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Please Shake Responsibly: The “Harlem Shake” and Cultural Responsibility

You’ve probably seen the videos by now. It starts off with an individual dancing quite reservedly by him or herself for about 15 seconds. In the background are other people who seem unaware. Once the bass drops, suddenly there is a crowd of people dancing. They’re sometimes clad in ridiculous costumes, flailing, wiggling, and shaking about to no particular rhythm. The irony? None of them are actually doing the Harlem Shake or anything that remotely resembles the Shake.

I was pretty late getting to this viral meme phenomenon. As I perused youtube video after youtube video, I kept wondering in frustration, “Why are they never actually doing the Shake?”

If you don’t know, the Harlem Shake is an actual dance. It was born in Harlem in 1981 and is a vibrant African-American dance. I remember trying to learn the Shake in my middle-school through high school years. Alas, I was an Asian-American girl growing up in white suburbia. It was never meant to be.

While these video memes have gone viral and admittedly are very fun to watch, they’ve also been responded to with strong criticism. It’s been called, “an absolute mockery”, “disrespectful”, “foolish” etc. In my Facebook and twitter feeds, similar criticisms have surfaced. Among these posts have been my own criticisms. Granted, haters… will alway hate… But I feel in this situation, there’s an important message about culture that isn’t being heard.

What it comes down to is this: Cultural responsibility.

I think if it had gone by any other name and paired with a song titled under any other name, this wouldn’t really be subject to any criticism at all. Because it looks, and probably is, a lot of fun. Hence the viralness. But calling it something it isn’t, well that’s like ordering Chicken Souvlaki in a cafeteria and getting a couple of horribly dry chunks of chicken drowning in some mystery sauce. …That was a personally specific example… drawing from a recent embittering experience. There are probably better ones out there… I’ll think of them later. But it mocks what the product truly is with all its cultural glory, history, and the people it belongs to.

My frustration is more with our society’s tendency to borrow cultural artifacts from subcultures and what results is a product that is completely stripped of its origins. We do it so often and we don’t give a crap.

I’m not advocating that we must cease and desist with this particular meme. I don’t think anyone really has made a “Harlem Shake” video with the malicious intent of making a mockery of a part of African-American history but it comes down to giving it its due respect. It’s something that means something to a group of people. It’s part of their history. It has a particular cultural meaning to them. Have some respect. 

Other critics have expressed their concern that the real Harlem Shake will be overshadowed and pushed out of search results by the viral video. That is a legitimate concern. When I expressed some frustration over the meme on a Facebook status, a friend commented that she didn’t actually know what the Shake was. So naturally, I went to Youtube to look up a video to show her. Only when I searched “Harlem Shake”, I went through page after page of the “Harlem Shake” meme. The real Shake was literally pushed out of the results. I ended up having to look up a specific music video that featured the real dance.

And so my complaint isn’t so much about a specific race issue. I don’t think that’s the issue at all. And I suppose it leads into the over-arching question of how to be responsible users in the internet world. When do internet memes cross the line into cultural insensitivity and mockery? How do we engage with this internet meme culture responsibly while honoring people and their cultural background?

In the meantime, please shake responsibly.

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