CHICAGO — The internet is amazing, the internet is awful. It amplifies the general public’s internal thoughts, projecting them out into the cybersphere. This is how and where internet memes are born.
The latest internet fodder for comment threads and message boards is Charles Ramsey, a man who helped rescue three Cleveland women who were thought dead more than a decade ago. As of less than 24 hours ago, Ramsey was trending #6 on whatthetrend.com. Yet watching this video calls to mind the problematic stereotype of the “hilarious black neighbor,” as noted by Slate:
It’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform. Even before the genuinely heroic Ramsey came along, some viewers had expressed concern that the laughter directed at people like Sweet Brown plays into the most basic stereotyping of blacks as simple-minded ramblers living in the “ghetto,” socially out of step with the rest of educated America. Black or white, seeing Clark and Dodson merely as funny instances of random poor people talking nonsense is disrespectful at best. And shushing away the question of race seems like wishful thinking.
Ramsey’s awareness of racism in the American media is most definitely clear through this statement, which made the plump white ABC-7 anchorman and everyone else laugh uncomfortably. Says Ramsey when discussing the rescue: “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway!”
Internet media moments like these are the subject matter of Chicago-based artist James T. Greene‘s work, which focuses on self-identity, online engagement and our dependence upon technology. User-generated data, online objects, and social media at the intersection of race and American pop culture are ripe subject matter for Greene.
In #Character from his 2012 series BetaEyes, the artist picked apart black stereotypes by first filtering what was said on Twitter. Using the tool Twitpipe, he searched for key terms “black people,” “black guys” and “black girls,” and then let the screen do the work.
@RonTheAnchorman was retweeted quite a bit on September 28, 2012, the day that I viewed this exhibition at Columbia College’s Hokin Gallery:
Ron the Anchorman’s tweet is eerily close to what Ramsey said in his now-famous YouTube video. Somehow, on the internet it becomes more acceptable to shout and tweet and ‘like’ and LOL about these moments of failed understanding, instead making light of that which is in fact a very serious and sad reality of race relations in America.
Today a search for “black people” using search.twitter.com yields some results that mention Charles Ramsey, like this one.
And fast responses about the implied racism in this laugh were produced by those who knew the news would keep spreading quickly online.