The Least Happy Jamaican: On Volkswagen’s Super Bowl Commercial (Participation)

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.


Young, Depressed, and Of Color: Why Schools and Doctors Get It Wrong (Participation)

Young, Depressed, and Of Color: Why Schools and Doctors Get It Wrong

by Jamilah King ShareThis | Print | Comment

Tuesday, May 29 2012, 9:25 AM EST Tags: Mental Healt

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part series on people of color and mental health. Read the second part: “How to Do Right By Yourself While Saving the World”

Earlier this month, news surfaced of a Louisiana school psychologist who posted racially charged messages on Twitter. Mark Traina, who later resigned, worked as a psychologist at an alternative school in Jefferson Parish Public School System, a district that’s been under intense scrutiny in recent months. According to a court complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Jefferson County has been sending a disproportionate number of black and special education kids to “languish for months” in the district’s alternative schools.

Traina had already taken to Twitter to post his support of George Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watch captain charged with murdering Trayvon Martin. But back in January, Traina went on a rant against “young black thugs.” Traina, a self-proclaimed ‘American Civil Rights Activist who unlike Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton presents all Americas”, tweeted that “Young black thugs who won’t follow the law need to be put down not incarcerated. Put down like the Dogs they are!”

While black children aren’t often ceremoniously “put down like dogs”, they do face harsh school punishment at much higher rates than their white counterparts. Jefferson Parish’s problems are symptomatic of a disease that’s already been diagnosed nationally: the  tendency to dole out harsher than average treatment for people of color. From the classroom to the clinician’s office, there’s a long and troubling relationship between racism and the mental health field.

Research has also shown the black students are disciplined more severely than white students, even when they commit offenses that are less serious. The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado reported (PDF) that more than 30 percent of black students caught using, or in possession of, a cell phone for the first time were suspended. The rate for white students who committed the same infraction was just 17 percent.

The disparity lead Education Secretary Arne Duncan to lament that “the everyday educational experience for too many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.”

Data released this year by the U.S. Department of education showed that black students are three times more likely to be suspended than their white classmates. Even though black students make up just 18 percent of students nationally, they comprise 35 percent of suspensions and 39 percent of expulsions. Additionally, as Liz Dywer points out at GOOD, 70 percent of students arrested or referred to police are black or Latino.

Yet many contend that the problem extends far beyond the classroom. When it comes to mental illness, people of color are more likely to be given more severe diagnoses than their white counterparts. In 2005, the Washington Post reported that even though schizophrenia has been shown to affect all ethnic groups at the same rate, black people in the U.S. were more than four times as likely to be diagnosed with the disorder than whites. Latinos were more than three times as likely to be diagnosed as whites.

“The way we define mental illness is slanted toward pathologizing basically angry black men,” said Jonathan Metzl, a psychiatrist at Vanderbilt University and author of the book “The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease.”

There’s a deep mistrust between communities of color and the mental health field. The National Alliance on Mental Health notes (PDF) that African Americans are more likely to be misdiagnosed and, in turn, receive inadequate treatment often due to a “lack of cultural understanding.”

In 2005, the Washington Post published a wide-ranging series on the role of culture in mental illness and told the story of a case encountered by Dr. Roberto Lewis-Fernandez. While completing his psychiatry training at a hospital in Massachusetts, Fernandez encountered a suicidal 49-year-old Puerto Rican woman who begged for help to resolve a conflict with her son. The woman also said she was hearing voices, seeing shadows, and felt invisible presences. At first, the Harvard-affiliated doctors diagnosed the woman as depressed and psychotic. She was given medication and sent home.

“I wasn’t sure if she was psychotic, but I treated her as if she was,” Lewis-Fernandez told the Post.

But Lewis Fernandez, who’s also Puerto Rican, found the diagnosis unsettling and thought the hospital had misjudged the situation. He knew that at a certain level, seeing shadows and sensing presences was considered normal in some Latino communities. After another argument with her son, the woman nearly overdosed on the medication. She was taken back to the hospital where she was re-evaluated, given a less severe diagnosis, and given help to reconcile with her son.

Race and institutional definitions of insanity share a long and troubling history. Metzl outlines in his book that in the 1850’s, American psychiatrists believed that runaway slaves suffered from an acute mental illness called “drapetomania.” The era was also littered with references to “dysaesthesia aethiopis”, a form of madness characterized by disrespect for the slaver owners’ property and best treated with extensive whipping.

In the early twentieth century, American psychiatrists thought that schizophrenia patients were largely white, middle class and harmless to society. The disease was misunderstood as one that was deeply emotional and, in turn, associated with melancholy housewives, novelists, and poets. In 1935, Metzl notes that the New York Times speculated that many white writers demonstrated a symptom called “grandiloquence”, a propensity toward flowery prose then thought to be “one of the telltale phrases of schizophrenia, the mild form of insanity known as split personality.”

It wasn’t until the 1960’s that societal attitudes toward the disease dramatically shifted. Schizophrenia was no longer seen as harmless, but was instead a dangerous disease defined by rage and associated with the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. In 1968, while protest movements became more radical — particularly those in poor black neighborhoods, the field  of psychiatry introduced a radically new definition of the disease. That year, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) updated its definition. “The patient’s attitude is frequently hostile and aggressive and his behavior tends to be consistent with his delusions.”

Metzl makes the argument in his book that the change on societal attitudes was the unintended consequence of growing white anxiety about cultural and social change. And while obvious bias can’t be easily discounted, sometimes misdiagnoses are the unintended side effects of persistent cultural misunderstandings. Metzal argues that racial tensions are structured into clinical interactions long before doctors and patients meet in the exam room.

In the early 1970’s a series of influential studies established the fact that people of color were often over-diagnosed with much more severe mental illnesses than their white counterparts. When psychiatrist miss the mark so consistently, one obvious side effect is that persistent — though perhaps less severe — mental illnesses often go untreated.

Metzl notes that black men are historically underdiagnosed with illnesses like depression, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder.

“There’s a mistrust of psychiatry that I think is very well-founded. In the 1960’s we see very clearly that psychiatric experts were pathologizing civil rights protests and particularly black power protests as being insane. And it’s very hard to turn around from that and say, ‘Oh no, we made a mistake, please trust us.’ If you have a history of pathologizing legitimate political protests as mental illness, you set conditions for mistrust on both sides.”