“The thing about memes is that through repetition, they create a shared language,” says Dr. Julie Levin Russo, an adjunct assistant professor at Brown’s Modern Culture & Media Program. “If you understand the premise of the meme, you can communicate a lot very easily, with whatever twist you’re putting on the meme structure.”
On Jan 4, the “Shit Girls Say” meme was radically transformed. New York-based graphic designer & video blogger Franchesca Ramsey a.k.a. Chescaleigh unleashed “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls”, and it blew up the Internet. In the video, Ramsey plays her blonde-haired white friend who she portrays as curiously confused, and innocently ignorant. “Why isn’t there a white entertainment television? The Jews were slaves too, and you don’t hear us complaining all the time,” Chescaleigh-as-white-girl asks the camera. Her white friend is completely unaware of fundamental cultural and racial differences between her and her black friend. It’s these awkward moments that fuel the humor in this viral video.
When Franchesca appeared on Anderson Cooper a few days after the video blew up, Cooper asked *the question* that mainstream media was dying to know: Is the video racist?
“I don’t think that talking about ignorance is racist,” Franchesca tells Cooper. “And like I said, I’m not labeling anyone racist because that would infer that the statements were saying someone was better than another race – and that’s not what any of the statements are doing.” Shortly after her Anderson Cooper appearance, Franchesca produced a sequel, “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls Part 2.”
Soon, more “Shit X Says to Y” versions of the meme began to appear. “Shit White Girls Say to Brown (Desi/Indian) Girls” features an Indian woman portraying her white girlfriend, who asks questions like “Do you want to go to 7-11? Oh oops, is that racist?” It is cutting, and points to some of the underlying racism that Indian-Americans experience regularly.
In “Shit White Guys Say to Asian Girls,” actor/comedian Cindy Fang dresses in drag, playing a white dude and points out some of the obnoxious, arrogant statements that some white guys say to Asian women. “Sorry, I have a hard time telling Asians apart,” she says, with a tone that conveys how the white guy she is portraying doesn’t feel like trying to educate himself. He is blissful in his ignorance. And then, a blatantly, unapologetically racist statement: “Why do they call it Bangkok? They should call it Bang Pussy!!!”
Of course, it’s just comedy – and the talented Fang masterfully exaggerates these statements to hammer home the crass, yet serious jokes. “Shit White Guys Say to Asian Girls” takes swipes at sex and race relations. It’s almost as upsetting as “Shit Asian Girls Say,” another version of the original “Shit Girls Say” meme.
In Latoya Peterson’s blog post “Exploring the Problematic and Subversive Shit People Say [Meme-ology]” on Racialicious, she notes that it isn’t until “Shit Black Gays Say” (and part 2) and “Shit Southern Gay Guys Say” that the viewer starts to see the performer’s subjective interpretation of themselves.
“It’s notable that these videos are the principals representing themselves (as opposed to someone else’s interpretation of them), perhaps since these groups are still so invisible in the public eye that no one else but them could speak to their experience,” writes Peterson.
How “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls” Shifted the Conversation
“There’s a way in which the meme format allows for more granular renditions of identity than you often see in mass culture,” says Professor Russo.
Chescaleigh’s video shifted the focus from the narrator as subject to the narrator as a vehicle for social critique. Now X is saying something to Y. Other iterations of the meme show X speaking for themselves, or portraying the stereotypical subject in drag. “Shit White Girls Say…to Arab Girls” follows the same format as Chescaleigh’s video – a white girl gets to hear how she sounds to her Arab friends.
“Do you know the guy at the liquor store? I mean, I assume you guys all know each other,” says the Arab girl portraying her white friend in “Shit White Girls Say…to Arab Girls”. “I’ve never met one of you before! I mean, I’ve seen Arabs on TV…on the news. Was 9/11 your fault?”
Writing for The Guardian, Thea Lim points out that the statements in all of these videos imply a sort of “friendly prejudice”:
What’s friendly prejudice? The most common defence of racism is: “But I didn’t intend to be racist.” This response relies on the idea that if we didn’t intend to offend someone, then their feelings can’t possibly be hurt. The Shit X Says to Y videos are delightfully validating because they show that those with the genuinely lovely intentions of being your friend and seeking commonality with you can still be rude and hurtful.
A commenter on the NPR story that questioned if Franchesca’s video was “racist” tried the good ol’ “role reversal” trick (that always fails), which attempts to deny the existence of white privilege. “If the roles were reversed…Jesse [Jackson] & [Al] Sharpton, would be involved, lawsuits filed, perhaps riots…”. Says Lim:
The reason why relationships between white and non-white people, or straight people and gay people are fraught, is because of our history – long gone, recent or ongoing. Racist, homophobic or simply thoughtless comments are insulting not just in and of themselves, but because they are a bilious reminder of the times when straight, white people have dehumanised and denied other groups their human rights. Of course, non-white and gay people can say nasty or even prejudicial things to white and straight people, but those things don’t deliver the sting that comes from decades of being on the wrong end of an unequal relationship.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I have watched my friends react to these videos with anger and sadness. I have seen other friends shout “That’s me! That totally happened to me.” Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. The most important aspect of these videos, however, is that people are actually reacting to them, and sharing them with their friends. They’re easy conversation starters, a segue into sharing painful experiences past and present.
We all have culturally biased perspectives and cultural baggage. No one comes to the table without their past experiences. The “Shit X Says to Y” iteration of the “Shit People Say” meme forces everyone to acknowledge this. At least humor helps everyone move through the initial strange moments that could lead into meaningful conversations about this meme.
But are we ready for this?
In her post on Racialicous, Peterson points out that, still, “Shit Girls Say” and “Shit Black Girls Say” received a lot more views than their “Shit X Says to Y” social commentary videos. “Maybe that’s because, as a culture, we are accustomed to laughing at stereotypes,” writes Peterson, “but we aren’t prepared to unpack how we perpetuate them.”
After a few weeks of Internet madness, the noise died down. Conversations about this meme started to feel stale. The Internet went back to its usual, easy, Twitter-rific type humor. I started seeing these videos on my Facebook news feed: “Shit New Yorkers Say” and “Shit Chicagoans Say.” But it’s only a matter of time before things start up again.
Image via Chescaleigh’s Facebook page.