As the world knows, the latest scandal videos of Toronto’s crackerjack bossman have him hanging at a suburban fast-food joint with his indicted-dealer pal, calling the police chief a “cocksucker” and throwing island slang around like mango chunks in a juicer.
It’s that last element, naturally, that puts the trademark RoFo carnival spice in the pepperpot. And while the National Post set out earnestly analyzing Ford’s employment of “Jamaican English,” most locals could recognize it as a distinctly GTA variety of fratois—that is, the “Ja-fakin’” version of Jamaican patois commonly produced by white males when either listening to reggae, talking about visiting the Caribbean, eating roti or smoking pot, a.k.a. “ganga, mon.” (The latter being so de rigeur that fratois ought to be admissible evidence of possession.)
What we heard from Ford, generously spiked with Jamaican swears bumbaclot and raasklaat, was a fluent rendition of a fratois typical of white Torontonian males who were adolescents during the initial 1990s pop crossover of dancehall tunes by the likes of Shabba Ranks and Toronto’s own white toaster Snow.
The affectation is pervasive enough that it’s a go-to for Hollywood and Madison Ave. writers wanting to poke fun at clueless white males, for instance Michael Scott returning from a Jamaican-me-crazy vacation on The Office—
—or the maddeningly upbeat co-worker from last year’s controversial Volkswagen Superbowl ad—
—in which the smallest dash of added self-mockery seems to have been enough to excuse the underlying happy-go-lucky, island-pickaninny stereotype.
But Ja-fakin’ goes beyond the hackysack tribe to a wide range of other actors, singers and fictional characters, such as those perp-walked in blog lists by Largeup and My Big Fat Jamaican Wedding, not to mention Jar Jar Binks. The ultimate take on the syndrome was of course in the 2010 song “Fake Patois” by Brooklyn meta-rap duo Das Racist, which (in a blatant fake patois of their own) focused on calling out black people who’ve twisted their vocal cords into dreads—Busta Rymes, KRS-One, Bad Brains, Jay-Z and famous nineties infomercial psychic Miss Cleo—though making time for both Snow and Jim Carrey’s imitation of Snow.
Oddly, for such a culturally savvy crew, Das Racist goes a bit horizontal by throwing off “Snow from Toronto—fake patois,” as if the conclusion were self-evident. They make the same mistake as a lot of Americans in thinking a Jamaican in Toronto is some kind of comical Cool Runnings-esque fish-out-of-water case, when actually about 6 per cent of the population here is of Caribbean origin. The name Snow is of course a joke about his northern whiteness, but it was given to the working-class-Irish Darrin O’Brien by his Jamaican neighbours and collaborators. Hell, if you want to talk cred, the guy was even in jail when he first heard his breakout hit “Informer” playing on the radio.
Similarly one has to say for Ford that he came by his cultural borrowing semi-honestly, growing up around immigrants in the Toronto suburbs and, more recently, hanging out with black gangsters in suburban crack dens. By comparison, what’s Steven Seagal’s excuse?
And at least in his rasta-playacting shtick he wasn’t mugging around with a big Colgate Darkie grin sending out positive vibrations but, consummate performer that he is, delved into his repertoire of painstakingly developed characters for exactly the right voice to express his complaints about police harassment. I’d take that over Kellogg’s Apple Jacks’s mid-2000s campaign starring an anthropomorphic Jamaican cinnamon stick, the crocheted-cap-sporting and of course impishly carefree “Cinna-Mon.” (As one blogger quipped, this concept must have “narrowly beat out Chief Redapple and Rabbi Cheapowitz in the marketing meetings.”)
Ethnic-dialect humour, after all, has been the source of centuries of good wholesome merriment, from the days of Little Black Sambo (written 1899, banned from Toronto schools in 1955) and minstrel characters like Zip Coon, Jim Crow and Mr. Bones, whose 19th-century heyday didn’t fully come to an end until shockingly deep into the 20th, as Spike Lee effectively documented in a three-minute montage in his potent modern-blackface satire Bamboozled, using clips from movies, cartoons and TV.
But why let minstrelsy, Amos ‘n’ Andy (which ran on radio and television from 1928 to 1955) and Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs hog all the glory? Demeaning stereotypical mockery wasn’t limited to black people alone! Throughout the British music-hall and American vaudeville eras and much of the history of Hollywood movies, ethnic mimicry and pastiche often seemed to be pretty much the only kind of humor going, other than pratfalls and getting hit with a plank. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that almost immediately after societal values shifted in the civil-rights era to begin to make those kinds of jokes unacceptable, the rules on obscenity started loosening up—if you’re not permitted to laugh at Jews and darkies anymore, you’d better at least be allowed to tell a dick joke.
But before that, whether it was money-grubbing Heebs, drunken Micks, dumb Polacks, incomprehensible Chinks, you name ‘em and they had song-and-dance routines in their honour throughout respectable venues of family entertainment. (If you want to brush up, browse through the 1902 volume Choice Dialect and Vaudeville Stage Jokes, “containing side splitting stories, jokes, gags, readings and recitations in German, Irish, Scotch, French, Chinese, Negro and other dialects.”) Archival digging could produce a lot more collections like the recent CD Jewface, which revived such forgotten favourites as “When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band” and Irving (“Izzy”) Berlin’s “Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars.”
Sheet-music covers, 1890-1922, from the collection of the New York Public Library.
They were often imitated by a white variety comedian, but also frequently performed by one of their own doing a grossly exaggerated ethnic shtick, just as a surprising number of performers on the later minstrel stage were actually black people wearing blackface, because that was the kind of entertainment work a talented black actor could get. Likewise the great early 20th-century black writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, the child of former slaves, educated in white schools, felt forced to write poems in “Negro dialect”—essentially minstrel-stage accents—because it was what white audiences expected, much as we applaud “gangsta realness” in hip-hop even now. One of Dunbar’s more powerful non-dialect poems, “We Wear the Mask,” grieves over just that situation.
As the main action moved from vaudeville to the movies, we continued to have white people playing, for instance, Asian stereotypes such as the sinister Fu Manchu, Peter Lorre as “Mr. Moto,” Mickey Rooney’s repellent buck-toothed “Japanese” landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Peter Sellers’ admittedly funnier but still deeply discomfiting Indian character in The Party (also by Tiffany’s director Blake Edwards). Not to mention all the stereotypical Disney cartoon characters (the black crows in Dumbo, the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp, the Natives in Peter Pan, all of Song of the South, etc).
Peter Sellers, The Party (1968)
That culture in the past was loaded with racism is hardly news, of course, but it’s difficult to shrug the whole legacy off as over-and-done when we’ve more recently had, for instance, Mike Myers pulling off a Party-style subcontinental slur-fest in The Love Guru (2008), the jive-talking illiterate robots in Transformers (2007), Jar-Jar’s pseudo-rasta being matched by the even more jaw-dropping presence of the greedy, slave-trading, hook-nosed alien Watto in Star Wars Episode One (1999), and nearly every role Rob Schneider has ever played. Whether blackfaced, Jewfaced, yellowfaced, redfaced, brownfaced or Arab-faced, cheap ethnic mockery remains a standby for the creatively bankrupt even in the 21st century.
What’s newer, on the other hand, is the likes of sketch duo Key & Peele, who both grew up in biracial families and have a correspondingly more subtle sense of what’s at stake in crossing those boundaries.
But it remains difficult to put the history behind us when the very worst relics of fake-patois and fake-pidgin continue to bubble up from the cultural subconscious, as when Rosie O’Donnell spontaneously attempted an imitation of Chinese newscasters on The View in 2006 and ended up repeatedly spouting “ching chong, ching chong.”
That patter could have come straight out of the lyrics of 1893’s “The Jap,”illustrated above, in which the chorus runs, “My Japanesy wifie gives me nothing else but ching chang/ But I only sling slang/ Then she gives me bing bang.” But it comes more directly from 1917’s Tin Pan Alley song “Ching Chong,” a tune about “Mr. Ching Chong,” the opium-dealing “King of Chinatown.”
The funny thing about the song is that, while obviously racist on a whole bunch of levels, its praise for Mr. Ching Chong’s opium, by whose graces “gently you’ll float away/ far out on Slumber Bay,” actually rings sincere.
Which hints at the elusive reversal in much of this legacy, including Rob Ford’s fratois fumble: Such racial mimicry may be laced with ignorance but it’s often also inspired by the casual cross-cultural exposure that arises from urban life; it shows a kind of wary curiosity about other communities, however condescending—as cultural theorist Eric Lott put it in the title of his famous study of minstrelsy (which identity-swapping virtuoso Bob Dylan swiped for his 2001 album), it’s a matter of both Love and Theft.
Although Ford’s famously been caught out in the past regurgitating stereotypical clichés like that Asians “work like dogs,” he’s also conspicuously quite at ease in visiting housing projects where almost all the residents are non-white and there practicing his trademark retail politics of arranging small repairs, etc. While his overall policies reflect an insular suburban vision, it’s in such moments that you can glimpse that he did actually grow up in a diverse metropolitan world. And his bumbaclot performance in many ways was another. (At least it’s superior to his imitation of a mayor.)
Idealistically it’s possible to imagine this impulse to imitate and mimic can be turned to a willingness to mingle and mix—that it can undermine assumptions and segregations, not just reinforce them. When Spike Lee in Bamboozled casts a skeptical eye on much of hip-hop (and especially its white fans and participants) as modern minstrelsy, it’s bracing but not entirely convincing, given how much hip-hop has dominated and reshaped mainstream culture in the past few decades. (Cultural critic Greg Tate’s 2003 anthology Everything But the Burden is a challenging exploration of these contradictions.)
And when one of the most popular children’s programs on the BBC is called Rastamouse, about a reggae-playing mouse and his group Da Easy Crew, is that another degrading reduction, in the British “golliwog” lineage, or is it a gesture of inclusion—especially given that one of its creators is a Trinidadian immigrant himself?
It’s difficult to make any hard-and-fast rules. Still, if I were one of Ford’s (dwindling number of) advisers, I’d suggest that if you’re about to do anything in public that in less than a couple of steps might lead an onlooker to start contemplating “coon songs,” Jar Jar Binks and “ching-chong Chinamen,” think twice.
Or, probably more to the point, at least once.
The News in Art appears every Tuesday.