Experiencing the Jamaican Stereotype

As I’ve found myself in an increasing number of social environments over the years, one thing that never goes away is the Jamaican stereotype. I’m not talking about asking where I’m from, we’ve already addressed that in a previous post, but the constant imitation of a Jamaican Caribbean person. This particular stereotype focusses on the physical action of the individual, and commonly rears its ugly head in relation to my hair, music interests, or my dialect.

As promised with this blog, I don’t want to sit here and tell you what’s racist and what’s not – this is all subjective and others within the same community may feel entirely different. Today, I thought I’d share with you three personal experiences that fortunately don’t occur so frequently anymore. I strongly believe that this is to the awareness of the breadth and depth of knowledge around the Caribbean as a whole due to tourism, and this can only be a good thing.

My Hair

When some people meet me they don’t always see a person, they see an afro. A play-thing that is there’s to nurture, touch without consent, and treat as if it’s a toy. Even your closest can do this quite frequently, and whilst for one minute I don’t suggest that there is any racist intent behind it, it’s yet another small difference that can amount to a lot when you face multiple stereotypes in one day.

I rarely let me hair grow past a grade 2, so to face this stereotype is quite amusing. I’m not offended by this for reasons that you may think and I’ll explain why shortly, but I know black or mixed raced friends that are extremely tired of this, and it’d be great if their hair was treated like hair!

I’ve mentioned briefly before that my hair is quite unusual for someone with black DNA. My hair is afro, and it grows in the same way you’d assume a black person’s would. However, it’s awfully dry (sorry!) and needs to be treated the way that a white person would treat their hair. I have to use typical off-the-shelf hair products you’d find in any large supermarket, whereas my daughter needs hair products for black hair that we can’t find anywhere in our hometown, and yet she has less black DNA than me! If that wasn’t strange enough for you, at the fine age of 29 I spot the odd grey or ginger hair now too.

I know people that get really offended by the sight of an arm heading towards their hair uninvited, but the reason I hated it was because I was paranoid about the reaction I’d get after my hair doesn’t seem to be what they expect.

I won’t dwell on it but again, my hair is dry. Very dry. The reason I’m being so open about this is because school children get ripped to shreds if there is the slightest dry flake on their jumper or blazer. Other children naturally had this too, but try dealing with this as an early-teen whilst everyone also feels the need to put their hands in your hair and shake it about. “It’s snowing” was a frequent phrase, and it got so bad at one point that whilst on the bus older school kids used to put small sachets of salt in my hair (which I couldn’t feel with my hair being longer) which would force me to shake it out, repeating the cycle over and over again.

I really wanted to stop this from happening, and one way I could do this was by having my hair cut frequently. Growing up as a kid with afro-type hair in a UK school was tough. There’s a ‘messy’ stage between having short hair and an afro, and my schools weren’t happy with short hair or an afro, so guess what – my hair was always looking messy. Once my parents cut my hair to a grade 1, and I was given a detention. The school only permitted grade 3 haircuts and above to prevent (in their words) ‘skin heads’ and there were no exceptions so this continued throughout primary and secondary.

Fast forward to today, and the impacts are ever-lasting. A combination of people wanting to touch my hair all of the time, the constant comments on having dry hair, and not being able to keep my appearance tidy due to fear of detention or suspension have created an environment where:

  • Only Stacey & Isla touch my hair. Don’t try it when we’re having a laugh, it triggers anxiety and anger in me like no other action ever could.
  • I have never been to a barbershop. I can’t bear to have someone else paying such close attention to my hair as I can never predict how dry it’ll be.
  • I cut my hair every two weeks (give or take a day or two if I’m not leaving the house) and it has to be grade 1. If the clip for grade 1 breaks, it’s a new set of hair clippers for me. This is the length that my hair looks most professional, so I tend to keep it that way.

In normal circumstances I wouldn’t ever speak about my hair in so much detail, but given that it carries both white & black characteristics, and there’s so much focus on how it looks from others without consent, hopefully you can appreciate why this has been such a major issue in everyday life.

Fortunately this experience stops here, and unlike other friends, I’m lucky enough that people have stopped saying ‘you should grow it’ to me on a regular basis because they know it’s a conversation that will end with a short and sharp ‘nope’.

Music

Moving away from my hair, the reason I started Tuesday Tunes is to spread awareness of great music out there that you may not have heard of, especially during the glorious heat we’re all experiencing in the UK at the moment.

When discussing riddims, people often correct me and repeat the word ‘rhythm’ instead. Riddims are a special category of reggae and dancehall, in which an instrumental is created before many music artists perform their own lyrics. With riddims, you can expect no less than 4 songs, and sometimes as many as 15, and it’s a great way to add multiple new songs to your playlist without having to put too much effort in.

Cast your mind back to 2002 when ‘No Letting Go’ by Wayne Wonder, ‘Get Busy’ by Sean Paul, and ‘Never Leave You’ by Lumidee were released. Three years later Rihanna released ‘Pon De Replay’ too. These were massive hits in the UK and the US, and you were listening to a very successful riddim called ‘Diwali Riddim’ with no less than 40 recorded tracks by 30+ artists!

This isn’t strictly a ‘Tuesday Tunes’ post but check out the two previews below and you’ll see what I mean.

Admittedly I don’t have much of a story to tell here, except for constantly being corrected to ‘rhythm’ when I fully intended to say ‘riddim’. If you want to find a vast array of new music, searching ‘Riddim’ on your favourite streaming service is a sure-fire way to do so.

Dialect

Somehow, whenever I visit the Caribbean I start speaking Patois. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but it just happens. It just shows that culture is embedded within you so deep unconsciously without you realising, and it can make you feel at home instead of sticking out like a sore thumb as a tourist from the UK.

If I dare speak in Patois in the UK it’s a completely different story. I will hear ‘why are you putting on a Jamaican accent?’, and often I hear many variations of this such as ‘I love the Jamaican accent’ as an introduction to a conversation.

Ironically it feels like I am putting on an accent when I speak Patois, but this is an officially recognised dialect and is an extremely interesting language to learn once you start to read about it.

I’m afraid to say my skills in speaking Patois are extremely limited. You might hear me say (phonetically) ‘mah-nin’ instead of ‘morning’ or ‘where she be?’ instead of ‘where is she?’. I can’t think of any others that come to mind as I haven’t been to Anguilla for 5 years now.

Whilst this is an infrequent occurance for me, my brother and sister who moved to the Caribbean around 10 years ago flip between British English and Patois in the same way they switch a lightbulb on and off. It’s common to be on a video call with one of them and they’ll be speaking in their ‘old’ accents to me, and then they’ll call out to someone in their household using Patois without a single pause. I admire their skills, and I would love for more appreciation of Patois across the world as it’s fascinating.

Another skill I seem to posess as a result is that Stacey & I can be listening to the same reggae, dancehall, or soca song, and I’ll be able to hear and translate lyrics to her that just sound like noise. It makes for great conversation in this household and beyond.

Conclusion

In the grand scheme of things, none of these occurances bother me from a racial perspective but all three have massive influences on my life (especially the growth rate of my hair!). Fortunately for me these misconceptions are largely forgotten about in adult life due to the people I’m around, but even those closest to you can often comment on any one of these without realising it’s yet another phrase that you’ve heard so many times before.

I personally think that these three categories are a great example of how stereotypes can be laid bare in front of you without anyone within the conversation realising it’s happening, and after all, most of these (unlike a few past topics) often result in funny or strange snippets to tell others in the future, like this blog post!

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