The Best Memes Are Now Activist Memes
Many people are describing 2020 as a "dumpster fire" (myself included). Between a global pandemic and the racial injustice and police brutality that have led to international protests, it’s been a historic year for societal unrest. (Recent polls confirm that 2020 has taken a massive toll on most peoples’ psyches—according to one of them, Americans are the unhappiest they’ve been in 50 years.)
There are bright spots: the reform we’ve already seen; comeuppances of those outed for racist behavior; and the long-overdue conversations surrounding privilege and oppression that many people are having with their families and friends for the very first time.
Oh, and the memes.
Odds are, you’ve seen Patia’s Fantasy World—a must-follow created by a Black woman named Patia Borja—reposted all over Instagram. Posting raunchy, often low-res memes specific to Black culture, interspersed with political jokes and timely Black Lives Matter content, her account gained nearly 44,000 followers in June alone (she now has nearly 150,000 total), when international protests began. She’s since launched a widely shared database of antiracism resources.
Patia’s not the only one using jokes and memes to make statements about IRL Blackness in America.
“I believe that part of the Black experience in America has always been comedy,” says Aloiso Wilmouth, creator of the @moma.ps5 account. “It’s how we deal with the dark reality of things like systemic racism, and there’s a long legacy of Black thinkers and comedians who’ve critiqued the world around us for years.”
Combining cultural criticism with traditional joke formats, activist meme accounts are touching on trauma in ways we’ve never seen before. Some have been posting political content for years, while others have pivoted in light of recent events.
“I started my account around three years ago, and it was just memes,” says Nadia, the creator behind the @wurfelhouse meme account, which has over 35,000 followers. “I did a fundraiser after George Floyd’s murder, and the response was huge, so since then, I thought I’d transition my account into something important to me.”
But jokes and politics have also proven to be an essential match right now. “If you can’t look at something and find humor in it, you’ll go completely insane,” says Aloiso. “It’s the most valid part of the human experience, even through the darkest times of trauma.”
Essentially, BIPOC and white jokesters alike are using their platforms the best way they know how: filtering what’s on everyone’s mind through a familiar set of viral images, in-jokes, and references. Memes, of course, are often intentionally crude—the language, the visual editing, the humor itself—and cloaked in irony. Part of what’s boundary-pushing about these timely political memes is just how earnest they can be. “I think people relate to my posts in a non-pretentious way,” Aloiso says. “I enjoy taking these concepts and sort of diluting them down for the average person.” He says he uses the app similarly to how other people use Twitter, sharing his original, occasionally stream-of-consciousness-style thoughts and jokes with nearly 15,000 followers.
Memes are also a coping mechanism. “Laughter balances out the absolute weight of the situation,” says Nadia. Still, grappling with traumatic events while trying to make your audience laugh is a difficult balance to strike, and finding the right tone is complicated. “I used to have my account as a ‘diary’ for whatever stupid thoughts or jokes came to me,” she says of her account, for which she creates all the content. “Now I use it more intelligently and carefully, so I can hopefully influence people’s interactions both URL and IRL.”
These pages typically include “serious” grams on everything from police brutality to fascism. Nadia posts jokes about Karens and white privilege. But she also shares action items—demand that Breonna Taylor’s killers are charged—and information on Black victims who’ve been largely ignored by the mainstream media.
To scroll through these pages is to confront uncomfortable conversations head-on. On one level, an activist meme account is simply one more educational resource to learn from and internalize, like the books and television shows being recommended left and right for their insights into racism.
Of course, when you’re dealing with sensitive, sometimes heartbreaking subject matter, jokes can go too far. “Every single day someone crosses a line on the Internet,” says Alosio. He recently denounced memes playing off stereotypes about black males’ sexuality, and suggests considering the impacts of a joke you’re making and analyzing how people could react to it. “Far too often, jokes can come off incredibly myopic.”
Says Nadia: “After all the weeks of protest and seeing what’s still happening—ie Rayshard Brooks and the recent hanging deaths of multiple Black men—I think humor needs to be used for educating my followers, rather than making light of the situation.”
Nadia recently shared a meme about the confederacy, and people “directly affected by the ongoing effects of slavery” let her know that the joke was tone-deaf and hutful. “I’m glad they actually called me out on it—we all have to be sensitive right now, and some posts can make light of the situation and unintentionally harm the movement,” she says. “Others can be funny, genuinely effective tools for educating people."