The 'Harlem Shake' meme shows how the Internet overrides race

OPINION - Harlem residents have voiced their disdain for the Harlem Shake meme, declaring that the silly dance is not the true Harlem Shake, that the makers of the Harlem meme aren't from Harlem, and that they are, in fact, making a mockery of those who are...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Everybody knows, or can at least guess with little effort, that the Harlem Shake originated in Harlem. You can find the Harlem Shake in several videos popularized by Diddy and members of his Bad Boy label in the early naughts. It is a series of controlled jerk movements that permit the body to contort, then pause beautifully at just the right moments of a musical beat. But, that was then.

Now, the Harlem Shake that’s drawing fire in people’s mouths, is a meme that has racked up over 170 million views on YouTube, across various channels. Today’s Harlem Shake is a viral series that starts with someone, anyone (and in some cases, even a laundry machine) dancing alone with random jerk movements, and then everyone around that person pretending to ignore him or her, before joining in the dance.

Some Harlem residents have voiced their disdain for the Harlem Shake meme, declaring that the silly dance is not the true Harlem Shake, that the makers of the Harlem meme aren’t from Harlem, don’t live in Harlem, and that they are, in fact, making a mockery of those who do.

Fine, they are right to acknowledge the sordid history of cultural products being seized from, and mass-produced at the expense of, such neighborhoods as Harlem. However, their reaction begs the glaring question of whether the new age Internet lives by their rules of race and cultural categories. The answer to that question is simply no. The Internet produces and will continue to birth cultural phenomena, such as the Harlem Shake meme, that blur the lines of race and culture.

Furthermore, three of the four guys in the original Harlem Shake meme that some residents were shown are masked, so their race and background are not apparent. If these guys are mostly masked, how does the community of Harlem residents that reacted to their video know whether they are “from Harlem” or not? They don’t.

The Harlem residents should accept, instead, that it’s not impossible that anybody from anywhere can create a video that draws universal interest. As a matter of fact, Jimmy Fallon has performed the Harlem Shake meme with his staff, Anderson Cooper has done it, and Usain Bolt has done it. And, the upload rate of Harlem Shake memes has reached 4,000 YouTube uploads a day, videos created by people of every color.

As such, the race and “authenticity” of any four clowns with a Harlem Shake meme is not so much as important as the fact that they make you laugh. The Internet is a ripe place for escapism. It is also a hotbed for intertextuality: the aspect of borrowing and transforming one idea into something new, an infinite number of times.

Unlike traditional television, in which one thematized channel displays carefully controlled images of that channel’s theme, e.g. BET is for “black entertainment” and MTV is for “youth-oriented programming,” the Internet has no qualms about doing whatever it feels like and having everybody of every race participate how ever.

Even the specifically gender-based and race-based memes “Stuff Girls Say,” “Stuff Black Girls Say,” “Stuff White Girls Say to Black Girls,” and their follow-ups blurred race and gender lines by satirically featuring guys dressed as girls, and black girls dressed in blonde girl attire.

The point here is not that the Internet is all about random mayhem (although that’s certainly not off the table). It’s that access to racial and cultural information makes people less afraid of it, and more experimental with it: especially thanks to web videos.

China Okasi is a regular television news contributor and new media expert who focuses on women-based audiences. She has built and sold several high-revenue websites, and newly launched The Daily Mocha. China is the executive director of the Women Of Media organization, and a forthcoming author.