Dashiki Dialogues – Minstrel shows on us

2011-08-13 08:18

Is it just me or is South Africa going through an open season on neo-minstrelsy in advertising?

It would appear that every time I do tune in, there’s a new ad poking fun at black bodies in the name of selling some product or other.

Think about the iconic domestic worker image and the pot-bellied black businessman with suspicious political leanings as the most favoured stereotype of this lot.

In recent history, the Joko tea ad comes to mind. It featured a middle-aged, full-bodied woman working as a cleaner in a warehouse where she shakes her posterior to the sounds of some thumping kwaito-esque rhythm. What that has to do with tea, I don’t know.

Then there was the lottery ad with a group of maids gathered outside during a break from their chores, day-dreaming about winning the big money.

The advertisers here composed a scene that poked fun at the apparent lack of sophistication among these workers.

As a totalising symbol, the group became all domestic workers at once. So that however ridiculous we are led to ­perceive them to be, it becomes representative of all black ­women across economic, education or body weight class.

Then, once the stereotype is entrenched as popular currency, it’s used to explain behaviours across race relations, plus to ­arrest the meaning of faulting public figures dismissed as ­buffoons.

The latest of these ads conflates the funny English-speak of politicians with the black ­domestic-worker figure. 8ta, the new mobile network, uses a central character in one of its ads who receives a phone call that sends her into wild chatter.

She gets so involved that she is kept from her work until the end of what’s revealed to be a wrong number.

In other words, the loudmouthed, uneducated spend their workdays wasting time on irrelevant banter.

Talking to a colleague about these observations, she reminded me of an old SUV ad. It had a bare breasted “Namibian Herero” ­woman standing by the wayside, only to have her boobs swayed into the air by the passing splendour of the car.

But you have to ask if my brand of sensitivity is not taking this issue a tad too far.

I mean, some of these ads are created by blacks after all, some of whom are probably the children whose aunts, if not mothers, worked as domestics at some point in their lives.

Besides, it is not like black people don’t find themselves laughing when they see these ads on TV.

However, American cultural critic Stanley Crouch said it best when he lamented: “Black people behaving less than ­human have never been short of an audience.”

This harsh summation ­becomes fitting precisely ­because to stereotype is to ­dehumanise, and the dehumanisation of a group of people is a moral question. We shouldn’t need a Dashiki Dialogue to teach us that.

» I’m on Twitter @Percy_Mabandu


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