Consider three historic U.S. landmarks: Mission San Jose, Plymouth Rock, and Monticello. What have you learned about them—or have you learned about them at all?
Chances are, this depends on where you went to high school. In 2010, the Texas Board of Education, for example, passed legislation that revised learning standards for the social sciences—which essentially, as one Texas board of education member put it, teaches slavery in the Civil War as a “side issue,” with no mention of important historic events such as the Jim Crow laws.
Unsettling, when you think about the fact that Texas is the second-largest state in the nation—but this isn’t merely a regional problem, or one that white liberals can dismiss as a “red state issue.” Curriculum around Christopher Columbus, for example, or the origins of Thanksgiving, continue to reinforce euphemistic myths that palliate (or completely misrepresent) facts about genocide and colonialism. Michael Conway of The Atlantic attributes some of this to the fact that U.S. history is taught as a set narrative, which “reinforces the mistaken idea that the past can be synthesized into a single, standardized chronicle of several hundred pages”—something particularly problematic when the narrators of this chronicle are, more often that not, affluent white men.
In reality, history can’t be a single chronicle. Take the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, for example: story after story poured in in real-time, through Snapchat, Facebook Live, even Twitter. These stories amass to a multifaceted account of the event and inarguably enrich one’s understanding of what happened. In the age of big data, we want more and more information—more details, more perspectives (⅔ of Americans say they gather at least some news from social media)—but whether it be fake news or what we’ve learned in history books, we don’t always seek, let alone question, the source. What’s more, we’re increasingly guilty of this revisionist history, even if it’s in seemingly “harmless” ways. For example, Instagram filters have inspired terms like “kitten fishing,” whereby a dating app user paints themselves in a unrealistically attractive way. Everyone jokes that social media allows us to create a fabricated image of our realities, and for the most part, this personal application of narrating one’s history may be harmless (unless, perhaps, you’re the kitten fisher’s unexpecting date).
However, the meme and hashtag culture are two examples of how social media can contribute to not only a warped perpetuation of American history, but also the viral spread of cultural appropriation, particularly of the African-American community. Author and activist bell hooks points to the virality of commodified black culture as a result of “American culture and mainstream culture as being obsessed with blackness, but it is blackness primarily in a commodified form that can then be possessed, owned, controlled, and shaped by the consumer and not with an engagement in black culture that might require one to be a participant and therefore to be in some way transformed by what you are consuming as opposed to being merely a buyer.” More often than not, looking at the internet at large, people of color are not heard or credited, their voices and ideas whitewashed, appropriated, or abused (many times, for profit).
Let’s start with the most recent example: the #metoo hashtag, which gained virality in
support of sexual assault awareness. The hashtag had over 12 million mentions in 24 hours, and experts are saying that the campaign has unequivocally changed Americans’ views on sexual assault and harassment. Initial credit went to actress Alyssa Milano, whose attempt at a similar movement failed earlier this month with #WomenBoycottTwitter, which was criticized by many for its perpetuation of silence as a mode of (ineffective) protest, particularly among an already silenced Twitter community. However, the real origins of #metoo rest with Tarana Burke, program director for Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity, who began the movement over 10 years ago. While some sites and social media users continue to focus the story on the actress, Milano has since attributed credit to Burke. This, unfortunately, is a rarity: publicly acknowledging a hashtag or viral campaign’s roots, particularly when those roots trace back to people of color.
Countless unaddressed examples persist (and I’m not even going to get into autotuning and eyewitness exploitation). Who’s used the hashtags #onfleek, #yaskween, #squadgoals, or terms like “bae” or “twerk”? Do you know the origins of these terms, or their usage implications? #onfleek, for example, came from then 16-year-old Vine contributor Kayla Newman, in a video where she says, “We in this bitch. Finna get crunk. Eyebrows on fleek. Da fuq.” The video garnered 36 million loops on Vine before being
uploaded to YouTube by a random viewer and generating over 3 million views. It was then used by everyone from IHOP to Ariana Grande, with Newman seeing none of the profits—illustrating a world where young African-Americans create content, “generate culture, and then go uncompensated as their style and tastes are usurped by a corporate machine hungry for Black Cool” according to Doreen St. Felix of Fader. Of course, none of this appropriation is new (consider, for example, blues and rap music); it’s just more easily viral now, especially with outdated copyright laws that favor large corporations with cash to spend (Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s misuse of the hashtag #staywoke is a glaring example of this, where at a Code Conference he defined the term with no reference to its origins, then gave away “#staywoke” Twitter-branded t-shirts (all while Twitter remains a “politically neutral” platform)).
Beyond the argument for recognizing and compensating innovation (a very important one, at that), the co-opting of memes such as this one, while not new, perpetuates cultural appropriation, and at large, racism. As journalist Giselle Defares puts it, “the nature of internet virality ensures that black user-generated content will more quickly infiltrate mainstream white media. Once these words enter the white domain, they’ve reached their peak—many use these words without acknowledging their origin, or even understanding its background or context.” The internet welcomes rapid and constant exchange, but there’s a difference between cultural appreciation and appropriation in sharing and using these memes. Actress Amandla Stenberg (of Hunger Games fame) defines the difference clearly when she says, “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they are partaking in.”
In a world of virality, things spread fast. Unlike genes, however, memes are rarely copied exactly, and given their staying power, humans can’t afford to claim helplessness or lack of responsibility by viewing memes as autonomous creatures with minds of their own. If we seek to better understand our power and responsibility as consumers, hosts, and agents of virality, we can attempt to shape this online world for the better. Otherwise, we’re essentially turning social media into one big Texas textbook, where facts are filtered or appropriated and majority populations continue to dominate the discourse. Author Daisy Hernandez advises: “Every time [white people] are texting, tweeting or Facebooking, they are making choices about words and the stories we tell about race…I try to raise awareness that we’re trafficking in racial ideology 24-7 online—and that we can change the direction of these conversations every time we hit ‘comment.’”
It would be irresponsible and ignorant of me to paint this issue as merely one of anthropological or academic importance, so let’s be clear that this is a real, systemic, and everyday problem (take recent events at Boston College, for example). We (I’m looking at you, my white, generally well-off peers) need to think more carefully about how we consume, create, and perpetuate content, as well as how we foster our online and offline communities (only 6% of white Americans say the content they see is often about race, for example, compared to 1 in 4 black users and 1 in 6 latinx users). To return to Conway’s argument about the history curriculum once more: learning from the past and present to change the future lies in listening to others’ stories, educating oneself, and sharing knowledge. And in doing so, we all know that no matter where or when the situation (especially in the online world of virality), it’s critical to not only consider the origins of the information, but to also give full credit to one’s sources.