You didn’t have to follow the Students4Justice sit-in or listen to LSA junior Evan Rosen, who ran for Central Student Government president with the Movement party, completely dismiss people who were offended by his controversial campaign video to know that this campus has a problem when it comes to empathizing with students of color. Both deliberately and unknowingly pushing marginalized students further into the periphery is a theme that runs deep among the University of Michigan’s cautious administration and 65 percent white population. It was therefore not surprising when this theme manifested itself more recently in an unlikely place: a collegiate meme page. 

I was lucky (or maybe unlucky) enough to witness the chaos firsthand. Some context: Last month, I received a message from my friend, who had created a page called “UMich Memes for Edgy Teens” (inspired by the smash-hit, “UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens”). He asked me to moderate it and, reluctantly, I agreed.

The content started slow — a Diag squirrel meme here, a post about Canvas there. Students poked fun at Greek life, dining hall food and their own binge-drinking habits. For a week or so, it was a tight-knit community of close friends and acquaintances bonding over shared experiences. It served primarily as a place to laugh, vent and seek validation from peers.

Then it started to pick up. Soon, I was receiving requests to join every five minutes, and I even noticed students browsing the page in lecture and tagging each other in posts. The content was evolving as well, from broad and simple to niche and creative. My friend had seemingly developed quite the phenomenon, and the group was on a trajectory to grow exponentially — until out of nowhere, just weeks after its inception, the page crashed and burned with greater intensity than it began.

The conflict arose when some members began posting memes about University President Mark Schlissel — some of which appropriated African American Vernacular English — that glorified him in a way that made me a little uneasy. While there did not appear to be any malicious intent, students of color on the page were uncomfortable with their fellow students jokingly praising someone they felt had failed to advocate on their behalf time and time again. It appeared as though their concerns were being trivialized. The tension reached a breaking point when those students spoke up about their frustration in a post and were met with resistance — specifically, over 100 comments of resistance.

Frankly, it was cringe-worthy and alarming to watch people who were supposedly just there to have fun get so worked up when confronted with the possibility that their definition of fun was exclusive and even offensive. Even the more nuanced and sensitive arguments of the opposition seemed to admonish people they felt were ruining the lighthearted nature of the page.

As students continued to make exasperated pleas for the memes to stop, some members were quick to comply (one tried to divert the attention to another University icon: the Cube), while others were not so willing to bury the hatchet. Meanwhile, moderators (myself included) were in a frenzy, debating whether or not to archive the page in a private group chat. We worried that there were only a few of us and too many members to moderate properly. After all, we weren’t really edgy teens; we were sensitive adults, at best.

The group folded in on itself because most of the members who clashed with students of color on the page did not seem to grasp the notion that they were actively contributing to a system of oppression that reaches so far beyond the realm of comedy. What they did not understand is, in cases such as this, the “fun” we are having is at the expense of marginalized groups, and it is rooted in our ability to poke fun at things that they understandably cannot dissociate from enough to find humorous.

To some, a meme glorifying the president of the University may have been hilarious, but to others, it is a reminder of their constant struggle to be heard by an administration that doesn’t always prioritize their safety and inclusion. The conflict on the page could be chalked up to people refusing to sacrifice their sense of humor for other people’s well-beings — the conflict on campus more broadly can be chalked up to people refusing to inconvenience themselves for the sake of helping people of color feel comfortable and secure at their own school.

Eventually, the mod team decided to delete the group following the conflict. From the page came two main offshoots: “UMich Memes For Edgy Teens who are ACTUALLY Edgy” (a group that claims in its description that it is “not a safe space”) and “Now THAT’S What I Call ‘Edgy Memes for UMich Teens’ VOLUME 2.” The former continues to post Schlissel memes, while the latter has banned them.

Obviously, something as trivial as a meme page doesn’t really matter in the big picture. However, the more I analyze the situation, the more I realize that the implosion of “UMich Memes for Edgy Teens” is representative of students more broadly brushing off the very real concerns raised by people of color because they “ruin the fun” or “take things too seriously.” When you don’t suffer at the hands of pervasive systems of oppression every day, of course you find it easier to turn those systems or symbols of those systems into something humorous. It’s easy to separate yourself from that thing, to laugh at it. However, not everyone has that luxury. To listen and empathize with those who may feel excluded or offended by your humor is not a buzzkill: It’s just a decent thing to do. Go back to posting about Diag squirrels, please.

Lauren Schandevel can be reached at schandla@umich.edu.

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