Shaking Off the “Harlem Shake” Meme: Tools for Resisting Cultural Appropriation

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Last night I had the incredible honor to participate in a panel at Hamline University entitled “The Harlem Shake as Blackface: A Critical Look at Cultural Appropriation.”  Some truly inspiring and powerful voices spoke their truth about the problems with, dangers in, and hurt that stems from cultural appropriation like that of the Harlem Shake meme (shout outs to Dr. Daniel White Hodge, Mia Jackman, DJ Francisco, Chris McQuire, Mariah Kenya Cannon, Dr. Don C. Sawyer III, Ryan Willians-Virden, and Antoine Duke for speaking their powerful testimonies and truths).

Once the video of the event is out, I will make sure I publish it here on the blog.

As others in the panel responded to oft-asked questions like, “What’s the big deal? It’s just dancing!” and “What is this cultural appropriation thing anyway?”, I spoke to a question that I’ve been answering a lot since I published “Racism, Appropriation, and The Harlem Shake: “What am I supposed to do to resist/stop cultural appropriation?”

To be clear, every single time that I’ve been asked this question, it’s come from a White person, and most often it came from a place of defensiveness.  While many folks of Color know exactly what they need to do to hold onto their cultures and preserve them in spite of White appropriation, we as White folks (even the most well-meaning among us) are usually clueless about how we can resist this subtle form of racism.

Because I’ve been getting the question quite often, I figure it would be easier to respond here publicly.  That said, I am by no means an expert, so if you have ideas or suggestions for people to resist racist cultural appropriation, please share them in the comments.

How People of Racial Privilege can Resist Cultural Appropriation

1. Listen to Varied Voices and Perspectives of Color

Cultural appropriation is, at its root, more often a product of ignorance than of malice, but that doesn’t make it any less harmful in its impact.  If people of privilege like myself did a better job of listening to and educating ourselves about the varied perspectives of people of Color, we would be MUCH less likely to act in ways that further appropriate cultural expressions from their roots and locus of control in communities of Color.

HOWEVER, this does not mean we should be going up to people of Color and saying, “Please teach me! I don’t want to be a racist any more!”  Frankly, folks of Color are tired of having to educate us about history, oppression, privilege, and justice.

There are lots of ways for us to listen.  As noted by Mychal Denzel Smith in his brilliant article “White People Need to Give Up Racism,” “White people have to diversify their media consumption.”  We need to read, listen to, watch, and reflect on the voices of a variety of people of Color in our media consumption.  If you want some suggestions of where to start, Smith offers some good ideas in his article.

And when we DO find ourselves in a position to listen to people of Color speak their truths, we need to shut up, listen, and stop thinking of ways that we can simply respond or push back.

In the case of the Harlem Shake meme, if more of the White folks who helped to launch this meme were aware of the life-saving force that hip hop music and dance has been in Harlem and of the history of the dance itself and of the ways that the culture of folks of Color is regularly stolen and repackaged by White folks, I like to think that most of them would have been less likely to participate.

We must remember that listening is the root of justice.

2.  Choose Not to Participate

A few weeks ago I was at a conference, and people spontaneously decided to shoot a “Harlem Shake” meme video. It wasn’t exactly a situation where I could stop everyone, sit them down, and engage them in a critical conversation about cultural appropriation.  So what could I do?

Well, I stood to the side.  A few people asked me waved me over, and I just shook my head.  That lead to a few others asking me why I didn’t want to join.  That opened the door for a more critical conversation.

Sometimes the most important action we can take is inaction.  By refusing to participate, we can empower others who are unsure, or we can open a conversation about the problematic nature of appropriation.

3.  Apologize and Do Better

At the event last night, Chris McGuire, creator of the “Harlem Reacts to the Harlem Shake” video, noted that before he gained a more critical perspective, he had participated in one of the “Harlem Shake” meme videos.  Since then, though, he has worked hard to ally himself as a White person to folks in Harlem, and he is currently using his videos to help spread the word about a Harlem-initiated project to start a dance studio and creative space in Harlem (visit to learn more).

The reality is that the default place for people of identity privilege in a system of oppression is participation in oppressing others.  Whether we mean to or not, our very existence can serve to facilitate oppression – that is unless we actively participate in resistance and ally ourselves to anti-oppressive causes and movements.

But because our natural state is one of oppression, it is easy for people of Privilege like myself to fuck up, to make serious mistakes and hurt people, even when we’re trying to be good allies.

As a result, one of the best pieces of advice as a person of privilege in anti-oppression movements came from a professor in college. She told me, “Jamie, you’re going to fuck up. A lot. So when you do, you need to apologize accountably, pick yourself up, and do better, earning back the respect and trust of those with whom you’re trying to be an ally.”

4. Talk to Your Own People

A lot of people, particularly White people, didn’t like my article on the “Harlem Shake” meme.  In discussion in the comments and on Twitter and Facebook, people called me racist against White people, overly-sensitive, and idiotic.

And when I wrote it, I knew it wouldn’t be received well by some people because of the way that it challenges their subject position as folks of privilege.  And I even knew that there would be some people of Color, including some people of Color from Harlem, who didn’t agree with me or my approach.

But I have spent a great deal of time listening to and learning from voices of Color speaking out against cultural appropriation, so the responsibility has shifted to me to work with White people to transform our role from participants and consumers of cultural appropriation to allies active in the resistance.

I knew I needed to say something because as a White person who is on the path toward being an anti-racist ally, it is my responsibility to talk to people who share my identity, and I cannot wait for or expect people of Color to educate or confront White folks.  As White people, we must create and sustain an ethic of anti-racist accountability.

5. Create Accountable Relationships Across Difference

One of the more common reactions to allegations of cultural appropriation from those who wish to defend it is this: “So what you are saying is that I have to stick exclusively to my culture and you to yours.  We should never share and never grow together?  That’s racism!”

In fact, that is the opposite of what I am saying.  If there was a process of sharing and collaboration, it would be much less likely that said action was appropriation.

Appropriation is when someone of privilege or power takes a cultural expression from another group without their permission and divorces it from its history and meaning.  Nothing about that speaks to sharing and collaboration.

One of the most powerful ways to resist appropriation is to create accountable relationships across difference. In doing so, we can share our culture, learn from one another’s culture, and build incredible synergy and collaboration!

For instance, if a White hip hop artist is grounded in a community of Color and works regularly and in accountable ways with artists of Color, they are significantly less likely to be appropriative in their work.  Such a community would ensure that the White artist was held accountable to hip hop’s history and living expression in liberation and agency in communities of Color. On the other hand, if a White kid in the suburbs with no connection to people of Color or to the history of hip hop fancies himself an emcee and starts spitting rhymes, imitating but not connecting or collaborating in hip hop, that’s appropriation.

Now, just because you have some friends who are Black or Indigenous does not mean that you can simply start stealing their dress, talk, art, or history.  However, if you are part of a truly accountable anti-racist community, there will be ways in which you can share and learn together.

6. Participate in Creative Resistance!

The internet has incredible power to be used for good or not-so-good.  The “Harlem Shake” meme?  Not-so-good.  However, some people have found ways to use the meme against itself to educate people about the REAL Harlem Shake.

Similarly, last summer I was asked to give a keynote at a conference about creative and fun ways to engage people in sexual violence prevention.  This was right in the midst of the “Call Me Maybe” mania where everyone, including the US Olympic Swim Team, were remaking the song in one way or another.

Well, my friends and I came up with this:

It didn’t exactly go viral, but it’s reached 4,600 people to date, far more than the few hundred who attended the conference it was made for.

The point is that we don’t just need to be consumers of culture.  We can be creators of resistance culture.

There are countless examples but to highlight one, we can follow the lead of the 1491s, an Indigenous-led sketch comedy troupe that has made numerous amazing videos that push back on appropriation and racism.

Got other ideas for resisting cultural appropriation? Share them in the comments!


5 thoughts on “Shaking Off the “Harlem Shake” Meme: Tools for Resisting Cultural Appropriation

  1. Thanks, Jamie. These are some tough conversations to wade through and so articles like these really help. Thanks for being willing to take the heat to strike up the conversation.

  2. […] For a few tools to help in resisting cultural appropriation like this, check out “Shaking Off the ‘Harlem Shake’ Meme: Tools for Resisting Cultural Appropriation.” […]

  3. Thank you! I really appreciate this conversation.

  4. […] “Racism, Appropriation, and the Harlem Shake.”  The panel inspired me to write “Shaking Off the ‘Harlem Shake’ Meme: Tools for Resisting Cultural Appropriation,” but the most powerful perspectives on that panel were not mine, so I wanted to make sure my […]

  5. […] 10. Shaking Off the “Harlem Shake” Meme – Tools for Resisting Cultural Appropriation […]

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