Nia Edwards-Behi asks if we have missed an opportunity to have a serious open discussion about what is appropriate and what is not in the meme culture of public debate.
Just when you think Welsh politics can’t get any weirder, it does.
Last week, the South Wales Central Assembly Member, Neil McEvoy, found himself the target of a meme from the Facebook page Fiery Welsh Memes for Feisty Independent Dreams. McEvoy felt that the particular meme, which featured the Brooklyn Nine-Nine character Raymond Holt, was a racist attack, and furthermore that a comment on the meme which used a gif from Ru Paul’s Drag Race was also racist. This whole affair does seem to start life as a genuine misunderstanding, yet it became a nasty and frankly embarrassing mess.
I’m not one of the ‘kids’ who are, I suppose, the main creators and audience for memes, but, and hold it against me if you must, I do really enjoy them. There’s no doubting that memes and meme culture have a well-earned bad rep for being bad taste and often wildly offensive, with Pepe the Frog being perhaps the nadir of that. As with any medium, they can be problematic, but when done well, memes can truly make me laugh out loud and they can even manage to pass quite scathing commentary on politics and popular culture. Seeing meme pages appear over the past year or so with Welsh independence as their main theme has made me quite happy, being indicative, I think, of the circles into which discussions around independence are broadening. Not long ago one such page posted a meme using images of a member of a K-pop band I like, so you can imagine the tiny, petty thrill I got from this combination of two otherwise wildly different interests. But I digress.
I don’t doubt that McEvoy may not have understood the original meme format and as a result felt attacked beyond the intention of the meme-makers. And that’s a valid response. His outright rejection or acknowledgement of explanations of the meme ring a little hollow, though – he could well have acknowledged his misunderstanding while maintaining his hurt and anger about it, after all. It was McEvoy’s near-vicious attack on one of the commenters – who used a gif of Latrice Royale’s famous ‘the shade of it all’ moment – that was most un-called for. Where a conversation about digital literacy and performance could have been had, an elected representative threatened a young activist’s employment, even after use of the gif and the meaning of ‘shade’ (in this context) was explained to him and deleted. The man who used the gif is himself part of the LGBTQ community, from which the phrase shade has emerged, and its use is second nature to maybe millions of people worldwide.
Does a conversation about digital blackface need to happen? Absolutely. But that conversation was not the one that was had in response to this meme. It appeared in comments in the days afterwards, but the original response came over entirely as a personal response, not one that sought to instigate such a discussion. It could not only have been a conversation about digital blackface, it could have been a conversation about the mainstreaming of language and colloquialism originating in the LGBTQ community and how so much of that is itself from the black LGBTQ community. For every ‘yaaaas, hunty’ uttered on the internet, someone’s getting purposefully mis-gendered, and for every white ‘bitch, please’ there’s an n-word being thrown about.
That simply isn’t the conversation that took place. I’m sure the combative defenders of the meme-page wouldn’t have helped an already bruised ego enter into a difficult conversation about race and performance in the digital age, but are the comments of a meme page ever likely to be the place where that conversation is going to happen? It certainly isn’t where you expect to see a politician reacting to a meme of himself – McEvoy isn’t the first to be directly targeted by the page.
I do hope, that, in light of all this, some of those young people do take some time to reflect on ideas of digital blackface and performance. We can talk about digital blackface and still use our favourite gifs – outright dismissing such a pervasive and contemporary issue, on the other hand, doesn’t help anyone. Everyone has space to constantly learn and adjust their patterns of behaviour, and if it’s done in order to make other people feel more comfortable and included, then all the better.
But what this boils down to is that an elected politician openly attacked a young man’s employment for an action that had been deleted (despite, in my opinion, the young man’s legitimate use of the gif in question) and for which he had apologised. And that is damning, not only of our politicians’ ability to relate to young voters, but of their professional conduct too.
Nia Edwards-Behi is an Associate Editor of Wales Arts Review