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The Dangerous Meme

December 10, 2016

X: “Francesca where do you go to school?”


Y: “Rutgers University in New, Brunswick.”


X: “Isn’t that the hood?”




X: “Oh you live past Ray Street?”


Y: “Yeah.”


X: “I’ve heard there a lot of robberies there.”





X: “You’re over in East Village, yeah?”


Y: “Mhmm.”


X: “That’s such a nice area.”




X: “You’re over in Washington Heights, yeah?”


Y: “Mhmm.”


X: “Yikes.”





Air is negative space, but space itself is not inherently negative.


What if to the last question, instead of “yikes”, the response was a little closer to, “I’ve heard that’s a really up and coming place.” Or, “Wow, that area has such a rich history.”


Narratives perpetuate. 


Allison Blackwell wrote a piece entitled The Meme Machine. She describes imitation as a human function. We are constantly learning and doing through imitation. She says this replication of behavior drives culture. 


Now, the real author’s name is Susan Blackmore. If I hadn’t told you that, you would go on repeating the tale written by “Allison Blackwell”. Yet, Allison Blackwell did not write this and has no affiliation with the work. 


The thing about memes, says Blackmore is they replicate with the sole purpose of replicating. Memes, like genes, will only change through natural selection. She says, “According to memetics, our minds and cultures are designed by natural selection acting on memes, just as organisms are designed by natural selection acting on genes.”


These memes of cats, Tom Brady and Willy Wonka use the same image, yet the captions change. 


The change of caption, we can say is a form of natural selection. The same image exists, although its meaning and context is changed by the caption we assign to it. 


So then, here we are with an image of Washington Heights in Harlem on the island of Manhattan. But it’s the part of Manhattan that makes some say: “yikes”. 


What if we, like that Willy Wonka meme, embedded a new caption, a new response, a new label, a new narrative onto this image of Washington Heights neighborhood in Harlem on the island of Manhattan.


If we can change the caption of the meme, doesn’t the meme itself change?


Harlem, to those who have never stepped foot in the area, can just as well be a “vibrant place filled with rhythm and flavor” as it can be a “ghetto, red light district, the hood, or a dangerous neighborhood”. 


Positive narratives offer these spaces the room to manifest, grow and secure themselves as true inhabiters to those labels. I mean after all, space is just...space. Oxygen is not inherently dangerous unless it is polluted after all. 


Many stereotype “the alley” in the inner-city. Wait, aren’t alleys just throughways carved for trash collection?


Air is negative space, but space itself is not inherently negative.


Negative labels restrict the space and condense these spaces to ghettos, red light districts and so on. 


Even as the press’s founding principle rests on freedom and openness, these memes still perpetuate. The federal postal system acted as the network of information dissemination by delivering newspapers to households throughout early America. Even in its earliest days, the newspaper was a perpetuation of the white racial narrative, often appealing to the slaveholders’ bifocals by limiting inclusion of abolitionist narratives. From these early days to the present-day, the press has integrated into media conglomerates like Time Warner, Disney and Viacom, meanwhile shaping the narratives of Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian-Americans and the places which they inhabit. As investigated by Juan González and Joseph Torres in News For All The People, the foundation of stereotypes regarding minority people and minority neighborhoods lay in media’s address of these very places. 


We are then trapped inside a narrative bubble which denies the perspective of racial minorities and those alien-like places far too dangerous to offer a balanced story to. The exclusion of differing perspectives creates the “Barbarous Indian”, “Rebellious Negro”, “gang-bangers” and “The Fear City”. 


The predominantly white narrative does not ensure us a free and open press but might actually aim to censor it.

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