Let’s be honest. We have all either made a Harambe joke or laughed at a Harambe joke in the past several months. While the story involving the zoo animal and a young child was itself not comedic when it first went viral, the widespread reaction that the story shortly thereafter received was anything but unfunny. Many online memes and a decent amount of trolling began to surface surrounding the Harambe story. In fact, the joking became so ubiquitous that the director of the Cincinnati zoo, Thane Maynard, had to publicly implore everyone on the internet to keep their jokes to themselves.
Of course, those who ignored Maynard’s plea were faced with no consequences. Maynard was simply trying to shift the culture of the current dialogue; he was not seeking disciplinary action for those seeking to merely express a joke. At college campuses across the country, Maynard’s reasonableness in the face of controversy is not shared.
Back in early September, UMass-Amherst took a different approach. Residential advisors did not simply tell their students that Harambe jokes were unfunny. Written in a letter to the students in their residential area, the residential advisors told their students that Harambe jokes were microaggressions, and they suggested that such jokes were violations of Title IX.
According to Jarod Sasdi, a student who received the letter from these residential advisors, the call for censorship contained the following language: “Any negative remarks regarding ‘Harambe’ will be seen as a direct attack to our campus’s African American community. Please be careful what gets written on your whiteboards, as well as what you write on them. If you are not the one writing these remarks, please let us or the RA on duty know…To be very clear: using… phrases/hashtags which encourage the exposition of body parts runs the risk of being reported as a Title IX incident. These are sexual assault incidences that not only get reported to Community Standards, but also to the Dean of Students. Needless to say, it is a very serious incident—especially for a first year student!” The reference to the use of phrases that encourage the exposure of body parts applies to a common Harambe meme.
It is important to note that UMass has an African Heritage Student Community called Harambee. Nevertheless, these acts of censorship are being repeated at other schools as well. As reported by Caleb Ecarma, “a Clemson administrator sent an email to resident assistants Friday instructing them to demand that freshmen remove all Harambe references from dorm hallways and windows, claiming Harambe’s death has been used to ‘add to rape culture’ and can be ‘form of racism.'”
For students of authority and administrators to take such authoritative measures to stop a joke about a zoo animal is highly troubling. It is one thing to attempt to dissuade people from making inappropriate jokes, but it is entirely another matter to threaten them with federal violations and ban their comedic expression.