If you’ve been on Facebook recently, you’ve probably noticed an event titled “Harambe Candlelight Vigil – McGill.” The event stems from the Harambe meme, which ironically memorializes a gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo who was shot and killed by a zoo worker in April 2016 after a child fell into the enclosure. The Harambe meme has been used countless times to perpetrate anti-Black microaggressions and reinforce stereotypes, and by allowing and encouraging this event to occur on campus, the student body is making McGill a more hostile environment for Black students.
It may not immediately be clear why the Harambe meme is anti-Black. The meme decentres and trivializes anti-Black police violence, and perpetuates the idea of Black people as subhuman. The child that fell into the enclosure was Black, and the exaggerated outrage over killing Harambe implies that the life of a gorilla is more important than that of a Black child – this is happening while mainstream media barely covers Black people being murdered in the U.S.. Additionally, the media and public blamed the parents and scrutinized the father’s criminal record, in a way that would not have occurred had the parents been white. Further, the implicit comparison between Black people and gorillas is significant due to both its historical and contemporary uses; for example, the meme was recently used in racist attacks against Black actress Leslie Jones on Twitter.
People may argue that memes are harmless, but they don’t exist in a vacuum. Popular culture and media cannot be separated from the political and social environments in which they are created, and sharing something that has been explicitly used in an anti-Black way is harmful. Some students argue that they’re attending the vigil because they’re sincerely upset over the death of an animal, and point out that the merchandise profits will go to the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund. However, there are ways to donate and express sadness over an animal’s death that don’t involve decentering anti-Black violence and racism.
It is disheartening that, at the time of writing, there are over 2,200 people going to the vigil – almost four times the number attending the Facebook event for the October 4 Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Indigenous women. McGill students should examine why they prioritize an ironic tribute to a dead animal over sincere events that address the violence that Black, Indigenous, and racialized people face. But McGill students are only part of the problem; Gerts – the campus bar owned by SSMU – will be hosting an official after party to the event. Racial microaggressions that are implicitly endorsed by our student union only continue to make McGill less welcoming to Black and racialized students.
The event should be deleted, and both SSMU and the organizers of the event should acknowledge the meme’s racist overtones. But whether or not that happens, non-Black students have a duty to withdraw their support for the event, and inform their friends of the meme’s implications. Students have a responsibility to make McGill a more welcoming environment for racialized people, and in this case, that includes clicking “not interested.”