the Minnesotan with a Jamaican accent bad for Jamaicans?

Firstly, I want to applaud the Jamaican government for not diving into the sensationalism that it could so easily have ended up in. We can’t really afford to upset the international community. Hell, we can’t afford anything since we’re the Greece of the Western Hemisphere; but that’s another, yet similarly misguided story. I say “we” because I am a Jamaican, living in Jamaica and based on my vantage point, I can see where the issue lies in this “racist commercial” debate. Allow me to explain.

We Jamaicans, including the diaspora, have pretty much accepted the commercial. The only issue might be that maybe the producers should have hired an actual Jamaican. No harm, no foul. To be honest, it was just another one of those commercials that sell you because it was goofy, not because of the actual product. I was actually on the edge of my seat hoping and praying that the guys wouldn’t mess up the accent because they were probably the best fake accents I’ve ever heard from Americans. I was impressed, even though it still sounded a bit off. Definitely an “A” for effort. I laughed out loud when it was finished, because I realized that people will actually continue this stereotype of the happy-go-lucky Jamaican. I laugh, because it isn’t really true. The concept that Jamaicans are predominantly happy-go-lucky is pretty funny to me, because I have little evidence to back that claim. The tourist board may hate me for this but we have a crime problem here. We’re combating it with some success it must be said. However, the level of crime and poverty is not symptomatic of a carefree, blissful existence under the coconut tree for every inhabitant here on the island. We’re just like everyone else. We can be friendly, mean and everything in between. It’s like saying all people from New York are mean and pushy. Really? All 8 million of them? I doubt it.

The reason the producer of the commercial used a man emulating a Jamaican, is because of the idea of Jamaica being a paradise and a place to relax, which is what the guy was telling his office to do. Relax. Bob Marley definitely factors in all of this. A certain subset of his music is quite cheery but again, we’re dealing with a part and not the whole. Marley sang reggae music, which is rebel music. He was one who, along with the happy stuff (One Love, Three Little Birds) was also singing songs about certain socio-political issues in the country (Redemption Song, Africa Unite, Crazy Baldheads). The happy stuff was not his complete catalog, just a portion of it. Nevertheless, the idea of the jovial Jamaican was created and Marley’s work has promulgated and supported this idea ever since his rise to stardom. Again we see how the international community publicizes one side and not the other.

The reason one might find this Volkswagen commercial stereotypical is that, it actually is. It is stereotypical because the man is talking in the Jamaican accent and telling everyone to be cool and relax—two things people think are typical of Jamaicans. All he needed was some ganja and that would have been the hat trick. These are simply things that people have associated Jamaica with. This is not necessarily or inherently a good or bad thing. It’s simply the idea one might have of Jamaicans. It’s incomplete, but it’s an idea. It’s like if I shot a commercial and had a Jamaican man play ice hockey and speak French while saying, “Eh?” the whole time. That’s stereotyping. I’m just showcasing the traits deemed to be typical of Canadians.

The reason stereotyping is not inherently good or bad is because of context. If I’m walking on a lonely street and someone with a gun is running in my direction with a crazed look in his eye, stereotyping allows me to forego judgment because I already have this image and what it means in my head, so I simply run away and as fast as possible because I want to live. I would judge that guy to be a maniac and my lonely surroundings to only foster some sort of deviant behavior. I don’t have all the information, but I’m not sticking around to find out. If I watch the news and hear about this guy being a murderer, I’m going to get on my soapbox and preach the virtues of stereotyping. Stereotyping is not limited to concepts of race or sex. It entails every single idea out there.

Now, when someone utilizes the unique quirks of a people to deride those people, we got a problem. When someone responds or performs in a particular way because of who they think another person is, it depends again on context. Me running from the crazed gunman can be justified as good, but only if he really was a crazed gunman. What if he wasn’t? What if he needed my help and the only reason he looked crazy was because he was scared and he ran out of ammunition to defend himself because he was running from someone who was trying to kill him?

This is why I shrug my shoulders at the stereotype in the commercial. Is it good? Perhaps. To some, it could paint Jamaicans in a positive light because they’re so darn positive. Is it bad? Perhaps. If you run into a man with dreadlocks and a marijuana spliff and say, “Irie, mon!” But that guy is actually smoking to calm his nerves because his wife just left him and locked him out of their joint bank account, he might just hit you in the face. And the next time you run into a guy with dreads smoking weed, I bet you look straight ahead.

Now, the bigger question: is the commercial racist? In racism, a certain ethnicity is being hated, belittled or experiencing some form of negativity by another. This is not evident in this commercial. Do we not witness the guy from Minnesota influencing his compatriot and even his boss? That should shut the door on any and all questions about whether or not it’s racist, but let’s continue the examination.

Honestly, it’s an odd question to ask. If you think it’s racist, it’s racist. If you think it’s fine, that’s exactly what it is. Philosophical approach aside, I believe the problem may lie in one’s clinging to the past. When slavery was still around, the idea of the happy Black man, eager to please his superior White master infiltrated the fabric of American culture. Now, to extrapolate that stereotypical African-American behavior of the slavery era and place it on contemporary Jamaica is laughable. You would have taken an American stereotype and put it on a completely different nationality. It’s nuts, but some critics are saying that the commercial supports behavior from over a hundred years ago. My question is, why would you as a critic, put such a dated and negative stereotype of an African-American man on a Jamaican man? It’s a different nationality, with a different heritage and a different culture. I would like to believe that one does not simply assume that because Jamaicans are typically black, that they had the exact same behaviors as their American counterparts.

I understand that it’s a commercial for the American consumer, but when you critique Jamaican behavior by using American history, it’s a flat out failure of an argument. Is the assumption that Volkswagen is utilizing a happy-go-lucky Jamaican to be the substitute for the “happy darkie” of yesteryear? If you want to get involved in sensationalism, you may very well believe this. I can’t help you there, but it may assist you to note that the stereotypical Jamaican behavior is something that was constructed a few decades ago, rather than two centuries ago; that even if the producers were trying to concoct racism, they did a poor job because they took the supposed attributes of a nation with a different heritage. A heritage that would affirm the African, not ridicule him.

The fact is, African slaves in Jamaica fought tooth and nail for their emancipation. These are the ancestors of the people of Jamaica today, so the idea of Jamaicans being these insouciant individuals is incorrect and incomplete. Let me be clear, again I have no issues with the commercial. I don’t expect to see the full gamut of human emotions in under two minutes. Just show me so I can punch someone and yell, “punch buggy red!” Stereotypes, as I said, can help and harm. And guess what? It’s not harming anybody. Jamaicans are cool with it and African-Americans are not being brainwashed into slavery. What I have a problem with is erroneous deductions and shortsightedness, because when you throw labels such as “racist” around, that is always harmful.

What’s probably the funniest thing about all of this is that the guy in the commercial is reassuring his co-workers that everything will be alright and helping them to get to a relaxed state, and yet the furor surrounding this commercial is anything but.

 

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About Jason Henry

Jason Henry is a young person who earnestly seeks the path which leads him to say, "TGIM: Thank God it's Monday." Feel obliged to contact him @alchemisjah and buy his book on emotional healing here

Comments

  1. Great insight! The one thing we have to get over is the fact that everybody stereotypes. We are human and it’s impossible for us not to know every single individual so our biases and stereotypes will influence our thinking. What’s important (and difficult to do) is to measure the heart motive. If one is exploiting, belittling or marginalizing a person and using culture or ethnicity as a basis, that would be racist. If done out of ignorance, that’s a no harm intended situation.
    What “playing the race card” and on the other side of the spectrum, racism does is destroys the chance to understand each other and the importance of celebrating differences. I long for the day when we can get to that level of maturity.
    James

  2. wellokaythen says:

    I’ve only met a few Jamaicans, so my experience may be entirely unrepresentative, but in my experience Jamaican immigrants to the U.S. tend to be very hardworking, not very laid back at all, more likely to work harder or push for overtime than the average, more concerned with the bottom line, less likely to take time off. And, in fact, much less likely to smoke pot than any of the white people I know….

    It reminds me of the racial stereotype of the “lazy Mexican,” which is entirely the opposite of reality.

  3. Social Justice Warriors need to have something to be outraged about, otherwise they hardly know why they live.

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