Originally published on October 23, 2014 by briaanbarron.com
It seems like only moments ago, a hashtag was a pound key on the telephone, and the word “meme” would have been read as a typo. Now these staples in our digital vocabulary have become sites for global trends, providing pathways for everything from the most current political news to inside jokes that the whole World Wide Web is in on. Communication scholar Limor Shifman defines Internet memes as “units of popular culture that are circulated, imitated, and transformed by internet users, creating a shared cultural experience.” Who’da thunk that a silly picture juxtaposed ironically with a simple caption could yield such an impact? But it’s memes that have given Kermit a hotter come-back than Mariah Carey by making the felt frog a spokesperson for calling out ignorant, contradictory behavior then proclaiming, “But that’s none of my business.” Whether you’ve flooded your friends’ newsfeeds with Lipton tea and green muppets, or they annoy the Hell out of you, or you’re prone to scrolling through in quiet amusement, memes and their complementary hashtags have commanded our digital vernacular.
As much as these funny squares of content appeal to our ever-shortening attention spans and ever-expanding hunger for absurd humor, they are dangerous. Particularly when they represent Blackness in (not so) covert ways in themes like “Bitches Be Like…” and “Niggas Be Like…”. The most popular of these memes draw from common qualifiers of “ratchetness,” a new-age term for behaviors and lifestyle choices marked by low class, undereducation, tastlessness, poor judgment, and recklessness perpetrated by Black or Brown folk. The circulation of memes and hashtags that humorously present Black women and men (the implied subjects of the terms “bitch” and “nigga”) as irrational, disrespectful, and dysfunctional undermines the fact that this narrative has a historical function of subjugating Black people.
But many of us already knew that. And it would be flat out wrong to assert that the only people who go forward creating, sharing, and “liking” this type of content are self-hating cultural traitors or voluntary buffoons. We have a history of clownin’ on each other in Black culture that is not necessarily rooted in hostility or a lack of self-respect. Rather, these types of exchanges have been rooted in crafts of storytelling, wit, translating oppressive experiences into sources of comic relief, and practicing competition through a command over language. It’s manifested in everything from rap battles to playing the dozens. Robin D.G. Kelley examines it beautifully in her text Yo Mama’s Disfunktional, where she states “More than anything, it was an effort to master the absurd metaphor, an artform meant to entertain rather than to damage.”
The same intent could be applicable to the way we use memes now. When we create memes–cleverly combining the quick wit that’s signature to Black social exchanges with absurd visuals–we’re translating a tradition of playing the dozens to a sort of digital capital. But as with any facet of “othered” cultures [those that are marginalized and subjugated in comparison to white patriarchal culture], once that translation to the mainstream takes place, it becomes a viable resource for serving a repressive narrative. In the case of “Bitches/Niggas be Like” memes, by re-appropriating well-known references in humorous or ironic ways, this content normalizes degrading language and masquerades dangerous tropes of Black dysfunctionality as comedic public opinion. As Robin D.G. Kelley puts it “We have been consistently marked as dysfunctional: ironically, dysfunctionality is both the source of the slander directed toward us as well as the source of attraction. Our dysfunctionality fascinates; it is alluring.”
Sadly, people of color appear to be some of the most fascinated by the allure of dysfunction that Kelley speaks of. While humor is a portion of the reason these memes gain so much traffic, another piece of it is that it allows the “sharer” to dissociate his or her own identity from the “ratchet” behavior that’s being mocked. Unknowingly or subconsciously, we create class and gender wars within our own community thinking that we’re just continuing a tradition of trading insults for a laugh.
Often, we critique rap artists who willfully exploit Black culture by feeding fetishes of violence, ignorance, and hypersexuality. But might those who circulate certain memes and hashtags become just as complicit in disseminating the narrative of Black dysfunction as rap artists who are subject to the same critique? Distinction: rap artists are getting rich and famous off of it. Most Internet users are getting clicks that they don’t care to quantify or monetize. If Shifman is right and memes create “a shared cultural experience,” we’re using our valuable comedic capital and socio-technical savvy to make a Global statement that b*tches and n*ggas be dysfunctional.