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Harambe Memes Racist? UMass Amherst RAs Ban Fallen Gorilla ‘Micro-Aggressions’

Harambe memes may have always been questionably tasteful, but resident advisors at UMass Amherst are cracking down on jokes spawned by the viral captioned images of the deceased gorilla.

It’s not, however, because of sentimental reasons like, say, the Cincinnati Zoo, where Harambe lived before his death. Rather it’s because of the way that phrases made popular by the gorilla memes can either be racist micro-aggressions, or, in some cases, violations of Title IX.

That’s according to the resident advisors “Colleen and Ryan,” who appear to have domain over the third floor of UMass Amherst’s Sycamore Hall, referred to as “Syc 3” in the letter. After an unnamed joke about Harambe was written on one or more whiteboards outside of the student’s dorm rooms, the pair sent out an email reminding students to be conscientious of the ways that their messages may be interpreted as micro-aggressions. Specifically, they called for a halt on any jokes linked to the inescapable gorilla memes.

The actions of the UMass RAs were at least partially related to the fact that Amherst hosts Defined Residential Communities (DRP), one of which shares the name “Harambe,” only in that case it is spelled “Harambee.” The moniker the group uses is actually a Swahili word meaning “the point where people pull together.” The collective is self-described as a way to “support students who are of African descent, identify within the African Diaspora and/or wish to learn more about African culture and celebrate different African Diaspora cultures.”

Mixing these two associations proved problematic for the UMass dorm authorities, resulting in the freshly arrived Amherst students being asked to report any Harambe-related messages that were written on their whiteboard.

“Any negative remarks regarding ‘Harambe’ will be seen as a direct attack to our campus’s African American community. Please be careful what gets written on your whiteboards, as well as what you write on them. If you are not the one writing these remarks, please let us or the RA on duty know.”

Taking into account that the warning advised against violating Title IX, specifically “encouraging the exposition of body parts,” one can deduce that the offending phrase may have been one of the most popular at the meme’s zenith: “d***s out for Harambe.” UMass Amherst students on Syc 3 were told that such messages could be classified as “sexual assault.”

“These are sexual assault incidences that not only get reported to Community Standards, but also to the Dean of Students. Needless to say, it is a very serious incident—especially for a first year student!”

While the UMass RAs’ conclusions may be debatable, there have been several clear instances of Harambe the gorilla memes linked to racism outside of Amherst. Two of the biggest targets were President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle — two figures who had, in the past, even been “simian-ized” by a Belgian newspaper. Most recently, the actress Leslie Jones suffered a brutal assault on Twitter that resulted in one of its ringleaders, conservative provocateur Milo Yiannapoulos, being banned from the platform.

Of course, Harambe memes didn’t originate the historic racist association between black people and gorillas. In both the arts and science, those of African origin were often depicted as “subhuman” or “less evolved” than their white counterparts. It’s an attitude that some say directly contributed to the continuation of slavery, reported The Conversation.

“Leading scientists of the day Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon, in their 1854 Types of Mankind, documented what they saw as objective racial hierarchies with illustrations comparing blacks to chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. As Stephen Jay Gould comments, the book was not a fringe document, but the leading American text on racial differences.”

Harambe memes may be an off-limits micro-aggression on at least one floor at UMass Amherst, but they’ve still remained popular online — despite pleas from the Cincinnati Zoo for them to cease.

[Photo via John Sommers II/Getty Image]

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