UMass RAs Call Harambe Jokes ‘Micro-Aggressions,’ Potential Title IX Violations

Harambe is also the name of an African American heritage floor.

Photo via iStock/IlexImage

Photo via iStock/IlexImage

Like the Rickroll and Crying Jordan before it, the Harambe meme is worn out. Like, Orange Line upholstery worn out.

The gorilla was shot and killed by staff at the Cincinnati Zoo in May, after a three-year-old boy fell into his enclosure. Harambe’s death was initially met with outrage from animal lovers, but the phenomenon has since taken an ironic slant in its internet afterlife, suggesting he died for our sins, or that some authority figure, be it former President George W. Bush or NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, was responsible for his untimely death.

In a recent email to incoming students, RAs at UMass Amhert’s Sycamore Hall said that not only are Harambe jokes written on whiteboards an attack on the school’s African American students, but they could constitute a Title IX violation as well.

“We understand that social media has been popularizing Harambe in some crude ways, which may appear as funny to groups of people,” the RAs wrote. “However, these comments are not only derogatory, but also micro-aggressions to some UMass Students.”

The email notes that UMass Amherst offers “defined residential communities,” or DRPs, in which those of similar ethnic backgrounds or identities may live together. The name of the DRP for African American students is the “Harambe” floor, after the Swahili word that means the “point where people pull together.”

“It has a very positive connotations, but current social media has been misrepresenting it,” the email says. “The floor has been in existence for many years, so any negative remarks regarding ‘Harambe’ will be seen as a direct attack to our campus’s [sic] African-American community. Please be careful of what gets written on your whiteboards, as well as what you write on them.”

Now, there is precedent for the Harambe meme to be invoked in racist attacks. When alt-right blogger Milo Yiannopoulos’s legion of online trolls targeted comedian Leslie Jones on Twitter, they repeatedly compared the Ghostbusters star to the gorilla.

The RAs suggested that a popular iteration of the meme, “Dicks out for Harambe,” could constitute a violation of federal Title IX guidelines. Signed into law in 1972, Title IX mandates that every school establish a procedure for handling sexual discrimination, harassment, and violence on campus. Schools must designate a publicly accessible Title IX coordinator to field complaints, and make arrangements to ensure that the victim can continue their studies.

“To be very clear: using popularizes phrases/hashtags which encourage the exposition of body parts runs the risk of being reported as a Title IX incident. These are sexual 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!”

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, UMass Amherst said that, “as an institution that values free speech and the exchange of ideas,” the school has not banned any jokes or references to Harambe.

“The email sent by two well-intentioned undergraduate student resident assistants was a cautionary attempt to advise new students on their floor that the Harambe reference could be considered offensive to residents of the campus’s Harambee community, a residential program focused on African and African-American history and culture, and that all students should be treated with respect and civility,” the statement said. “The resident assistants were upholding their responsibility to encourage an inclusive living environment for the students on their floor.”