The first version of the Harlem Shake I saw was this one: The Harlem Shake, Aspen Style. It was on facebook; a local friend of mine had been witness to it, thought it was hilarious, and was trying to round up some folks to do the shake at another local ski resort. I wasn't sure what the draw was, was kind of curious as to that weird scratchy feeling in my gut, then kind of/sort of decided I was merely reacting from that same space inside of me that refuses to wear tutus and wigs to parties.
That same scratch scratched some more throughout the day and the week after. It stayed in my mind, was sticking around my gut. So many people who I personally knew thought the Harlem Shake was funny. More and more videos were popping up on facebook. Their kids were doing the dance at daycare. Their grandparents were doing the shake at nursing homes. People were doing it on mountains and on beaches and on driveways and at basketball games and pretty much anywhere and everywhere.
If so many people were doing it, it must have been okay. Right? Right?
At one point I wondered what the folks in Harlem were thinking, but didn't pay much attention to it (here's a quick video I just recently found showing some of those thoughts). I wasn't seeing anything anywhere that was saying this was wrong... that something was missing or out of place. It was just a lot of mostly White people wearing costumes and prancing about, convulsing about, doing whatever about. Sort of resembled some of the college dances I attended back in the day. No harm being done.
Then I saw this video- the real Harlem Shake. And it got my brain going and the connections going and the word "racism" going. As soon as Jason came downstairs that morning, I asked him if he had watched the Harlem Shake and what he thought about it. We started picking at our teeth and figuring stuff out.
The very word "Harlem" implies much. It implies people. A place. A culture.
Harlem is not White. It is not me and it's probably not you. It's not the people throwing themselves around in Aspen, Colorado. It is not the culture one is immersed in while on the beaches of Miami, Florida. It's not the daycare down the street.
Harlem is not spastic. It's not a joke, nor is it full of tutus and Northface ski suits.
I have never been to Harlem. I don't know what it feels like to walk down those streets. I don't know what the people who live there would think of me, or what I would think of them. But I do know that it's not mine to change any way I see fit. It's not mine to make fun of and portray in a way that implies stupidity.
The people of Harlem are not idiots convulsing on the ground. I wonder, then, what makes the White person decide that it's okay to portray them as such? To make such a mockery?
Let's step up to the box and spread the word: if you're doing the Harlem Shake, you've maybe got something racist stuck in your teeth. Take it out and let others know. Do it out of respect- for you, for them, for everyone.
(here's a great blogpost if you're interested in reading more: Racism, Appropriation, and The Harlem Shake)