In general Jamaicans are friendly, outgoing and very proud of their nation. [...] Jamaicans keep a positive and care-free attitude toward life, answering many questions or inquiries with a "No Problem Mon" or an "Irie" - believing that it's all going to work out and everything is OK!
-- from an online travel brochure about Jamaica
Most minstrels projected a greatly romanticized and exaggerated image of black life with cheerful, simple slaves always ready to sing and dance and to please their masters.
-- Wikipedia article on minstrelsy
The picture I posted on Wednesday depicts two men dressed as stereotypical Jamaicans. They're selling a commodity (pineapple) whose association with Jamaica is a largely colonial one - it's where the fruit is grown for global north consumption. They're largely dehumanised, wearing a generalised-exotic lava-lava in lieu of anything specifically Jamaican. The music is pastoral and rich-world-oriented "roots" reggae, in a fake plastic version... And their proscribed behaviour is carefree and laid back, much like the fake Maori in the last set of Fanta commercials (here, appropriately, in Estonian), and indeed much like both the stereotypes above.
And yet, it seems to still be okay. And I'm kind of wondering why, and discovering the wider implication of various angles on the blackface phenomenon are disturbingly plentiful.
I've nicked the illustration above from an online costume site, where it's advertised as "Rasta Mon Costume. This costume represents the carefree life-style of the Carribean Islands Mon!". I've looked through the site, and although there are plenty of costumes with some sort of parody intent directed at the hip-hop lifestyle, there are none that directly portray African Americans as an ethnic group in this way. Because that, of course, would be blackface.
I realise the historical and activistically racist context to this discrepancy. But surely, at the base of it, the problem is exactly the same. The blackface performer perpetuates an extremely simplified stereotype with strong negative or servile implications. He pretends to be an oppressed person in order to mock. The oppressed people are denied the custody of their own culture and the voice, they are spoken for by a grossly simplified parody of themselves, often for bigoted purposes.
And yet, dressing as a "Jamaican" in this way seems perfectly okay with most people. I've got enough issues, lord knows, with trustafarianism and middle-class white rappers as well, but at least they're trying to be something, not ironically mocking subalterns from a position of privilege. I cringe when I see stuff like this:
(via) What are Diplo and Switch thinking? Seriously? Having Andy Milonakis come in and do a perfectly ridiculous number in a faux-Demarco manner, cynically ridiculing the current style of dancehall and some sort of mystical, generalised-exotic voodoo bullshit? Exaggerating all the negative aspects, the violence and the drugs? Blabbing on about "pussy" in a manner which in the class/racial context comes accross as sexist in the extreme?
I can understand a desire (however warped it is) to want to be Jamaican or to want to act authentically so. But that isn't the case here at all. For me, when it comes to putting down Jamaicans by imitating them stereotypically - whether in costume or in music - there's really only one word for it.
In the next post I'll look at the idea of blackface as extended beyond ethnicity altogether - what happens when people imitate genders and classes, and how does that fit in?