On Tuesday, Slate.com contributor Aisha Harris posted a story titled “The Troubling Viral Trend of the “Hilarious” Black Neighbor,” in which she described how she believes the internet picks on black people and turns them into unwitting internet celebrities. There are so many things wrong with this argument that it’s hard to even fathom how it passed the sniff test with the editors at Slate, but let’s start by taking a look at this quote directly from the article:
Granted, the buzzworthy tactic of reporters interviewing the most loquacious witnesses to a crime or other event is nothing new, and YouTube has countless examples of people of all ethnicities saying ridiculous things.
With this one sentence, Harris basically discredits her entire premise. In making this connection, Harris is suggesting that the reporter who interviewed Charles Ramsey only chose to interview him because he looked like he would give an engaging interview, even though there were other “witnesses” they could have interviewed instead. By saying this, Harris is completely disregarding the fact that Ramsey wasn’t just a “witness” to the event, he was the key figure who aided in rescuing the women from the house. Furthermore, Harris herself admits there are “countless examples of people of all ethnicities saying ridiculous things” on Youtube. Let me clue Harris in on something here — that’s how the internet works. People post and share all sorts of absurd and/or funny things that other people, cats, dogs and animals of all kinds have been caught on camera doing — often with funny headlines or captions to grab the eye of potential viewers and aid in the general “virility” of the photos or clips. This is the same for people of all races — there is no conspiracy here. If you look long enough, you’ll eventually come across internet “memes” that are racist, sexist or just downright distasteful. That’s the nature of the internet.
Harris goes on to say:
It’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform.
Excuse me? So, Harris is saying that people became enthralled with Charles Ramsey’s interview for no other reason than wanting to see “black people perform?” It couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that he was a key figure in rescuing three women who had been missing for up to a decade, and even presumed dead by some. No, definitely not that. By the same token, it couldn’t be because he gave an interview in which he spoke from the heart and didn’t seem to have the type of robotic, canned answers to questions that we often see in news interviews. Nope, it had to be because we’re all obsessed with wanting to see “black people perform.” I shouldn’t have to point out how absolutely outrageous this argument is, but judging by how widely shared Harris’ article has been, apparently it needs to be done.
In constructing her argument, Harris found three other examples of Youtube “sensations” who had gone viral online – Antoine Dodson, Sweet Brown and Michelle Clark. Dodson and Brown are probably instantly recognizable to anybody who has had a Facebook account for the past few years, but Clark is a rather obscure third choice to use when trying to make the broad argument of racism against black people in “viral memes.” Harris makes the argument that Kai the “hatchet-wielding hitchhiker” (a white man) wasn’t “subjected to quite the same level of derisive memeification” as Clark, which is far from the case from what I’ve seen online. Yet, Michelle Clark was the most notable third example Harris could find of this so-called “troubling viral trend.”
Let’s not forget the premise of Harris’ article — that black people are being singled out for “memeification” to fulfill our secret desire to watch black people perform. I already explained how this is absolutely ridiculous when it comes to the internet and “viral memes,” but it applies to television as well. Just look at our country’s obsession during the 90′s with TV talk shows like Ricki Lake or Jerry Springer, or even today with shows like Tosh.0 and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” The desire to see people share their problems or make us laugh with their absurdity is something that transcends race itself. Harris’ argument is flawed inside and out.
It seems to me the real issue here is Harris had been sitting on this idea for a while, waiting for another “viral” interview of a black person to hit the news so she could pounce and tie everything together, with no regard for any coherence to her theory. In doing so, she’s doing a disservice to those of us who have been working to expose and eliminate real racism in this country. Harris took a shallow approach to an issue and tried to paint it with the broad stroke of racism, attacking each and every one of us who were fascinated by Charles Ramsey’s story and actions on Monday to help save three women from the nightmare they had been living. Sadly, it’s rather ironic that Harris ended her article by saying this:
Ramsey is particularly striking in this regard, since, for a moment at least, he put the issue of race front and center himself. Describing the rescue of Amanda Berry and her fellow captives, he says, “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway!”
The candid statement seems to catch the reporter off guard; he ends the interview shortly afterward. And it’s notable that among the many memorable things Ramsey said on camera, this one has gotten less meme-attention than most. Those who are simply having fun with the footage of Ramsey might pause for a second to actually listen to the man. He clearly knows a thing or two about the way racism prevents us from seeing each other as people.
Harris had a golden opportunity to talk about the implications of what Charles Ramsey said, and delve into the societal problems which we do still face today, which could have made for a thought-provoking and worthwhile read. Instead she only gave it a short paragraph, choosing to focus on internet memes in formulating a fluff piece of misleading nonsense. Not only is her argument disappointing, but it’s downright dangerous in how it takes the reader’s attention away from real life issues of racism and redirects their anger toward a nonexistent problem.