Enough

Your favorite Harambe memes are racist. It’s time to stop using them.

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There is a popular story making its way around the web about a Chinese zoo that allegedly decided to name a newborn gorilla “Harambe McHarambeface” after opening up the naming process to a popular vote on social media.

Despite the fact that there’s nearly every indication that the story is a hoax, it’s the sort of hoax that the internet loves. It’s got baby animals, references to Boaty McBoatface, and most importantly, it’s breathing new life into 2016’s unkillable meme of the year: Harambe the gorilla.

By now you’re probably familiar with Harambe, the 17-year-old Western lowland gorilla shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo earlier this year after he attacked a three-year-old boy who’d managed to climb into his enclosure. Harambe’s death sparked an ideological battle between those who thought the zoo shouldn’t have killed the rare animal and those who thought the little boy’s life was more valuable than Harambe’s.

In a perfect world, Harambe’s death would have led to a rigorous debate about zoo safety precautions, much in the same way that Cecil the Lion’s death sparked international outrage about big game hunting. Instead, we got memes. Lots of memes. And also lots of music: In the months after the incident, tribute songs to Harambe racked up millions of views on YouTube, and rapper Young Thug decided to immortalize him in a track from his Jeffrey mixtape.

On the surface, this all seems innocuous enough. But there’s another side to Harambe’s popularity—one inexorably tied to racist ideas about black people, Africa, and gorillas—that plays a large, troubling role in the memes’ collective staying power.

As Vox recently pointed out, there was was a brief moment early in the Harambe news cycle when a number of black people used the then-nascent meme to draw attention to the disproportionate amount of attention the public gave to a slain gorilla as compared to the attention given to the killing of black and brown people.

Yet as time has passed, whatever potential Harambe had as a subject for cultural critique has given way to “jokes” like Dicks Out For Harambe and Harambe Did 9/11. The punchlines of these memes are ostensibly rooted in the idea that Harambe’s getting a kick out of his legacy as he watches on from gorilla heaven. In reality, though, these jokes are all about using “Harambe” as a shorthand for black people and openly mocking them without fear of being labeled as racist.

Last month, comedian Kumail Nanjiani pointed this idea out after voicing his distaste for the continued popularity of Harambe jokes, prompting a number of people to “well, actually” him with explanations that people just happened to really, really like this gorilla.

Let’s get real here. Of course the African-ness of Harambe’s name (it’s a Swahili word which means “togetherness”) plays in a role in his popularity. 10 years ago, long before that boy climbed the gorilla enclosure, Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder predicted that one day, white people would become obsessed with the distinctly African, yet still easily pronounceable word “Harambe” as some sort of rallying cry.

Rather than giving sensitive white folks a reason to get hype about Kwanzaa, Harambe presented them with the chance to poke fun at an African word while also anthropomorphizing a gorilla, an animal that racists have long equated with black people as a means of calling them less evolved than people of other races.

To see the number of people that use “Harambe” as a slur against black people like Leslie Jones—or a Louisiana substitute teacher who posted a meme comparing Michelle Obama to Harambe that read “they shot the wrong gorilla”—makes it difficult to argue that there’s no racist history being engaged with here.

Similarly, resident assistants at the University of Massachusetts were compelled to explain in a letter to this year’s freshmen that writing Harambe memes on public whiteboards in their shared dorm spaces was an act of subtle, racially-driven hostility. “Harambe” is also the name of a specific floor on UMass’s campus that’s been set aside for black students looking to live within a black community in a predominantly white school.

“[Harambe] has a very positive connotation, but current social media has been misrepresenting it,” the RAs explained. “The floor has been in existence for many years, so any negative remarks regarding ‘Harambe’ will be seen as a direct attack on our campus’ African-American Community.”

Unsurprisingly, the e-mail was widely mocked.

 

Whatever your feelings about Harambe, it’s clear that there’s no way to lightheartedly joke about him without implicitly enabling people to casually exploit his popularity in a racist way. When we thoughtlessly pass around hoaxes about thousands of Chinese people being moved by Harambe, we’re saying that that fantasy is a more worthwhile story than the reality that black and brown people are being compared to gorillas in 2016.

That is exactly what casual, thoughtless racism looks like in the internet age. It needs to stop. Enough with Harambe.

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