“This is America” and the Global Erasure of Black Vernacular Traditions / Sonja Thomas

Still from “This is America”

Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” is a vital anti-racist song in our current political moment. At a time in which so-called “black identity extremist” movements are being investigated by the FBI and the president refers to white supremacists as “very fine people,” the song and music video powerfully confront the history of race and racism in the United States head on. Specifically, the video mimics and mocks aspects of corporeal race-making in America while also drawing from a long history of resistance embedded in black performance. With “This is America,” Childish Gambino has brought anti-racist performance to the forefront of American racial consciousness.

Almost immediately upon its release, the music video of “This is America” spurred an avalanche of thinkpieces from cultural critics and fans. It also inspired reaction videos, in which black, white, British, Korean-American viewers and many others filmed their responses to the video in real time while narrating their thoughts about racism in the US. The music video has also generated problematic parodies from “This is Nigeria” to “Kermit’s America.” One such imitation, Prasad Bhat’s cartoon “This is South India,” flips the entire narrative of “This is America.” While “This is America” reveals histories of race-making, “This is South India” conceals histories of racialization in India broadly and South India specifically, and reveals the ways in which black vernacular traditions tend to be erased in global contexts.

Days after the release of Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” “This is South India” quickly made the Facebook rounds. The cartoon, originally posted on the “Graphicurry” page, promptly received over 1000 likes and has since been shared hundreds of times. The cartoon depicts an Indian version of Donald Glover—Donald Glover in brownface—and is accompanied on the Facebook page by a series of jokes that riff on the lyrics of “This is America.” Bhat transforms Childish Gambino’s repeated lines “Don’t catch you slippin’ up / Look what I’m whippin’ up” into a set of South Indian references: “Kaapi be sippin up… Paatis be trippin up… Mallus be shippin out.” In South India, “Kaapi” translates to coffee, and it is often “sipped up” in steel cups like the one depicted in the cartoon. “Paatis” is the South Indian Tamil word for “grandmothers,” and “Mallus” is a derogatory term for people who speak the language Malayalam in the South Indian state of Kerala. A large number of “Mallus,” an estimated 3.75 million, work abroad sending remittances back to the state. In short, the caption accompanying this cartoon is a series of inside jokes that appeal to (upper-caste Hindu) South Indians.

“This is South India.” Art by Prasad Bhat

Bhat’s cartoon is a prime example of what happens when the history of black vernacular traditions is ignored, and thus flattened, in a global context. This cultural ignorance has a long global history. In the tradition of tap dance, an important precursor for “This is America,” for example, a running theme among performers and critics is that tap is a universal language that can be molded into any culture. In some cases, the issue of the tradition itself becomes territorial, as non-US non-black peoples express frustration and/or anger over black ownership of tap. For instance, when Savion Glover’s voice stated “it’s us, it’s ours,” during a performance of the Broadway show Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, Max Pollack, an Austrian tapper, reportedly shouted out from the audience, “That’s not true!” In other cases, the traditions themselves seem to “move beyond” race when abroad. In the documentary Tap World, the founder of the Taiwanese tap company Dance Works, Hao Chia-Lung, discusses how tap becomes (a homogenized) Taiwanese dance: “Since Dance Works is located in Taiwan it’s our responsibility to create a Taiwanese style of tap dance… Our existence proves that tap dance is an international language beyond race.” Tap outside of the US context, then, becomes claimable by any culture/nation, while the structural racism that surrounds black vernacular traditions and so easily allows for exploitation and cultural appropriation seemingly evaporates into thin air.

This ignorance of racial histories has led to a number of blackface incidents in Asia in recent years. From an (undesirable) black man becoming (heterosexually desirably) white in a Chinese laundry detergent commercial, to blackface Dunkin Donuts ads in Thailand, to the mammy reproduced for Chinese New Year celebrations, to a blackface rendition of Beverly Hills Cop in Japan: despite all of the evidence, critics and the public have again and again denied racism and/or claimed ignorance of race more generally in an Asian context. The use of blackface and black vernacular traditions is defended on the basis of the supposed lack of race and (false) homogeneity of Asian-ness in Asian countries. Too often, area studies specialists, black vernacular scholars, and the public discuss the naïveity of Asians regarding blackface and/or racism, rather than engaging with what and whom these investments in non-racializations serve. Investment in the foreignness of race in Asian contexts serves a particular form of nationalism, one that erases the struggles and intersectional raced realities of the subaltern within particular nation-states while it simultaneously denies the global presence of black vernacular traditions.

The appropriation of “This is America” into “This is South India” is troubling on a number of fronts. As commentators have pointed out, Childish Gambino’s exaggerated expressions, bug eyes, gleaming teeth, and Jim Crow pose in “This is America” can be seen as reenactments of the minstrel show. These movements and expressions have historically been repackaged and reiterated in American pop culture to such a degree that we expect black bodies to perform in particular ways, especially for white audiences. As “This is America” puts it, black bodies are expected to “party just for you.” If “This is America” mobilizes the history of the minstrel show and questions white America’s turning away from the actual pain and violence inflicted upon black bodies, “This is South India” does none of this. The Jim Crow expression of Bhat’s “This is South India” cartoon is entirely decontextualized from the history of American race and racism that “This is America” has tapped from and into.

Close-up still from of “This is America” / Logo for the Coon Chicken Inn


But the South Indian norms that “This is South India” draws from are themselves problematic. In Bhat’s cartoon, the Donald Glover figure is marked as an upper-caste Hindu by the white cloth with gold border that he wears and the sandalwood paste on his forehead. He is also marked as wealthy by his thick gold chains. At the same time that “This is South India” deracializes the blackness of “This is America” and Childish Gambino, the cartoon naturalizes Hindu upper-caste/middle-class dominance, and suggests that this figure is representative of South India more generally. This move to homogenize Indian-ness and place race squarely outside the Indian nation-state has a long and familiar history.

India is very invested in the story that it has no race, that religion is what divides the peoples of India, and that casteism is a hierarchal form of social organizing. Race is construed as foreign to the region and a “problem” of particular nation-states (the US/South Africa). When racialized discrimination is discussed in India, it often takes the form of colorism. While colorism does exist and is exemplified in the desire for fair skin and the corresponding huge market for skin-lighting creams, colorism does not encompass the extent of racialized discrimination that actually functions at the intersections of colorism, classism, and casteism, and is reproduced through patriarchal controls over women’s bodies.

North Indian Hindus are thought to be “Aryan” while South Indians are conglomerately thought of as “Dravidian.” These racialized categories, “Aryan” and “Dravidian,” are not discussed openly, but do operate on caste, class, and color assumptions. Aryans are believed to have migrated to India bringing with them the Hindu religion, culture, the caste system, and the Sanskrit language. The story of Aryan migration is supported by scholars from a number of disciplines, including linguistics, which notes the commonality in languages between North Indian languages and the Romance languages, all of which fall under the Indo-European language tree. The Indo-European North Indian languages are separated from South Indian languages which are part of the “Dravidian” language tree. Thus, linguistic scholarship supports the idea that a group of native peoples in India—Dravidian speaking peoples—existed in India prior to Aryan migration.

In the nineteenth century, Max Müller, an English scholar of the Hindu text the rgveda, theorized that the light-skinned Aryans conquered the darker-skinned Dravidians, and pushed them Southward. He also theorized that Dravidians were incorporated as lower-castes and Dalits in the caste system. Although there is no scholarly evidence that suggests that Aryan migration was a violent conquering of native Dravidians, this imagery of upper-caste light-skinned North Indians being superior to lower-caste dark-skinned South Indians lives on. For instance, trying to dispute that charge that Indians can be racist, the former Indian Parliamentarian, Tarun Vijay, stated in 2017: “If we were racist, why would the entire South — you know the Tamils, you know Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra — why do we live with them? We have blacks, black people around us.” In many South Indian states, the idea that Brahmins are Aryan and lower-castes are Dravidian also still lives on in the imaginary. The cartoon upper-caste man of “This is South India” is thus not only depicting a Hindu upper-caste man, but an Aryanized man.

This phenomenon is not limited to the Hindu religion. The Syrian Christians of Kerala, South India, a community of over 6 million, believe that they are Brahmin Christian converts. In the state of Kerala, South India, these upper-caste Christians wore white garments and gold ornaments similar to the clothing and necklace depicted in “This is South India.” The community is hugely invested in its upper-caste identity to the degree that there are DNA projects with the explicit purpose of trying to prove this Brahmin/Aryan lineage. This investment not only legitimates upper-caste racial privileges across religions, it also separates upper-caste Aryan raced peoples from the Dravidian casted “others.”

Color and caste assumptions are fueled by class realities. Who works agricultural jobs in the sun? And which peoples are privileged landowners? While class is not collapsible onto caste in India, caste-based occupations do still exist. That is, while casted individuals can and do have (limited) class mobility today, certain jobs remain casted. Just as the “one percent” of the US is largely white and minimum wage labor is raced, the equivalent “one percent” of India are upper-caste, and agricultural laborers are casted. The gold chain in “This is South India” reads as a casted/classed reality whereby gold—especially heavy gold—is and has historically been a marker of wealth and caste status.

The entire system of intersectional racialized discrimination is reproduced by the system of endogamous unions (arranged marriages). Regulation of female sexuality, from calls for “fair skinned” brides in Indian matrimonials, to the desire for a partner with a “status” job, abound. Intercaste and interreligious marriages are discouraged and policed, often resulting in violence against lower-caste and Dalit peoples. Because the engendering and reproduction of the caste system rests so completely on endogamous unions, South Asian feminists discuss the “brahmanical patriarchy,” akin to the “racist patriarchy” discussed by Audre Lorde and other black feminist scholars.

“This is South India” invokes these intersectional caste, class, gender, and color logics as much as it normalizes upper-caste, middle-class, male Aryanness as the “norm.” While upper-caste South Indian consumers of the “This is South India” cartoon may laugh at the jokes of coffee being sipped up, grandmothers trippin up, and Malayalees shipping out of the region, Bhat’s cartoon omits casted, working class and poor, Dravidian peoples, peoples read as inherently “dark skinned.” In India, Dalit peoples face daily forms of segregation, job and education discrimination, and countless incidents of violence and police complicity and/or indifference to that violence. They are persecuted for sitting cross-legged while Dalit, wearing a mustache while Dalit, riding a horse while Dalit.

When the black Donald Glover becomes an Aryan South Indian man, Bhat also erases an entire history of black vernacular’s global presence. To return to the tradition of tap: the first tap dancer, Master Juba, traveled across Europe and Russia in the early nineteenth century, and reportedly worked himself to death. In the late nineteenth century, Irish communities in Australia had their own blackface minstrels popular amongst the larrikin, or working class street youth, which caricatured US black culture and Australian Aboriginal culture. Ida Forsyne, a black vaudeville dancer traveled all over Europe and Russia in the early 1900s, and developed her own rendition of the Russian dance, the kazatsky, which was wildly popular amongst American audiences. Josephine Baker worked in France in the 1920s and was so revered that upon her death, tens of thousands of people came to watch her funeral procession in Paris, and she was buried with full military honors and a 21 gun salute.

William Henry Lane, a.k.a. “Master Juba” from The Illustrated London News, 5 August 1848.

This history extends into Asia as well. In 1853-4, Commodore Perry brought white blackface minstrels and black slaves with his Navy troupes to perform in Japan. In India, black jazz musicians and traveling minstrel shows were a feature of the early twentieth century and profoundly influenced early Bollywood scores. After World War II, Japanese American tappers entertained at military bases. The imagery from minstrel shows sold products not just in the US, but in China as well. The hugely popular “Darkie” toothpaste in China, later changed to “Darlie” toothpaste after Colgate-Palmolive bought the company in 1985, features a man in blackface, patterned after Al Jolson’s blackface.

The investment in non-racial nationalism in “This is South India” completely obscures the multiple anti-racist messages of “This is America” which brings to light historic and modern day minstrelsy, the resistances encompassed in black vernacular dance and music, and black pain and suffering in white supremacist America. Bhat may remark “Can’t get enough of Donald Glover. What a man!” next to his cartoon, but we have to ask: what is it that we can’t get enough of exactly? The brownface appropriation of Childish Gambino in “This is South India” and the ascendency of upper-caste men as representative of South India is just one example of the use of black vernacular traditions in naturalizing India’s deracialized/homogenized population. Rather than entertaining these erasures, denials, and displacements, it is time we start thinking through the ways in which race travels globally, and how brownface serves nationalist interests working to conceal multiple, complex, and varied intersectional racialized oppressions within particular Asian contexts.