Culture Other

Stereotyping, cultural appropriation and such

Alan Sullivan has posted a poem called Long Bay Jump, both to his blog and to Erato, which is in a West Indian voice. It starts:

Sun drop down with a flash of green.
Moon lift up, and the palm tree lean.

Jack fish bake in banana wrap.
Pi-dog snatch all the table scrap.

Ganja and rum, ganja and rum–
Long Bay jump ’til the morning come.

Not surprisingly, some people were uneasy with it. Or, as Alan put it:

I posted this reggae-style lyric at Eratosphere today and got a face full of PC, just as I expected.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read the whole thread at Erato because, well, other people’s pissing matches get dull fairly quickly. But I was somewhat struck with this comment:

Although I can see why someone might be offended by the association of a whole group of people with ‘ganja’ and a careless demeanor, the practice of friendly caricature is generally accepted. No one would bat an eye at a poem that portrayed a British man with a cup of tea in one hand, a cane in the other, and a ‘Jolly good day’. No one would be shocked at a poem about a racist Southerner who irresponsibly uses Biblical quotations to justify cruelty — a far more offensive caricature, in my opinion, because it is a negative and unsympathetic stereotype. No one would even blink at a poem about fat and boisterous Americans visiting foreign nations. So what’s wrong with a friendly caricature of a non-white group of non-European descent?

Nothing, in my opinion.

Now there are various cans of worms there which I think I’ll leave unopened, and just comment on the bit which jumped out at me. “No one would bat an eye at a poem that portrayed a British man with a cup of tea in one hand, a cane in the other, and a ‘Jolly good day’.” Umm, well actually, speaking as an Englishman, that would annoy the fuck out of me. It’s outdated, inaccurate and patronising. So I guess that’s one point – you may not be as good a judge as you think of whether a caricature comes across as ‘friendly’.

I’m not going to try to judge how Alan’s poem would come across to someone from the BVI . But actually it makes me uneasy without having an opinion about whether it’s inaccurate and/or insulting.

It’s not the fact that it’s ventriloquising a West Indian voice, although that’s certainly relevant. Nor is it related to post-colonialism or the legacy of slavery or any other specific political issue associated with the region, though those are also relevant. It’s that it’s a stereotype. Not just a stereotype, but the stereotype of the Caribbean – rum, ganja, palm trees and music. Alan says, in response to some of the comments:

I tried to avoid a POV in the poem. It bears witness. It does not judge. Every detail is true, and known to me at first hand.

I have no doubt that every detail is true. And yet somehow all they manage to add up to is the obvious stereotype. That’s the thing about stereotypes – they usually have some basis in truth. There really are effeminate gay man and Nigerian con artists. The reason stereotypes are insidious is precisely that they are somewhat true; that you can look at the person and just see the stereotype. It’s a short-circuiting of thought.

I think I’d have been happier if he had offered a POV, if he had judged. That would at least be an explicit attempt to engage with the culture. Attempting to neutrally portray a culture which is not your own strikes me as fraught with difficulty, not from any kind of cultural relativism but because the perspective of the visitor is so partial.

This is perhaps an over-analysis of a light poem that doesn’t seem to be attempting much more than local colour. I just wanted to try to articulate my sense of unease.