Can an Internet Meme Be Considered ‘Racial Intimidation’?

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A group of fans at a high-school football game did something tasteless on Friday night. And now it’s all over the Internet — where their idea started in the first place.

After Kirtland High School defeated Thomas W. Harvey High School in Painesville, Ohio, a group of Kirtland fans put up a large banner that read “You Mad Bro.” Many of the others in attendance cried foul, calling it poor sportsmanship. (We won’t argue with that.) But a school superintendent and the president of a local NAACP branch told Fox 8 Cleveland that the banner was a form of “racial intimidation” and “ethnic intimidation.” But it wasn’t. It was just a joke that should have stayed on the Internet.

Allow NewsFeed to deconstruct this for you. According to Know Your Meme, which is essentially an encyclopedia for Internet trends, the “U MAD?” meme was inspired by a 2003 clip on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, when rapper Cam’ron appeared with producer Damon Dash. Amused by the fiery debate between Dash and O’Reilly over hip-hop’s effect on children, Cam’ron chuckled and effectively coined a new catchphrase. Watch a clip below.

(MORE: Know Your Meme: Your Guide to the Weird, Wild Web)

“U Mad” then spread on popular websites like 4chan and Reddit, and is still used to taunt fellow users for losing their cool. Gawker points out that it’s often just a way to tell a user to “calm down.” The phrase is often added to photos of people who seem to rise above endless Internet trolling; the result is a figure pointing and laughing at someone who is, well, mad. The Kirtland fans were just trying to get a rise out of their opponents after the big win.

We’re not arguing that painting “You Mad Bro” on a banner at a sports event is a classy move. It’s not. But it’s also not about race. A cursory Google Images search for “you mad bro” features a smorgasbord of public figures like Nicholas Cage, Rebecca Black, Morgan Freeman and even Muammar Gaddafi. No race, or even type of person, dominates; Spongebob Squarepants and a hippopotamus also make appearances. Though the meme started with an African-American teasing an on-air pundit, the joke wasn’t created to exploit race. It’s more like if Nelson from the Simpsons discovered the Internet.

So sure, the banner was poor sportsmanship, and perhaps some punishment is in order. But another point of the story here is that these kids brought an Internet joke into the mainstream, expecting everyone else to get the humor. First of all, such memes are easily misinterpreted, as seen here. (And the Fox reporter in question could have done more than just check Urban Dictionary, but that’s another story.) Second of all, the outcry effectively ruins the joke. A meme is an inside joke that’s inside for a reason. Most people won’t appreciate it without the proper context — and it could get you into much more trouble than a message-board argument.

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