In the latest Rob Ford video to make headlines, the mayor is captured in Toronto’s Steak Queen restaurant in the midst of a rambling rant using a Jamaican patois and repeating what appear to be expletives from that language. To provide some context about the meaning of the words Ford used, Maclean’s reached Honor Ford-Smith, a Jamaican-born York University professor who was the editor of the book Lionheart Gal: Life Stories of Jamaican Women and who studies issues including race, gender, Caribbean societies and their diasporas. She agreed to speak, with the caveat that she did not want to be seen as speaking on behalf of her entire community.
What was your initial reaction to the video?
It’s very interesting because he’s trying to buy himself some roots credibility. That seems to be what he’s doing. But it kind of backfires, because it seems that the very people he’s trying to buy the credibility with are the ones who video’d him, and he ends up looking like a buffoon, and he ends up having his attempt to capture roots credentials backfire. This act is very much something that politicians do in order to convince their voters that they’re more working class and have more credibility than they actually do. And he consistently does this. It’s this populist trick in a way, because he’s not at all working class, he’s actually a very wealthy man.
It’s not clear that he understands it. The context is entirely lost, it’s not possible to pick that up from the video. But it’s clear that he does understand that he needs to use it in order to impress whoever he’s trying to impress, who we never see. Clearly he’s not impressed, he’s laughing at him, it’s a case of the trickster tricked. It’s clearly a performance, because this is not the Rob Ford we see making penitent apologies on the television. This is a persona. This is staging a persona which he’s staging for a particular reason. It’s not an innocent performance, he is embracing a persona that is other to him, for a particular purpose.
Have you spoken to others in your community about it?
Most people find it hilarious, the people I’ve spoken to. He comes off like a rather pathetic minstrel. What’s extraordinary is that if a black politician were to do that, would he still be there? I doubt it. I don’t think a black mayor would have survived all this. So the question is, why is it that Rob Ford can stay there, and what is it about the electorate that would accept this in him, and probably not accept it in someone else? (Former Toronto District School Board president) Chris Spence, he was rapidly dispensed with for some misconduct that was something probably less serious than what Rob Ford has been actively captured doing, and he had to step down quickly. And still there’s the way Canada prides itself on being a respectable society and a society that holds its public officials to account. I really don’t think a black politician would escape this.
So, for you, was there a racist element to this latest video?
Racism is a very big term that encompasses a whole lot of practices that involve othering, that involve differentiation in a hierarchical setting. So: yes, in the sense that he is appropriating an identity that is not his in order to command a particular constituency. He’s using cultural capital. He’s using the cultural capital of a particular group in order to buy himself credibility with a group from which he perceives himself as needing support. That’s the point I think is very important: he enacts this kind of minstrelsy to purchase for himself this kind of acceptability, whose interests he’s really not acting in, and he achieves this through these peculiar acts of buffoonery.
One of the words in question is “bumbaclot.” Can you explain some of the meaning behind it?
It’s a Jamaican swear word. The actual translation of it is actually neither here nor there because the effect of it is that he’s demonstrating that he’s familiar with a vocabulary of Jamaican swear words, which for most Jamaicans are words that are taken very seriously. They’re words which, when used, are very offensive. And he repeats them over and over and over and over and over again. It’s not clear why he’s doing it. He seems to be relating a story, he seems to be personifying a Jamaican. Most Jamaicans, their entire vocabulary is not reducible to those two words, rastlan or bumbaclot. They have a broader vocabulary. So I don’t know why his impersonation of that is something that requires that repetitiousness. The translation of it is not what is critical—the important point is that he’s spreading a lot of cloth, that would be the envy of any textile merchant’s cash register. And he’s doing this for a particular purpose. It’s a representational power that he’s gaining.
There’s also been the suggestion that the word “bumbaclot” is a sexist term, too. Do alarms go off for you, when those words are used?
The word—it is very sexist, yeah. And alarms go off, because you don’t expect someone in that office to use that kind of language. You expect a public official who has command of the public authority who is acting on our behalf as citizens to be more or less in control of their own body, their own mind. He acts in that video as if he’s not in control of himself. He acts in very profane ways, abusive ways, coarse ways. Why does he see it necessary to appropriate that particular identity rather than another one, say.
It’s a similar kind of outcry that happened with the Volkswagen advertisement in which for some strange reason there’s a white guy speaking in Jamaican who is not a Jamaican who seems to be speaking the language for shock value. This debate took place over that ad—why is that guy speaking this language? Now, on the one hand it is a language, so anyone can learn the language. But what Rob Ford is seen doing is not speaking a language, he is speaking the swear words, so to speak. In a sense, his performance of it is slightly different from just using the language for the sake of communication, he’s clearly using the language for other reasons. Not having a conversation calmly with someone, he’s “expletive, expletive, expletive, expletive.”
He’s appropriating an identity of a people who are repeatedly disciplined in Canadian society. Any Jamaican who behaved as he did in that instance would have been escorted out of the place forthwith. He was only able to behave in that was because he is who he is. It actually accentuates his power: He’s able to embrace that identity in order to elevate his own power, and in the same moment where he appears to be speaking like a Jamaican, he’s actually actively differentiating himself from them, so that’s why the people who released the video, they were actually laughing at him when he did that.
This interview has been compiled and edited.