Words Are Important

Have you seen the latest Volkswagen commercial? If not take a look:

As you can see it's basically a funny take on the whole laid-back/chill island thing that most of the world associates with Jamaica. No problem right? Wrong. Apparently some people think that it's racist:

The controversy got its start on CNN yesterday when Jamaican-born Christopher John Farley of the Wall Street Journal said: "Although I love you featuring Jimmy Cliff in the ad, a terrific Jamaican performance, the Jamaican accent did sort of strike me as Jar Jar Binks-ish." The New York Times's Charles Blow had a more intense reaction, saying the accent was "like blackface with voices." The commercial was discussed this morning on the Today show and their "ad expert" Barbara Lippert, the editor-at-large of MediaPost.com, said "this is so racist." 

It's probably not surprising that someone would take offense to the ad – What doesn't offend someone these days? – but that last statement in particular is just ridiculous. How is it racist? Jamaicans aren't a race, they're a culture.  As is pointed out later in the post linked above, there are plenty of white Jamaicans.  If this ad is racist then so are all of the Lucky Charms ads that play on Irish accents, Leprechauns and all of our cultural preconceptions about Ireland. And the Swedish Bikini team? Don't even go there.

While it may seem like splitting hairs to call out critics for saying the VW ad is racist when at most it's a cultural charicature, there's really an important point to be made. Calling something racist when it isn't distracts us from the truly racist acts that occur every day. Folks like Barbara Lippert, whether they mean to or not, are acting like our society's Chicken Littles, screaming racism so often that no one will pay attention when the real thing happens.

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