What it memes to heal

Memes as a heal­ing tool for POC

The McGill Daily - - Front Page - Writ­ten By Aman­dri Da­hanayake

Pic­ture this:

It’s win­ter break. You’re on a couch, stuff­ing your one func­tional ear­bud fur­ther into your ear. You hope Bo­dak Yel­low on full vol­ume will drown out the brown aun­ties pas­sive-ag­gres­sively one-up­ping each other on the ba­sis of their kinder­garten­ers’ grades. You open In­sta­gram and make the mis­take of laugh­ing out loud at a meme on your ex­plore page, earn­ing a dirty look from your mother. “You know teenagers, al­ways on their phones,” she says, and the brown ladies cackle in unison. You gri­mace, hop­ing it passes for a smile, and go back to scrolling. It’s the only an­chor you have to get through the an­nual Desi Christ­mas party.

Maybe you’re not Desi, but if you’re a mil­len­nial you’ve prob­a­bly been in this sit­u­a­tion. Whether it was at the com­mu­nity hol­i­day din­ner, in the el­e­va­tor, or dur­ing your 8:30 lec­ture, you’ve scrolled through your phone dou­ble-tap­ping ran­dom memes till your thumb was sore. You were judged, if not by the peo­ple around you, by your own self for wast­ing your time like this. But at the same time the im­pul­sive scrolling was a cop­ing mech­a­nism, if not for your im­me­di­ate con­text then for life in gen­eral.

In the age of the In­ter­net, so­cial me­dia func­tions as a pri­mary mode of com­mu­ni­ca­tion for North Amer­i­can millennials. And on so­cial me­dia plat­forms, memes reign supreme as one of the pre­ferred medi­ums of so­cial ex­pres­sion. But brows­ing memes is seen as a method of pro­cras­ti­na­tion and is widely scorned. This con­dem­na­tion is an un­fair one; there are pos­i­tive as­pects to meme cul­ture, par­tic­u­larly for marginal­ized groups (case in point: you, at the Desi Christ­mas party. Those memes were your life­line). But be­fore delv­ing into the de­tails of this claim, let’s cover the ba­sics of memes.

What are memes?

De­spite com­plex­i­ties that arise from racial and so­cioe­co­nomic di­vi­sions, the vast ma­jor­ity of young North Amer­i­cans use the In­ter­net. It is this ac­ces­si­bil­ity of the In­ter­net, and con­se­quently so­cial me­dia, that paves the way for memes to take on the sig­nif­i­cance they do in North Amer­ica.

A meme is any text, with or with­out a vis­ual com­po­nent, prop­a­gated on so­cial me­dia con­tain­ing an el­e­ment of hu­mour. They fol­low rec­og­niz­able for­mats that are eas­ily repli­ca­ble, al­low­ing them to go vi­ral with ease.

When we see memes on our Face­book news­feed or In­sta­gram ex­plore page, we feel com­pelled to like them, tag our friends in them, and even fol­low the ac­counts that post them. Even­tu­ally, memes per­me­ate our so­cial me­dia and en­gag­ing with them be­comes a nat­u­ral part of our lives. Fre­quent en­gage­ment with this type of me­dia guar­an­tees that memes be­come highly in­te­grated into our daily rou­tines. Our con­stant in­ter­ac­tion with memes gives them the power to shape so­cio­cul­tural dis­courses. In other words, memes are not only hu­mor­ous im­ages, they are also so­cial state­ments that re­flect and shape the dy­nam­ics of youth cul­ture in North Amer­ica.

Fur­ther in­ter­sec­tions of iden­ti­ties (e.g. queer, neu­ro­di­ver­gent, dis­abled, racial­ized) give rise to spe­cial­ized memes that ap­peal to spe­cific de­mo­graph­ics. As a per­son of colour, I can at­test that our ex­pe­ri­ence as racial­ized youth is dis­tinc­tive. To re­flect this dis­tinc­tion, we have our own memes that touch on the dy­nam­ics of our spe­cific ex­pe­ri­ences. Some of these memes are re­ferred to as “white peo­ple memes,” and their sig­nif­i­cance to youth of colour will be the fo­cus of this ar­ti­cle.

White peo­ple memes

The rea­son we read­ily dis­miss meme­brows­ing as a frivolous ac­tiv­ity is be­cause we per­ceive memes as en­tirely sep­a­rate from “the real world.” The ap­par­ent ba­sis for our consumption of memes is the dis­trac­tion it pro­vides from the daunt­ing re­al­i­ties of our pro­fes­sional lives or lack thereof. In­ter­nal­iz­ing this di­chotomy has led us to over­look the fact that the ideas we com­mu­ni­cate through memes hold the truths of our ex­pe­ri­ence as youth, and in the con­text of this ar­ti­cle, as racial­ized youth.

So, yes. Memes re­ally are that deep — crit­i­cally en­gag­ing with memes re­veals a lot about our cul­ture and the ways in which we can trans­form cul­tural dis­course to be an­tiop­pres­sive and anti-racist.

White peo­ple memes dis­cuss is­sues of race, there­fore they are in­her­ently po­lit­i­cal. The pop­u­lar­ity of white peo­ple memes has politi­cized the com­mu­ni­ca­tion spa­ces used by racial­ized youth, de­mys­ti­fy­ing the pol­i­tics of race and mak­ing the dis­courses sur­round­ing racism and white supremacy much more ac­ces­si­ble. These memes have trans­formed the con­ver­sa­tion sur­round­ing race to in­clude and even am­plify the voices of youth of colour. In essence, they pro­vide a hu­moris­tic out­let for dis­cus­sions around race.

Sat­i­riza­tion and em­pow­er­ment

The type of hu­mour em­ployed in white peo­ple memes is satire, i.e. the ex­ag­ger­a­tion and ridicule of as­pects of so­ci­ety in or­der to ex­pose the weak­nesses of the es­tab­lished or­der. White peo­ple memes use a tech­nique of sub­ver­sion to il­lus­trate the hypocrisies and in­jus­tices in­her­ent to race re­la­tions in North Amer­ica.

Sub­ver­sion en­tails a sort of role re­ver­sal. White peo­ple memes turn white dom­i­nance on its head by mock­ing the be­hav­iours that stem from white priv­i­lege. Through this act of chal­leng­ing what we have in­ter­nal­ized ac­cep­tance for, white peo­ple memes pick at the very threads of ca­su­al­ized racism that are wo­ven into our so­cial fab­ric.

White peo­ple memes em­power youth of colour. They cre­ate a con­tained uni­verse where the ex­ist­ing so­cial or­der is com­pletely over­turned, where white supremacy is made ob­vi­ous, and then made fun of. This is a uni­verse where white peo­ple are the ones made to feel sin­gled out and marginal­ized, where the kids of colour are the ones in on the joke for once, al­low­ing us to ex­pe­ri­ence power. It’s a sense of col­lec­tive power— of be­ing in on the joke to­gether—and it’s this fleet­ing feel­ing that makes white peo­ple memes so funny.

The In­con­gruity the­ory, most fa­mously posited by Kant, ex­plains that we find hu­mour in things that con­tra­dict our es­tab­lished think­ing pat­terns. The shift in power dy­nam­ics is un­ex­pected and this is at the core of why we find jokes about white priv­i­lege so funny.

Plato and Aris­to­tle also ex­plained hu­mour with the Su­pe­ri­or­ity the­ory, sug­gest­ing that peo­ple laugh when they feel tri­umphant over oth­ers. In the con­text of white peo­ple memes, the role re­ver­sal puts peo­ple of colour in a po­si­tion above white peo­ple. The evo­ca­tion of tem­po­rary joy and a hint of spite is a way to man­age and eject pent up frus­tra­tions brought on by liv­ing un­der white supremacy.

Don’t be­lieve any of this? Let me walk you through it.

Fig­ure 1: Here, the oigi­nal tweet con­tains sev­eral im­ages of mop heads. The cap­tion reads “White girls with dreads,” fol­lowed by a row of heart-eyed emoti­cons. It’s a sim­ple for­mat, but the al­lu­sion to cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is pow­er­ful. Com­par­ing white girls’ dreads to a mop in­di­cates how dis­taste­ful they re­ally are, fur­ther com­mu­ni­cat­ing that all they are good for is clean­ing the floor. It feels good to un­abashedly in­sult white girls who claim black fash­ion as their own while con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the uglier re­al­i­ties of black iden­tity and the ob­sta­cles black women face when they wear nat­u­ral hair­styles in the work­place or at school and the ob­sta­cles black women face when they wear nat­u­ral hair­styles in the work­place or at school. The ironic use of the heart-eyed emo­jis mocks the pseudo-in­no­cent ex­cite­ment of white girls shar­ing their cul­tur­ally ap­pro­pria­tive hair­styles on so­cial me­dia.

Fig­ure 2: This meme is mak­ing fun of the fact that white peo­ple are per­fectly ca­pa­ble of grasp­ing the con­cept of own­er­ship, as long as there are no peo­ple of colour in­volved. To them, fight­ing to make street fash­ion ex­clu­sive is far more le­git­i­mate than let­ting black peo­ple re­claim a word they paid for in blood. The con­trast be­tween the all-caps and all- low­er­case di­a­logue per­fectly cap­tures the dif­fer­ing ra­tio­nal­ity of each party. This meme works to in­val­i­date the logic of white supremacy us­ing the im­age of the con­fused white lady with math for­mu­lae float­ing around her face.

Fig­ure 3: Here we see two con­trast­ing state­ments made about Justin Bieber with stub­ble. But this is big­ger than Bieber: what this is re­ally about is the white­wash­ing of beauty ideals. Bieber, like most white men, is hailed as at­trac­tive by de­fault. It’s point­ing out that we de­fine the stan­dard of beauty by the fea­tures typ­i­cal of white peo­ple. This meme also flips the white su­prem­a­cist no­tion that all peo­ple of colour “look the same,” turn­ing the sen­ti­ment back on to white peo­ple.

Fig­ure 4: This photo of the Black man with his hands clasped while his white girl­friend leans on the door­way be­hind him has been cap­tioned a mil­lion dif­fer­ent ways. But all of them were a vari­a­tion of pick­ing a generic white name for the woman, then mak­ing up a sce­nario where she was in­sulted at Christ­mas din­ner by his Black fam­ily. This par­tic­u­lar tweet is mak­ing fun of the fact that white peo­ple food doesn’t taste like any­thing. It also al­ludes to the way in which white women po­si­tion them­selves as vic­tims of peo­ple of colour, in par­tic­u­lar of Black folks. More­over, in this sce­nario, the white woman is us­ing the priv­i­lege of the de­sir­abil­ity of her white­ness to turn her Black boyfriend against his fam­ily, us­ing him as a shield for her own vi­o­lence. We can only imag­ine how his fam­ily will ridicule him for this com­ment. The hu­mour here is par­tic­u­larly com­plex be­cause the al­lu­sion to Black men choos­ing white women as part­ners over Black women im­plies in­ter­nal­ized racism.

De­spite be­ing a per­son of colour, my up­bring­ing was very white­washed. This is at­trib­uted to the his­tory of colo­nial­ism in my coun­try of birth. I was taught to avoid the sun so my skin would stay as light as pos­si­ble. I was only al­lowed to speak English, be­cause it was al­most shame­ful to be flu­ent in my mother tongue. I never saw a film pro­duced lo­cally; my only me­dia ex­po­sure was to Dis­ney and Nick­elodeon. In short, I was lulled into think­ing I was white. Of course, the dam­age was con­sid­er­able. Deny­ing the re­al­ity of my iden­tity was at the root of se­ri­ous body im­age is­sues I strug­gled with un­til re­cently. But I didn’t re­al­ize this un­til I moved to Canada and started us­ing so­cial me­dia.

My ini­tial re­ac­tion to white peo­ple memes was de­fen­sive. I said things like “not all white peo­ple,” “re­verse racism won’t solve any­thing,” “race doesn’t mat­ter; we’re all just hu­man.” For so long, I had sought prox­im­ity to white­ness. I had deeply in­ter­nal­ized the need for white ap­proval.

Our con­stant in­ter­ac­tion with memes gives them the power to shape so­cio-cul­tural dis­courses. In other words, memes are not only hu­mor­ous im­ages, they are also so­cial state­ments that re­flect and shape the dy­nam­ics of youth cul­ture in North Amer­ica.

But a meme isn’t just words on a pic­ture; it comes with the so­cial me­dia plat­form used to share it. So I read the ar­gu­ments in the com­ment sec­tions and pon­dered over the snarky cap­tions. I asked my­self “Why would it be okay to laugh at this?” There be­gan my jour­ney of learn­ing the com­plex­ity of op­pres­sion.

Memes pro­vide youth of colour an op­por­tu­nity for self-re­flec­tion. The dis­so­nance be­tween the racial sta­tus quo and the in­sur­gent tone of meme con­tent probes the as­sump­tions un­der­ly­ing our in­ter­nal­ized racism. Memes play an im­por­tant role in con­scious­ness-rais­ing, in that they ex­pose us to no­tions that we then re­al­ize lie at the root of a lot of our self-hate.

Pro­fes­sor Car­rie Rentschler at Mcgill Univer­sity, an ex­pert in Fem­i­nist Me­dia Stud­ies, says, “Memes are a re­sponse to dom­i­nant dis­course. To laugh at them to­gether is im­por­tant on an af­fec­tive level.” So af­ter we un­tan­gle the in­tri­ca­cies of our self-loathing, youth of colour can come to­gether to build com­mu­nity through shar­ing these memes. A first year stu­dent at Mcgill, Neyah Mc­nab echoes Rentschler’s view: “I wasn’t proud to be Black. Es­pe­cially in pre­dom­i­nantly white en­vi­ron­ments, I felt ex­cluded, I felt like I didn’t be­long. Laugh­ing at and tag­ging my friends in memes re­ally helped me find a sense of com­mu­nity.”

Christina Lau, a U1 Man­age­ment stu­dent, has also found com­mu­nity through meme­shar­ing. Re­fer­ring to the gro­cery store meme above, in which white peo­ple ho­mog­e­nize Asians, Christina says, “White peo­ple con­stantly lump us into one group and rarely put in the ef­fort to ed­u­cate them­selves on the many dif­fer­ent coun­tries and cul­tures that are in Asia. Memes like this one help re­mind me that the mi­croag­gres­sions I face where white peo­ple ques­tion my iden­tity and then try to cor­rect me (e.g. some­one once told me I was Korean, but I’m Chi­nese) are not rare oc­cur­rences. While this does make me sad it also makes me feel more con­nected to hun­dreds of peo­ple go­ing through the same thing.” The hu­mour of memes is also where we find their heal­ing po­ten­tial: laugh­ing to­gether de­stroys the alien­at­ing force of white supremacy on peo­ple of colour.

This com­mu­nity-build­ing for youth of colour in­sti­gated by white peo­ple memes is pow­er­ful. These shared com­mu­ni­ca­tion spa­ces of­fer val­i­da­tion for seem­ingly in­de­scrib­able and ab­stract el­e­ments of the racial­ized ex­pe­ri­ence. Through val­i­da­tion, we find ground­ing and relief. We find heal­ing. The co-ad­min of In­sta­gram Mcgill meme page @burn­side­base­mentsoup­cafe69 says, “I know find­ing meme ac­counts that mirrored my lived ex­pe­ri­ence pro­duced this feel­ing of what I can only de­scribe as relief. Some­thing about see­ing your hard­ships re­flected in such an eas­ily shared piece of me­dia is re­ally in­cred­i­ble. I think it makes a lot of my ex­pe­ri­ences feel more co­her­ent.” They added, “Maybe this sounds shal­low, but I’ve used memes to vent about my ex­pe­ri­ences with racism and in­ter­ac­tions in pre­dom­i­nantly white spa­ces, and there’s some­thing wildly comforting about watch­ing likes roll in on those griev­ances.” White peo­ple memes pro­vide the space for com­mu­ni­ties of colour to form on­line, and these com­mu­ni­ties pro­vide space for heal­ing from white supremacy and in­ter­nal­ized racism.

Other ad­mins of pop­u­lar ac­tivist meme ac­counts also dis­cussed how man­ag­ing their plat­forms helped their per­sonal heal­ing process. @in­ter.sec­tional.fem­ini.st says, “For me, it’s mostly about cre­at­ing a place for peo­ple to come and rant about their prob­lems or seek ad­vice. It also helps me be­cause I can use that space too, and my fol­low­ers come and help me and reach out to let me know they’re there for me.” The heal­ing that takes place in these on­line spa­ces sparks courage in youth of colour to con­front the sys­tem of white supremacy. Memes en­dow racial­ized youth with the power to chal­lenge and re­claim cul­tural nar­ra­tives.

My anti-op­pres­sion ed­u­ca­tion be­gan af­ter my ex­po­sure to white peo­ple memes. School had never taught me that racism was sys­temic, what in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity meant, or how colo­nial­ism ba­si­cally shaped my en­tire ex­is­tence. Be­cause for­mal school­ing ex­ists within and is up­held by a his­tor­i­cally colo­nial sys­tem, a raw dis­cus­sion of race is­sues is taboo. It was only through my own ef­forts on­line and in con­ver­sa­tion with friends that I had these rev­e­la­tions. But to talk about them, I had to de­mand a plat­form.

This ex­pe­ri­ence of si­lence around race ed­u­ca­tion isn’t unique to me. Christina Lau says, “My high school failed to even dis­cuss the role of Asians in Amer­i­can his­tory. I lit­er­ally learned about the Chi­nese Ex­clu­sion Act through In­sta­gram. All my his­tory teach­ers were white, and they were re­luc­tant to dis­cuss ap­par­ently con­tro­ver­sial top­ics that por­trayed Amer­ica in a bad light. Memes are so im­por­tant to POC be­cause they are al­lowed to touch on sen­si­tive top­ics with­out a buf­fer.”

Pro­fes­sor Rentschler af­firms this, say­ing, “Through ridicule, memes call out the guise of po­lite racism. Memes shape pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion in counter-pub­lic spa­ces.”

White peo­ple memes pro­voke on­line con­ver­sa­tions that we, as youth of colour, find too dif­fi­cult or daunt­ing to ini­ti­ate in phys­i­cal spa­ces. The ef­fects of be­ing re­peat­edly ex­posed to memes that are at their core anti-racist tools can ac­tu­ally work to break down in­ter­nal­ized racism and change the con­ver­sa­tion sur­round­ing white supremacy. By sat­i­riz­ing the racial­ized ex­pe­ri­ence, they em­power us to take charge of our cir­cum­stances. They help us find com­mu­nity and con­trib­ute to the process of heal­ing from the wounds in­flicted on us by racism. White peo­ple memes, triv­ial as they may seem, can be the start of a rev­o­lu­tion.

White peo­ple memes use a tech­nique of sub­ver­sion to il­lus­trate the hypocrisies and in­jus­tices in­her­ent to race re­la­tions in North Amer­ica. Through this act of chal­leng­ing what we have in­ter­nal­ized ac­cep­tance for, white peo­ple memes pick at the very threads of ca­su­al­ized racism that are wo­ven into our so­cial fab­ric.

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