I have vague childhood memories of politicians exhorting us (Jamaicans) to appreciate the value of our cultural capital. These speeches would always be peppered with references to Bob Marley, and sometimes Marcus Garvey. I imagine that the 2014 version of the speech includes ample reference to Usain Bolt. I think the point they were trying to make was twofold:
1. For a small island of less than 3 million people, Jamaica has massive (and incredibly disproportionate) global appeal
2. This global appeal has monetary value (hence, the term cultural capital) which we could derive immense benefit from, with the right structures in place. Of course we don’t have those structures in place at all… but that’s for another blog post.
A wonderful side effect of Jamaica’s popularity is that almost everywhere I’ve been, people know something about Jamaica, which makes it easy for me to strike up conversations and ask them more about their lives and culture. The flip side to that is that people’s perceptions of Jamaica are extremely narrow. I’ve come to the conclusion that people expect us to be weed-smoking, reggae-singing Rastas who also break sprinting records in our spare time. There are more than a few ridiculous stereotypes about Jamaicans. Here are the top five I’ve encountered, based on the most common questions that I get while outside Jamaica:
1. Do you know Bob Marley?
The first time I got this question was about nine years ago, and the inquirer wanted to know if I knew Marley personally. I wanted to laugh so hard, but I realised that the person asking was really sincere. Bless her heart. Bob Marley died in 1981, years before I was even thought of. Nowadays, I think people use it as a means of verifying that we’re talking about the same place. “You mean Bob Marley’s Jamaica?” Yeah, that same one. After we establish that I am in fact from that same Jamaica, #2 and #3 below are sure to follow.
I guess if the assumption is that all Jamaicans are like Bob Marley, then surely we must all smoke weed. Sigh. I do not smoke weed and have no interest in doing so. If you smoke beside me, and end up making me smell like grass in the process, this would be my reaction:
3. Are you a Rasta? This is sometimes followed by the person patting my head to verify that their eyes are not deceiving them, and that I truly do not have any locs on my head. This is usually the point where I point out that less than 5% of Jamaicans identify as Rastafari. Nevertheless, the fact that I wear my hair in braids means that I still get called ‘Rasta’ all the time.
4. Have you been to Passa Passa?
Thanks to Youtube, the whole world has access to Passa Passa clips, and a plethora of explicit dancehall videos. Apparently a significant number of people believe that all Jamaican women dance like this. All. The. Time. Most have no idea that Passa Passa no longer exists. I have actually had men ask me if I will “dance like Passa Passa” for them.
5. Can you cook jerk chicken for me?
I wonder if this also happens to Jamaican men. I am not talking about friends asking me to cook for them. That is normal. I am referring to people who ask for food within minutes of meeting me. Last Saturday, I stopped by my friend’s house. She introduced me to her friend who I’ll call Dude.
Dude: Where are you from?
Dude: B_____b____c____! (Jamaican curseword). I’ve never met a Jamaican in Kigali.
Me: I didn’t expect that reaction.
*5 mins later*
Dude: So can you cook me some Jamaican food?
I was in a good enough mood that I almost considered it, but then he specified that he wanted jerk chicken. My generosity doesn’t extend to using up my limited supply of jerk seasoning on people I just met. Access to my jerk seasoning requires friendship status.
So what other stereotypes are out there about Jamaican people? Let me know, so I can prepare to roll my eyes accordingly.