Explain to Me Why This Super Bowl Spot Isn’t Racist…

Sean Paul says this doesn’t cross the line. Others, like Inner Circle and a growing number of Jamaicans, seem to be saying the same thing.  But why does this get stamped ‘comical’ instead of ‘racist,’ exactly?

Or, put another way, why would a light-hearted take on, let’s say, the more ‘laid back’ Southern Black culture make this a completely different discussion?


35 Responses

    • Mr. Mister
      Mr. Mister

      That would depend on your definition of racism. If the definition is that there has to be a “race” which is said to be biologically inferior to others then racism practically doesn’t exist. By that centuries old definition not even apartheid would be racist.
      Discimination based on ethnicity or nationality (which is not the same as what country you are from) is according to the more modern and established UN definition racist.
      So yes, discrimination against Jamaican people is racist. However, I don’t think that superficial humor based on stereotypes is automatically racist, and I don’t think this advertisement is either.

  1. anonymous

    Yes, there are various ethnic backgrounds that make up the Jamaican population including people of Scottish descent.
    What does this have to do with digital music news?

      • jw

        Funny how he seems to affirm the same characteristics (Favorite things about Jamaica? The warm sunshine. The people are the nicest, friendliest people in the world.) that are interpreted by some as offensive stereotypes.

  2. jw

    What’s hilarious is that Jamaican people being like “So what?” & white people being like “This is so racist!” is EXACTLY the point that the commercial is trying to make.
    The accent comes across as an homage to Jamaican culture & a critique on white/office culture. There’s nothing offensive about “let’s all be a little more positive.”
    If a commercial crossed racial lines & accentuated positive aspects of Southern Black culture, it wouldn’t be offensive at all. A commercial can be “light-hearted” & offensive or “light-hearted” & not offensive.
    It’s kind of like those Charles Barkley deoderant commercials from back in the day, “Anything less would be uncivilized.” No one was offended by Chuck acting white, because what’s offensive about “let’s all be a little more civilized?” It’s accentuating a positive aspect of a culture, & Barkley was to some degree owning up to his uncivilized behavior on the basketball court.
    What the two have in common is that the character is appropriating another culture in order to critique himself. Which is what makes it ironic & funny, but also meaningful.

  3. n' Stuff
    n' Stuff

    This is the caricature version of Jamaica.
    Ever been to Jamaica? I mean, the real Jamaica? It’s not laid back at all.
    Ever listen to the lyrics in reggae? I mean, the real reggae?

  4. Alexis Toqueville
    Alexis Toqueville

    Really? Let’s make the version where Mr. Minnesota is the Mississippi “relaxed” impoverished African American who takes it slow, hanging out all “relaxed” because life is good thanks to no job opportunity, and institutional racism that crushes the spirit.

  5. Rick Paul
    Rick Paul

    I’m just finding if amusing that people are debating racism and Jamaican culture with this ad. It shows that the VW PR people have been effective. Why is no one talking about the real controversy? What on earth would make anyone associate “the power of German engineering” with Jamaican culture? The Germans should feel slighted, but no wonder the Jamaicans are okay with this — it’s free advertising for their tourist industry. 🙂

    • Nuru Unchained
      Nuru Unchained

      3 reasons why VW wins on this: first, any memorable ad that leaves people in a better mood than before the ad MIGHT generate goodwill … the thinking is that VW is a happy car, a community car, a team-work car … they are appealing to a commercial demographic that sees itself as young, hip, culturally progressive and socially enlightened. If you see yourself as that, this commercial will appeal to you. On subtle psychological and emotional levels, they are banking on that positive association being left attached to the car and the brand. Secondly, it is border-line controversial (or just hella-entertaining) .. so it will be talked about a lot around the water cooler and blogosphere. And talking about VW keeps its relevance high in the collective public mind. And finally, I do believe they just pulled off a successful socio-cultural engineering ‘test-drive’ that was compelling … and inspired … both words that any engineering company can benefit from. In other words, its not about the car, its about who you ARE, and the feeling that the targeted young, forward-thinking demographic is left with is … “Volkswagon gets me .. and the secret to a happy life.” … a winning commercial message overall.

  6. Carl

    This is why I like DMN. Good question. Good discussion. My opinion: yes, it’s racist — not in a KKK way, but in a “oh, those silly, happy poor people; if only we could forget about all of our serious, real problems, and have their simple, two-dimensional perspective on life!”
    The Asian actor had to carry the color load for the entire ad…

  7. Nuru Unchained
    Nuru Unchained

    GREAT question ! Let me first self-identify: I’m 1/2 African-American of Caribbean descent, and 1/2 white … like Obama. But the point is I have family and blood relatives on both the black and white sides of the racial fence. I identify myself in simple terms as a Black man (as do almost everyone who meets or knows me).
    Even though there are some subtle dangers to watch out for in this ad which if not avoided, would tend to lead to a kind of racist assumption about Jamaicans (i.e. that they’re always happy, smiling, ‘SIMPLE’ people), my view on assessing the IMPACT (not the intention) of the ad, is that this ad is NOT racist overall, in its impact for a few very important reasons, many of which are subtle and nuanced.
    First, unlike a racist Minstrel show (which is ALSO based on Black cultural appropriation), the ‘race’ or group being mocked here is not Black people but rather, ‘white’ office culture, in this case the biggest problem of which is the blandness of spirit, attitude, and expression – its lifeless… that is what is being made fun of. The message is ‘be like Jamaicans, they’re just sooo damn positive’. While THIS assumption itself (i.e. that Jamaican’s are all stereotypically positive) is untrue (as anyone who has ordered out of turn at a Jamaican food joint can attest), Jamaican culture is the SUBJECT (or vehicle) for dramatic irony, not the OBJECT of ridicule …. in this case, white folks (or those that act like ‘the white office’) are being objectified, ridiculed, mocked. So it does reflect some racial stereotypes, but they cast an overall positive overstatement of what’s good about Caribbean culture … not a negative one (negative like the Minstrel show). The subtle message is, like Bobby McFerrin’s smash, don’t worry, be happy. While we have to be careful NOT to deprive Jamaicans of their full humanity by expecting them to ACT HAPPY (when they’re not), the emotional effect left by the commercial is ‘attractive’ not ‘repulsive’ to Black culture. In other words, in my opinion, if you accept what the commercial is saying about Black / Caribbean culture, I believe the RESULT is a greater affinity for the ‘sunshine’ of the African spirit, and a desire to be closer to or feel a positive affection for Jamaicans and Jamaican culture, not repulsion (again, unlike the minstrel show).
    With the popularity of reggae and herb smoking, and the sun, sand, and sexiness that is associated with Jamaica, as Black people of Caribbean descent, we are constantly seeing and hearing endless streams of white people ‘acting Jamaican’ from dread locks to weed culture to the over-used “yeah mahhhn” that white people love to say (especiallyif Bob Marley is on the Radio)… and by now we are not offended most of the time, unless its intended to belittle or used as a put-down. Usually it is said in good-hearted fun with the desire to “feel irie”, and spread “good vibz”. So we’re used to it. To be honest, the simplistic, overuse of Jamaicanisms by white folks gets a little boring and tiring IF it seems that that is all white people know OR CARE TO KNOW (very important subtelty) about us… then, white people ‘monkeying’ Jamaicans comes across as racist because it reduces us to simpletons that are always just smiling and happy regardless of how bad we are treated – which IS racist.
    But that sense of shame, is not what happened to me as I watched this commercial. Instead I laughed … it was cathartic to see the stuffy CEO relax and let his hair down so to speak … the sense one is left with is … if we all had a chill boss and office like that, it would simply be a better world. The kicker for me, the moment that captured a powerful and positive reflection of what Caribbean culture does (i.e. it generates pride and good vibes, even in the face of a put-down) was when the main character is confronted as being from Minnesota, instead of feeling ashamed, he spins it just like Caribbean people always do, to ‘bigup’ where you’re from and skips away reminding them of how great it is to be from the ‘Land of 10,000 lakes… the Gopher State’ – hilarious ! … beating the critics with a joy-for-where-I’m-from reply made the point … love rules, not critique, insult or put-down …. THAT is a very Jamaican, very Caribbean, very Black response to the “who the hell do you think you are” attack. A cultural, comedic moment that was erudite … and priceless.
    If the main character, the messenger of positivity in the commercial had actually been cast as a Black man / Jamaican and was played so over-the-top positive as the white character played it, THAT would have, ironically come closer to being a racist commercial overall in its impact …. but since the dramatic effect of the white ‘Jamaican’ acting happy in this case was soooooooo ridiculous, it was clear that the producers were using bold irony as their theatrical device. So we can relax and enjoy the bombastic irony of the characters and message which I beleive is this … be a little more like Black / Caribbean people and everything will be alright. The opposite of a message of put-down or oppression … and done with successful comedic impact to conclude: this was a successful ad by Volkswagon .. and there should be little racist backlash to debate.

    • Myles na Gopaleen
      Myles na Gopaleen

      Very good comment.
      “The subtle message is, like Bobby McFerrin’s smash, don’t worry, be happy.”
      I have always interpreted this song as ironic. That you should worry and you should get angry about what is happening to you. Then do something about it.

  8. Sun

    As a fellow Caribbean native, I must say “chill out” and enjoy the humor…I laughed my off…
    In Suriname we say “No Spang”…same as “Don’t Worry Yourself”…

  9. Tone

    Paul, this is an epic fail on your part. As a journalist and seemingly educated person, you should have known there is such a thing as white Jamaicans.
    And even if there weren’t, I still wouldn’t see how this ad is racist.
    Sorry, but this is the stupidest article I’ve seen in a long time.

    • paul

      Actually, my grandmother was a very light-skinned Jamaican, and her parents a white Englishman in Jamaica and a Jamaican woman (my great-grandmother).
      So yeah, I think I know what you’re referring to.
      That said, there are also Black people born and living in Norway. “Jamaican” is normally associated with people of African descent, based on the numbers.

  10. Cy

    I may have missed where someone else has already mentioned this, so I apologize if this comment is redundant.
    This commercial is actually a follow-up to another VW commercial featuring a black (presumably Jamaican, judging by his attire) man singing “Come On Get Happy”. Therefore it is no more racist than the All State commercials featuring other (white) people speaking in the voice of Dennis Haysbert.

  11. AnAmusedGeek

    Umm..dunno about racist..but what’s it got to do with cars? Seriously, is the whole pitch that somehow riding in a VW will make your crappy Monday a joyous event? And do they really expect people to believe that ?

  12. Blake

    Ok, this is not a racist video. If anything it is a poke at a nationality than race. Its not even disrespectful. You don’t see him smoking a joint or doing voodoo. There are no stereotypes other than the implication that Jamaicans are laid back. People get too paranoid when it comes to race issues, even when they aren’t negative. If an ACTUAL Jamaican has a problem with it, that’s different. Just from a pure demographics and stats perspective… the people who are finding this offensive most likely are not even Jamaicans.
    My point IS, don’t let petty issues get to you if they don’t involve you in any way. Just like those idiot hard right conservatives, perhaps some people are being a tad too liberal. Which trust me, can be a bad thing.

    Also, what does this have to do with music? Nothing. What a waste of digital space.

  13. Cyril

    I’m Jamaican, I live in Jamaica, and I happen to be white – Jamaica is not a race it is a nationality. I can also tell you that locally the response to this commercial from every part of society has been OVERWHELMINGLY positive – rich/poor, urban/rural, black/white, etc. The newspapers and talk shows here are flooded with comments from people who love this commercial, not to mention social media.
    The only people upset about seem to be persons in the Jamaican diaspora and leftist American liberal commentators (who I normally am in agreement with) – and in fact their collective decision to criticize this commerical on our behalf is the most offensive thing about this debate – how patronizing that you have decided for us that something is offensive to us. What this whole debate really illustrates is how messed up the state of race relations in the US still are, and this is just the projection of that attitude onto an entirely different culture, one which is not without its own problems of race, but they are very very very different from those in the US.

  14. Jeff

    There’s nothing racial about this video. If he were doing a UK accent or a German accent, would that be racist? Or even a Minnesota accent? There’s nothing pejorative or sterotypical about this, other than that Jamaican’s have a positive attitude. Even if that’s a generalization, you’d have to be hypersensitive to make a big fuss.

  15. Pat

    If the golf network airs a commercial with a “regular old white guy” who has French, Dutch, and German heritage, but is pretending to speak Scottish, wearing knickers, and discussing peat – would that be racist?
    Hmmm… probably not. Maybe you morons haven’t gotten the point. Remember that Chris Farley skit in the early 90s on SNL where he spoke in a british accent (eating crackers with sugar toothpaste on it to show how bad brits teeth are.. in a lighthearted comedic cultural stereotypical way) Was that racist?
    What about Spinal Tap?! Racists!! All of them..

    As you can see. I’m being sarchastic, and anyone who thinks this weird, lame, white dude from MN trying to speak in a Jamaican, or island accent is racist, really needs to check themselves. I know a lot of Jamaican people, and the only thing they’d find offensive about this commercial, if anything, was how poor of an accent he had. Most Jamaicans love their country, and love promoting their country, and love when other people love their country. Jamaica is awesome. Jamaican’s are good people.

  16. A far more racist coommerical
    A far more racist coommerical

    A far more racist commercial is the insurace quote commercial where the pig is being told to turn off his PDA on the jet airliner he is sitting in that is about to board. He boasts that he can check his auto insurance right from his PDA to the stewardess who replies, “When pigs fly.”
    This is supposed to be funny, but is clearly a defamation to the pig.
    And who does the pig seek empathy from, “Did she really say that?” but from the black passenger from across the aisle who shakes his head as if to say, “Yeah, I can’t believe it.”
    Maybe the guy is supposed to be saying, “Now you know what it’s like pig. We deal with that all the time.”
    And of course, the black guy being the one to have empathy with a pig, that was mere coincidence right?

  17. Erik P
    Erik P

    Letting your politics slide back into your digital music reporting again, eh? That’s why I rarely share your stories anymore.
    Jamaicans don’t have a problem with it, why should you?

    • paul

      I’m really just asking a question. As an American, I find the rules surrounding race to be extremely complex and confusing, and from a sociological standpoint can’t really decide the difference between this particular treatment and one involving another traditionally-oppressed group (Black or otherwise).
      You want a glimpse at how confusing it is for those being introduced to American culture? When famous Chinese basketball player Yao Ming was trying to learn the English language, he kept hearing his teammates using the “N-word” (yes, I will never say or write the full thing). But, they were often using it in a casual, endearing fashion, not this extremely negative manner that he knew about.
      Anyway, the story goes that he asked a teammate what this word meant (in Mandarin Chinese, it sort of translates to ‘um’ or a filler word like that from what I understand). The player assured him to never, ever use this word (ever).
      Confused yet? There are all sorts of stories like that, involving Chinese, Korean, or other cultures.
      Shift the tables, and as an American I’ve been really confused at how different races and classes interact in other countries. I’m an outsider, I’ll never really get it (unless I become soaked in the culture for years, if I’m lucky to understand at that point).
      So I’m really happy that this could be debated. And for those that criticize the article for not having enough musical importance, okay I can understand that complaint. But I was introduced to the issue through Sean Paul and Inner Circle, it was a bridge enough for me 😉

  18. mdti

    seen from here, seeing this funny clip as racist, would make you a racist too…. but it’s seen from France… not the US or jamaica.
    I can understand that some people, jamaicans, are fed up of the association with reggae/rasta. But we do love that accent over here 🙂


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