Earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) declared the “Pepe the Frog” meme to be a hate symbol. The ADL, an anti-bigotry organization that dedicates itself to the issues of anti-Semitism, racism and white supremacy, has a database of hate symbols called “Hate on Display.” The database catalogues a wide range of hate symbols, including those associated with violent organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups. More recently, “Hate on Display” has expanded to keep up with the rising tide of hate in the Internet “alt-right” community, meaning that the database must now include memes like Pepe the Frog.
The “Hate on Display” entry for Pepe the Frog details the history of Pepe’s descent into racism. It explains that “the Pepe the Frog character did not originally have racist or anti-Semitic connotations” and that “the majority of uses of Pepe the Frog have been, and continue to be, non-bigoted.” However, “as the meme proliferated in online venues such as 4chan, 8chan and Reddit, which have many users who delight in creating racist memes and imagery, a subset of Pepe memes came into existence that centered on racist, anti-Semitic or other bigoted themes.” In other words, what was once a stupid, benign joke that was shared between friends on the Internet was appropriated by racists until it became unusable for those with good intentions.
Unfortunately, the racist appropriation of non-bigoted imagery, symbolic culture and language is not an uncommon or new issue. Bigoted organizations have been taking advantage of previously unproblematic cultural symbols for at least a century. The classic example of this is the swastika, which was a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism before it was appropriated by the Nazis. Earlier representations of the swastika had good connotations, representing peace and harmony. The symbol’s comforting associations served as an advantage for the Nazis. After the Holocaust, the swastika was never fully reclaimed by any of the cultures that once used it as a sacred symbol. For example, in 1940, the Navajo, Papagos, Hopi and Apache Native American tribes, all of whom used the swastika as a sacred symbol, officially renounced the swastika, stating that it had been irreparably “desecrated” by the Nazis.
Of course, most of the symbols featured in the “Hate on Display” database are far more benign than the swastika. Most are somewhat obscure symbols that those outside of white supremacist circles would not recognize. These less widespread symbols, especially the ones that were appropriated from non-bigoted culture, have the potential to be reclaimed. Reclaiming a word or symbol that was once used for racist purposes can be a profound and empowering experience for marginalized people. The ability to claim something that was once used against you and use it in a manner that affirms and empowers you can help heal the psychological effects of bigotry. Furthermore, reclaiming racist terms and symbols causes these terms, and by extension the culture associated with the terms, to become weaker.
Pepe the Frog is one of the least immediately offensive symbols on the database. This is a good sign for those who hope to reclaim it, since many users of the meme already do not associate it with bigotry. In the Internet age, symbols like Pepe the Frog can easily be reclaimed via anti-bigotry communities on social media. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Reddit are all appropriate forums to post and share Pepe memes that fight bigotry rather than promote it. If enough of these memes are proliferated throughout various social media platforms, the Pepe meme will be successfully reclaimed.
As college students with a relatively extensive knowledge of social media and meme culture, it is our moral responsibility to do what we can to reclaim Pepe the Frog. Most media-savvy college students are simultaneously amused and disappointed with the racist descent of Pepe. Jose Castellanos ’18, staff columnist for The Hoot and local meme expert, remarked that “it is really disappointing that a joke that we used to forget about the stresses of the world was used against us.” He argues that young people should attempt to reclaim Pepe the Frog and other bigoted memes, explaining, “It is our responsibility to show the alt-right that we will not stand for the perversion of our beloved memes.”
Obviously, posting anti-bigotry Pepe memes is not going to end bigotry. Young people with the goal to minimize the increasing hate in our country need to engage in activism outside the Internet and work with organizations that directly and actively help marginalized people. However, it is important that online alt-right bigots be fought on their own turf. Young people with a social media following are in the best possible position to counter the racist use of memes. If college-aged people do not take active steps to use memes like Pepe the Frog in an anti-racist context, they will probably never be reclaimed. However, since most people do not strongly associate Pepe with bigotry, young people on the Internet should have a relatively easy time reclaiming Pepe.