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No Dancing This Time: A Guide for White People Regarding “This Is America”

Too many of us ignore black pain while embracing black art

Christopher Sturdy
May 11, 2018 · 7 min read
Credit: YouTube, Childish Gambino in This Is America

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I’m finishing up my sixth year of teaching, and I know this may come as a shock to some, but… I’ve seen some racist things happen in the classroom *awkward white gasp*. There was the one time two of my students donned blackface during a video project on Of Mice and Men, or the time I caught wind of some white students using racial slurs on their Twitter accounts, and of course the time a group of five boys — four white boys and one boy of color — declared they were comfortable calling each other wiggas and n____ because the “tone they said it in wasn’t offensive.” If you need a non-teaching example, see any time white people sing-scream n____ at a hip-hop concert because we’re “post-racial” or something like that. You might be wondering if meaningful reflection and growth happened after these appalling events, and to find your answer I invite you to think about the following: How many white families do you know that are comfortable breaking down the overt and covert complexities of racism throughout the history of our nation? Now that you’ve located a single digit number (or zero), let’s move on.

When non-teacher friends hear these stories, their responses vary. Some melt into a puddle of profound disbelief. Others go, “Yep. This is America,” while others even take a breath to deny its truth because of course, we live in a post-racial society where implicit bias and institutionalized oppression would never, ever happen. I don’t know which response you’d give, but trust me, if you’ve taken even the tiniest smidge of time to absorb stories outside of your racial group, this is not a surprise particularly when students are growing up in a culture of white supremacy, while white adults systemically neglect to pursue truth and reconciliation regarding our history. We do not do a good enough job of teaching students in our education system about the reality of the history of race in America. The results ricochet off the walls of our classrooms, shatter their way out of our doors, and continue to fracture our communities physically, emotionally, and socially. We need some truth and reconciliation.

Returning to the examples above, the use of racial slurs with a non-offensive tone by the five boys received a tone deaf response. Out of the five families, four of them — three white, one of color — accepted the punishment and vowed to talk with their sons at home regarding their behavior, but vowing to talk to your kids is always a pretty ambiguous parenting statement. The majority of white families might read off their apolitical script: “Now, sweetie. You know that’s a bad word, right? Please don’t say it anymore.” Families of color are much more apt to share historical factors, personal stories, and modern reclamation as pieces of how this racial slur has become what it is today. The remaining white family did not understand why the boys were being punished. The list of responses given consisted of, but was not limited to: But they all agree it is fine. They’re his wiggas, his posse, it’s friendly. You don’t understand the tone the boys are using with the words. There’s no power imbalance here. The one boy is okay with it, so what’s the problem?

My fellow white people, if you do not know this yet, please know: You do not want to be that family. This family’s response runs parallel to the white father who stood idly by offering me nothing more than a shoulder shrug as his daughter screamed n____ at a Kendrick Lamar concert.

You don’t want to be that family, and you don’t want to spend time memorizing the dance choreography to Donald Glover’s “This Is America” because you think it’s cool. Obliviously imitating powerful black art is in the same vein as letting your children use racial slurs just because you aren’t comfortable — or are grossly ignorant on — discussing the vile side of American history and culture that the art is bringing to the forefront. This white dysconsciousness is potent fuel for the continuation of oppressive structures and actions playing out today.

I know it is coming. Black Twitter knows it is coming. The main reason so many know it’s coming is because we’ve seen it happen before. Full disclosure: I’ve participated in it before. Without failure, if you turned on “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” or “Whip/Nae Nae,” my rusty white limbs would start robotically clanking about through muscle memory alone, programs saved on my hard drive from high school and years as a camp counselor. The truth is, some white people are out there already memorizing the choreography — watching and rewatching the video, practicing in front of a mirror — from “This Is America” because they think it is cool. And the thought of black culture being cool isn’t a new thing for white people, but this song isn’t for white prom or your Snapchat story. The stakes are much higher.

I’m not saying Glover’s video for “This Is America” isn’t entertainment. It is, but it’s a much different level of entertainment from, say, “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” or “Whip/Nae Nae.” Anyone who has seen the video has either been captivated or overwhelmed by its complexity and depth. You can watch it 25 times and come out with an encyclopedia of interpretations. Some have even called it Shakespearean.

In his article from The Atlantic,Donald Glover Is Watching You Watch Him,” Spencer Kornhaber states, “…[Glover] conveys total awareness that his image is not entirely his own, and that America will inevitably use it, and misuse it.” This video isn’t enjoyable. It’s cultural criticism. White people watching it on repeat to memorize choreography because they think it’s fun is misuse — blatant, ignorant misuse. We may have been bumping and grooving in the first minute of the song, but when the first gunshot goes off, vomit should be creeping up our throats. By the time the church choir is shot, our puke is on the floor, and we haven’t even digested the background of each frame yet. Ultimately, the mixture of violence and dancing is cogent criticism of all the white people I’ve ever heard talk about how much they love Lil Uzi Vert, SZA, Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, etc., but when asked about their thoughts on the War on Drugs, police brutality, the treatment of black women’s bodies by medical professionals, and more, they are silent. Not the stunned silence of: Oh golly, I have to educate myself on some stuff. More so the silence that says: What about it? That’s not my problem.

Let me say it another way. The video takes place in a warehouse with white walls, white support beams, and a white floor. Whiteness literally surrounds the black bodies in the video. It’s pretty overt symbolism for the structures that make up a white supremacist society. White people: that’s us. And maybe you noticed, but the walls, support beams, and floor aren’t dancing in the video.

We don’t get to distract ourselves from what Glover is drawing attention to. Kornhaber also comments on how clear Glover has made his definition of America. “America is a place where black people are chased and gunned down, and it is a place where black people dance and sing and distract — themselves, maybe, but also the country at large — from that carnage.” Historically, white people have been the worst offenders at distracting themselves from pain experienced by people of color here in America. We’ve always patted ourselves on the back for going beyond our borders to help those in need, but we often refuse to look in the mirror. Glover is giving us a chance to look in the mirror, to not be distracted, and to join in on the path to healing. For some of us, this could be our first time.

I know some people may think I’m overreacting with this whole, “Please white people, let’s take a pass on the dancing/appropriation/that looks fun, I’ll try too,” but I’m someone who once wanted to learn those dance moves because they looked cool. I’ve seen a white family defend their son’s use of a racial slur, and it was not an isolated incident. I watched a father shrug his shoulders as his daughter screamed n____ at a Kendrick Lamar concert, and it was not an isolated incident. I witnessed students turn in a video project featuring black face because it seemed amusing and light-hearted, and it will happen again at a school near you months from now. Why? Because too many of us — white people — ignore black pain while embracing black art. We have proven this over and over again, time after time, because we value cool over consciousness and our pleasure over others’ pain.

We don’t need to memorize Glover’s dancing. We need to listen, reflect, and act. We’ve been consuming blackness like it belongs to us for far too long. We can enjoy it, we can be challenged by it, but we need to stop stealing it for personal gain.

Donald Glover is watching. And so my white friends, we have a choice. Ignore his message and dance, or reflect on his message and put ourselves on a path to racial consciousness and healing. What do we want to be? Cool? Or conscious?

Christopher Sturdy

Written by

former educator, creative writing grad student, always sitting in a state of weltschmerz.

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