Appreciate, good. Appropriate, bad.
I’m a white, bookish, Midwestern chick with an English degree.
I frequently break into Caribbean slang.
I simply cannot help it.
Well. I suppose if I tried very hard, I could maintain the standard English upon which I prided myself for the first quarter of my life. But the more time I spend with Caribbean people, the more often I slide into the Creole lilt that permeates the islands.
Let’s get one thing straight up front. In my opinion, Caribbean English is not a second class version of standard English any more than any other regional dialect.
Different styles of English are used for different purposes. Standard English for when it’s important to sound educated and respectful, and local vernacular for when it’s time to talk with your peeps.
Beyond simply respecting English Creole as a legit form of communication, I so appreciate its direct, earthy humor and wisdom. When you listen closely, there is such delightful color and candor to the local speech, my writer artist soul can’t help wanting to soak it up.
It’s not just about the words and how they’re put together, it’s also about the tone, syncopation, rhythm, and pitch. It’s a musical language that dances and bends in beautiful ways that standard English can only envy.
I often try to emulate the sound of English Creole without realizing it. I’ll say something in standard English first, then I’ll repeat in Caribbean English. I even do this when visiting my kinfolk back home, which I realize must absolutely befuddle my friends’ new boyfriends, extended relatives, and others with whom I’m not well-acquainted.
I realize how absurd it must seem. (Not to mention annoying, for reasons too numerous to specify here.) Especially since I look a bit like a librarian, and the last thing people expect from a bespectacled brunette is anything that sounds remotely Caribbean.
My imitation, sad as it may be, is indeed a sincere form of flattery. The local lingo has fascinated me from the start when I used to glean language lessons from my coworkers on St. Thomas. It likely comes as no surprise that what did the most to deepen my facility with the local speech was to date a West Indian man for the better part of 18 months.
Perhaps since we spent much of our time together in heated debate, and since he’s a smart ass, I find the island talk really comes out in full force when I’m making a point about some bit of human behavior. I start talking like an ornery island man, beginning with a teeth suck, “Maaan, I tellin’ you, this woman he’eh, she vex me so…”
Which brings us to Katy Perry.
I was almost done writing this piece when I made the mistake of Googling “cultural appropriation” and was confronted with Katy Perry’s face and a host of recent blog posts about her cultural crimes.
She’s accused of thoughtlessly plucking styles or trends from “ethnic” or “exotic” cultures without regard for the significance they hold within the traditions she’s stealing from. Then she incorporates those ideas into her own work, and makes mad money broadcasting her garish pastiche around the world.
Last year’s “geisha performance,” on the American Music Awards, where Perry attempted to portray a geisha (Japanese) jumbled in with, among other inconsistencies, background video footage of sky lanterns (Chinese) is an example of her pattern of spewing what one blogger deemed, “Orientalist Vomit.”
So, hours of online reading and no writing later, I was paralyzed with the fear that I’ll be perceived as doing the same. Which, of course, would never be my intent.
But as a college-educated, American white woman, I know that I’m pretty darn close to the top of the privilege ladder. And I’m aware that the world looks wildly different from each and every rung.
And thus, this piece went from being lighthearted to one in which I stumble over weighty, intellectual issues of race and culture. Apologies. Maybe I’m too politically-correct. (And then again, maybe not…)
To be honest, the fake white people approximation of English Creole has gotten on my nerves for a while now.
Take the most ubiquitous example: mon. Mon spoken short and tight like a buzzcut, rhyming with Cinna-bon is not an accurate representation of how this word is actually pronounced. It’s longer and looser, more like, “maan” or “mahn.”
And just like in my teenage years when hearing Iowans use double negatives made me feel a little violent, it now agitates me to see stateside-to-island business people use “dem” incorrectly in their marketing materials. It happens all the time.
You will never hear a Caribbean person refer to “dem people” or “dem horses” or “dem gyals.” Rather, they will say, “da people dem,” “da horse dem,” or “da gyal dem.” Dem goes after the noun to indicate plural, and the noun is left in its original singular form.
While putting together the donkey page for the St. John Guidebook, I brought up that the working title, “Love Dem Donkeys,” was an incorrect, white person version of island English.
Somehow, the powers that be were persuaded by my observation, and the title currently published (and available for free all over St. John) is Gotta Love Da Donkey Dem. It may sound foreign to standard English ears, but knowing we opted for authenticity over the familiar and easy makes my scholar’s heart swell with appreciation. I mean, if we’re gonna add a bit of island essence, let’s at least go to the trouble of doing it right.
So after sleeping on it, and torturing myself writing what was supposed to be a light, entertaining blog post, I’ve decided that I’m not guilty of cultural appropriation, after all. My love for and sporadic use of island English comes from a place of genuine appreciation and respect, yes. But even more so, it developed pretty naturally just by talking with local people in my daily life. Also, if I’m being exploitative, someone will need to explain how, because I sure as hell ain’t making any money off of West Indian culture.
I guess from my perspective, I’ve moved to a semi-foreign country and I’ve learned a little of the language. Taking the time to do this, and even pronouncing words in their native fashion, demonstrates respect for the culture.
I must admit, however, that at times, it has seemed like I might be suffering from some sort of identity disorder. A verbal tussle I found myself in at the barge dock a few months ago brought this rather dramatically to light.
Now, I’m usually one to avoid conflict.
But it seems I have absolutely no tolerance for tourists trying to boss me around on an island I’ve very much come to consider my home. (The only people allowed to boss me around on these islands are West Indian, dammit.)
So, when a sweaty fellow who looked like he should’ve been wearing a feathered cap at a yodeling tournament in the Alps, bolted out of his rental vehicle, marched over to me, stood between my car and the security guard house, and ordered me to the back of the line when I was simply going to ask the guard a question about the schedule, I sort of lost it.
The angry Ricola commercial guy and I hollered at one another until the security guard intervened. But I somehow managed to get the last word…something along the lines of, “Get your pink-faced, white ass the fuck out of my way and back into your tourist jeep.”
Uh…where did that come from?
Have I mentioned that I look like a librarian?
And that my own ass is most definitely (and unfortunately) white?
But hey, at least I didn’t call him a m*****sc***.
Which means there must be some Norwegian restraint left in me yet.
And unless this blog post somehow makes me famous, I think I’m safe from being accused of culture