As a member of Gen Z, I believe that memes are a great source of communication. A successful meme plays off of experiences people can relate to, such as mental health issues. Whether the memes are sent by friends, found on the explore page, or posted on Twitter, memes double as an integral part of today’s popular culture, and as a tool utilized by young marginalized people to amplify their voices.
The word meme has two meanings. The first defines a meme as a humorous image or video that is shared on the internet. However, a meme is also any concept that is widespread within a culture. In June 2020, many Americans were met with yet another reminder of the institutionalized racism that persists in our country. The murder of a Black man was projected on television screens around the world, and “Black Lives Matter” once again became a rallying cry for Black people around the world. The idea that Black people deserve life and safety elicited debate among the American people. By one definition, #BlackLivesMatter is a meme, a thought that is effectively spread throughout society. However, calling Black Lives Matter a “meme” would only minimize what the phrase stands for. On the Black Lives Matter website, it states that their mission is to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” Black Lives Matter is not only a hashtag, but an active commitment to cultivating positive change for Black communities in America and around the world.
Black Lives Matter began online in 2013 and continues to demand necessary reform to this day. Recently, many white and non-Black people, both young and old, have spoken about the racism they have both witnessed and partaken in. Instagram stories were, and still are, bombarded with infographics from @chnge, @impact, and @march. Many Black activists have long been vocal about the racial microaggressions they face at school, the workplace, and in other public places. Black revolutionaries such as Angela Davis have spent their lives critiquing law enforcement and the incarceration system. After all these years, why has the movement suddenly gained so much traction?
For many young Black people, that “why” question is explored through humor and satire. Many Instagram accounts poke fun at liberal infographics to critique large activism pages such as @feminist who capitalize off of marginalized groups. In this case, humor is used as an outlet to express frustrations with “slacktivism.” Through memes, young Black people are expressing that their voices and experiences need to be recognized if non-Black people want to commit to being true allies. And lastly, some memes by Black people are only for Black people. @patiasfantasyworld, for example, is a satirical meme page ran by Black women and queer people. This Instagram page is a place to connect for a largely Black and queer audience that’s “in on the joke” according to Paper Magazine. Many of the posts use the “Facebook meme” format, which often consists of text in front of a background that almost always includes laughing emojis. The jokes often use AAVE (African American Vernacular English), a form of English that stems from African American culture. AAVE is used in the page’s memes to emphasize that the space created is for Black people. One joke states that “jobs be tryna have you doing the most just so they can reward you with a pizza party, n*gga i’m 40’ish.” Even though anyone can relate to this, the use of AAVE directs the joke to a primarily Black audience.
However, the internet is a public place. Many people who follow Patia’s Fantasy World are neither Black or queer. When this space brings awareness to institutionalized racism, class issues, and violence in Black communities, especially in queer Black communities, followers start to complain. Borja states that “all of these people who are not Black love to laugh at Black jokes that come from Black pain or trauma, but post something serious about Black life, and they get upset.” This phenomenon is not exclusive to meme culture. Blackness is only celebrated when it is consumable by non-Black people, especially white people. Whether it is Black music, Black dance, Black hair, or Black language. Once non-Black people are forced to realize that their idealized version of Blackness only exists because of white supremacy, they have to bear the weight of responsibility: a responsibility to change their ways, recognize their mistakes and work towards giving Black people the recognition they so deserve: this responsibility is not fulfilled by posting infographics.
One way to truly help is to donate to mutual aid, which often looks like helping people pay rent or medical expenses. Mutual aid also emphasizes how systems of oppression such as racism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny affect how wealth is unevenly distributed in America. While charity is often utilized to benefit wealthy corporations, mutual aid prioritizes the physical, mental, and financial well-being of marginalized people.
@patiasfantasyworld uses its platform to share anti-racist resources and boost mutual aid efforts. These meme pages are not only spaces for Black people to laugh freely, but spaces for Black people to find help and community. Mutual aid is not charity, but the practice of building financially symbiotic relationships with your community.
For many young BIPOC, memes have become a source of their personal liberation. Whether they are jokes about mental health, whiteness, or capitalism, memes are a new way of confronting this new, complex, and sometimes evil world. When social media is flooded with constant reminders of the violence BIPOC faces in the country, memes can give marginalized people space to breathe and laugh. Memes prove that there’s truth in the saying “laughter is the best medicine.”
Finding and sharing joy with people in your community can be a beautiful way to heal. As toxic as social media can be, memes (and the Black people who create them) make our feeds feel just a little bit more like a community.