Is This is America Falling on Deaf Ears?
A stunning piece of visual rhetoric, the video for Childish Gambinoʼs “This Is America” catapulted into phenomenon status and boosted his album sales by 419% for the week ending May 10. This flagship of viral history has been viewed nearly 130 million times
But with all the views and the press and the dissection, has the viewing public – specifically younger audiences – engaged in enough authentic conversation? (Is there even such thing as enough of such conversation?) Or has it been viewed more so as a piece of cool art, a mere prompt for parody, meme-level conversation? I worry it’s the latter.
Take for instance Nicole Arbour’s This Is America: Women’s Edit. In her words, she set out to “give additional glory” to what she calls the “most impactful piece of art in recent years,” so she created her tongue in cheek rendition to shine a light on experiences women
face in the workplace, in the home, in relationships, and in society. But what others saw on their screens was a white woman interjecting herself into a conversation and co-opting a space where she did not belong.
She saw a trend, capitalized on it in the name of feminism (or rather white feminism), and backpedaled once the avalanche of hate landed in her YouTube comments (comments are now disabled on her link). The message of the black plight was surely lost on Arbour, as she chose to use an “all lives matter” approach rather than listen to and learn from a critical work from a perspective that far too often is ignored. But then again, isn’t that much of America?
And then there are the memes. Oh, the many, many memes.
Gambino’s rhetoric and delivery quickly turned into fodder for the internet because…well, that’s what the internet does. I’m not offering an excuse of course; I’m merely stating a well- known observation about how we use the internet to deal with any and everything. By creating and sharing memes about Gambino’s work, do we show that we missed his artful unpacking of the black plight and that we are better at creating distractions than dealing with – and working to change – real world problems? Or do we show that despite the very real world problems we face day in and day out that we can at least harness a digital initiative to cope with the ugliness we face?
I want to believe the latter. I honestly do. But it’s challenging to see the message Gambino strives so hard to create and share with us be anything less than exalted for its authenticity and gravity. We see work like his that seeks to confront hard truths and that therefore makes us question our role (or the role of people we love, people in our communities, people in our workplaces, etc.) in perpetuating hatred and racism and violence, and we want to look away. We want to distract. We want to forget those times we should’ve spoke up or should’ve made a difference. We want to retreat to our comfort zone. But we also yearn to be a part of a trending conversation. So we find ourselves at memes – creating them, sharing them, laughing at them – and we are able to enjoy some semblance of comfort amongst all the ugly. That is until the next time that hatred and racism and violence seep into our digital (or real) world and we’re forced to confront the ugly all over.
How many times will it take for us to make a difference instead of making a meme?