Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Questioning the Authenticity of the White Rastafarian

Kathryn Villaverde

There is an interesting cultural and linguistic phenomenon going on between blacks and whites that doesn’t quite fit in the AAVE versus SE debate but fits into a similar discussion.  It is the relationship between Caribbean (particularly Jamaican) blacks that identify with the Rastafarian religion and “reggae” culture of their friends, families and fellow Caribbean’s and the American (or British) whites that chose to inhabit this identity or specific segments of it.  This strange inhabiting of identity is something that does not go unnoticed or un-critiqued for it’s test of authenticity.  Let’s begin with a little SNL skit that puts this discussion in perspective…

In this video we see the famously white and Jewish Andy Sandberg play a classic interpretation of the white, American teen/young adult inhabiting linguistic, aesthetic and ritualistic segments of Jamaican Rastafarian culture.  He wears an “earthy” sweater, grows waist long dreadlocks, smokes marijuana and wears the colors of the Jamaican flag, all key components of reggae culture and ritualistic aspects of the religion of Rastafarianism.  He calls out and uses, improperly at best, words that either have specific meaning within the context of that culture such as bald head which, in American SE usually means no hair but in Rastafarianism means white oppressor, or uses words that only have meaning in that culture but do not seem to have meaning to Andy’s character.  The joke of the video being that, it is not unusual to see white, upper-middle class teens inhabit this reggae identity when they get to college (or in high school) without really having an “authentic” roots in the culture previously or even understanding the meaning behind the words and rituals they pick up.  The fact that the skit specifically creates a character in a liberal arts college meshes well with Urcioli’s article Whose Spanish? The tension between linguistic correctness and cultural identity about how Latin@s often feel the need to change or solidify and establish their identity while in college. She argues that liberal arts education works as a realm where those involved have “access to symbolic capital through class mobility” and where languages that contest Hill’s white public space “either have no rightful place or at best supply forms to be played with by English speakers”.   Henceforth, it is usually white’s, like Andy Sandberg, who play with this particular cultural and linguistic identity when in college and Urcioli would most likely say that they do this because they can.  But, there must be more than that?  Why would these kids choose to inhabit an identity that actually finds root in an identity and religion created in retaliation to whites?

I believe that from the liberal, white perspective, Jamaican/Rasta cultural identity is the model-minority for American alternative culture.  It is a organized, pre-existing culture that creates a safe space for drug use, alternative clothing and hair styles, emotional music and philosophy for young, white, liberals who are trying to create an identity for themselves.  In Shalini Shankar’s article Speaking like a Model Minority she distinguishes between Desi teens in Silicon Valley who have created a unique identity for themselves that can be accepted in American culture versus Desi teens who have failed to created or inhabit an acceptable identity and therefore are marked as “FOBy”.  When it comes to the American born and raised white Rastafarians, I believe this careful distinction between what segments of the identity are acceptable and which are not.  In the Andy Sandberg video, we see that aspects of identity such as smoking marijuana, hanging red, yellow and green posters of Bob Marley, wearing dreadlocks and even using words from the Rastafarian/Jamaican culture without really knowing or clarifying the meaning can slip by mostly unmarked as foreign.  Surely it is marked as strange and funny which is why this skit exists yet, from experience with these individuals in American culture, it is clear that in a certain “alternative” realm this is all acceptable and even encouraged behavior.  However, something about this identity is missing.  Check out this video and see if you can figure it out…

THE ACCENT! The classic, stereotypical Jamaican/Rastafarian from the American perspective has an accent.  Whether they have lived in America for 3 years or 30 this is their trademark for authenticity and although white American teens can inhabit many parts of this identity safely in American/white culture, the accent doesn’t seem to be okay. Henceforth, it seems to act as two things, the mark of real authentic Jamaican/Rastafarian Identity and the line that can’t be crossed safely without causing controversy for whites.  This reminds me of the Desi teens in Shankar’s article because it was the ones who talked too strongly or too often in their “FOBy” accent that got marked while the other teens that either didn’t speak with the accent or controlled it to certain situations went by unmarked.
To put this in perspective lets look at a article written in the UK’s Sunday Times.  Although it’s not in American culture, I think it is still a good reflection of the cultural distinctions that happen here it just seems to be a bigger phenomenon there because there is a large Jamaican population. Sophie Heaword of The Sunday Times talks about the commodification of reggae culture in the popular music scene by white people in the UK in her article Play that reggae music, white kids.  Specifically she focuses on a British born and raised artist Bobby Kray who has become known for his reggae tunes and lifestyle.  Although Kray insists that as a kid he regularly visited and hung around a popular reggae music store and became close with people there who were from Jamaica and were born and raised on the music and culture, Kray’s debut album Tales From A Skinny White Boy vaguely captures the kind of distinction that must be made to allow for him to call some kind of authenticity when he identifies with that culture.  Heaword goes onto to identify a few other British artists who have come to identify with the music and culture of Jamaican life and have been accepted as part of it.  She insists that, although improbable, because of “shared experience” in the Jamaican community in England, these very white, British musicians can legitimately call the culture and music their own.  So, we see that performing the music authenticity can be found in “shared experience” however, there does still seem to be tension over language.  One of the classic, memorable aspects of reggae music from artists like Bob Marley or Jimmy Cliff is the stereotypical Jamaican accent.  Although Bobby Kray and Ava Leigh identify with the Reggea lifestyle, music and social group, neither have the authority to inhibit the linguistic identity. 

Bobby Kray - 
Ava Leigh -  

Now of course, just because they identify and have become a part of this culture in many other ways, does not mean they have to inhabit every aspect of the stereotyped image.  Yet, why wouldn’t Andy Sandberg either?  If anything that would make the video funnier if he fully inhabited the stereotyped identity yet it seemed there was very much intention in not doing so.  And it all goes back to the basic point that, in general, whites inhabiting this cultural identity feel take it upon themselves to accept most aspects of it as their own from words with unclear meaning to ritualistic practices that are illegal in America yet, the accent is dutifully avoided. I’m wondering if this is a sign of an identification and authentication boarder that exists invisibly between culture and language for in this genre of music and social identification.  Obviously the line between appropriate and inappropriate segments of the Jamaican/Rastafarian identity to be inhabited is shady as with most of these situations (like the role of the famous N-word).

Yet, from some perspectives, because of the history and origins of the Rastafarian identity, it can never be taken up even slightly and be authentic or even appropriate in anyway.  A writer by the name of Eric comments on this phenomenon in a blog post/rant titled Hippies with dreadlocks and why i quit reggae where he retaliates against the movement of white alternative liberals inhabiting aspects of the Rastafarian culture and identity because it is ultimately ironic and insulting. He points out that this culture was created as a response to white oppression and one of their popular terms, baldhead (used ironically by Sandberg throughout the clip) actually means white.  He writes, “although the Rasta message was virtuous, their movement was exclusively directed to its own people… white people love to listen to Bob (Marley), but they should stop and analyze his lyrics… he was complaining about them”. Henceforth, historically, it doesn’t make sense for a white person to even try to inhabit this identity in any way because it was created against them.  Therefore, no matter the language, hairstyle, or anything, a white person may never authentically inhabit this identity and experience this culture.  It seems like the sensitivity around the accent hints at this aspect of the phenomenon.  The accent ties the identity too much to a nation, a history and a people that is intentionally and dutifully avoided to make the American teens model for alternative identity safe and somewhat authentic in it’s context.  White hippy has a stereotype in America, but it doesn’t have a nation and eliminating the accent makes that possible.  However, add an accent to the stereotype of the stereotypical American hippy and of liberal arts colleges and you get a Jamaican/Rastafarian that has a nation, a history and a people that directly contradicts the actual cultural place of that white teenager.

So, although Heaword insists that, at least in England, with “shared experience” someone can inhabit the identity, use the music and join reggae culture, this belief will not pass without contestation of it’s authenticity.  Whether that be subtle contestation in the intentional/ unintentional ignoring of some linguistic aspects of this identity (ie. accent) despite the fact that in a crowd of authentic Jamiacan’s who identify with reggae culture this would make you stick out like a sore thumb or the more obvious contestation in the form of angry rants on blogs or poking fun of a white person’s inability to really conform and become part of Rasta Jamaican culture.  Point being, I don’t think we are in a place where a white American (or white person at all) can authentically inhabit the reggae cultural identity and I think that deep down they know this and it can be seen in the intentional/ unintentional ignoring of the accent that originally accompanied that identity.  Based on the history of that culture, I doubt they ever will be able to even if they are from Jamaica and can legally play into One Nation-One Language-One People. 

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