Black Girl in a White World: the Harlem Shake Divide

I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, MN and attended a private school where I was one of four African American’s in my graduating class. And although I was a recipient of a scholarship dedicated to African American’s, my social circle in college, like that of my grade schooling, was predominantly white. As such, moving to San Francisco, where African Americans make up just 4% of the total population, wasn’t a huge culture shock.

As I have grown into my own identity as a black woman, the more I have not just actively sought out black community (case in point: this website), but also realized how my life is one that exists at the center of the venn diagram of black and white culture. The result, however, is…. not so black and white.

Case in point: the Harlem Shake meme

A friend sent it to me and I was initially confused because, what the hell? These people aren’t doing the Harlem Shake…they’re, like, gyrating in costumes and shit. I brushed it aside, not really “getting it” until my inbox and social media feeds started blowing up. As a gal who loves herself a good meme (and costumes), I paid attention and “got it”.

No no, this was not the shoulder shimmying dance “the Harlem Shake” I have known for decades, this was some sort of opportunity for people to get silly in front of the camera with their amigos. Count me in, because as I said: I LOVE MEMES AND COSTUMES.

I thought about doing my own version with little Lola over here or one with my friends in black tie on MUNI, the San Francisco bus system. But then I saw this video and got the wind taken out of my sails because I knew I could never recreate something as magical as this:

Finally at Triathlon practice last week, after a swim and a bike, I finally got to live my Harlem Shake dream and participate in my own version…wearing a Jack in the Box head. It was great.

I didn’t think much of it until my feeds started blowing up AGAIN, this time with articles about how RACIST and IGNORANT this new Harlem Shake meme was. A particularly compelling example of such belief is the video of people from Harlem reacting to the videos:

As I read the pieces about the “Harlem Shake Controversy” I started to reflect on my identity and frankly my Harlem Shaking. Apparently black people were supposed to find it offensive because it was a dance of their origin that had now been appropriated by white folks, but there I was, a black person, HS-ing right along with the rest of the mostly-white world.

After a few moments of self-questioning a phone call to my mom to discuss this cultural intersection at which I found myself, I realized that as a black person, this meme just does not make me angry. It was silly, fun and done without negative intentions. I was just confused that people didn’t know what the Harlem Shake is to begin with, but look at the bright side: NOW EVERYBODY DOES!!

In my opinion, sometimes we all just need to laugh.

The tens of thousands of videos made over 40,000,000 people laugh and have fun with their friends being silly. I sincerely believe the Harlem Shake meme was not done with any hurtful intentions or to degrade Black culture. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and soap boxes (I mean, I certainly like to get up on mine from time to time!) so I’m glad this is opening up larger discussions.

For the record, the best Harlem Shake dance I’ve ever seen was done by a white man (what’s up Snookums) and the best (creepiest?) Harlem Shake meme was done by some black folks. Just goes to show that we shouldn’t be boxing people in.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Those folks in Harlem need to get out of Harlem and get some world exposure. These folks sound all kinds of bitter and angry. Living under that kind of isolation is what robs ppl of the simple pleasures of laughter. I’m with you on this one. A good laugh is just a good laugh.

  2. I don’t think it’s a white/black think; I don’t recall any of the people in the video mentioning race. It seems to be more of a respect thing. I would find it disrespectful, too, if someone made fun of something that I took seriously.

  3. Girl have fun! It really isnt that serious! I think the videos are hilarious. And yes I am a Black native New Yorker (though not from Harlem). I saw the response video and I really do understand their initial reaction, especially since the Harlem shake was actually a cute and popular dance in the P Diddy days. But their making it into a political issue and saying how they feel disrespected and how corporate America is gonna take it and make money off of their invention… and then we gotta hear how hip hop started in Harlem in the 80’s (which it didnt) blah blah blah… give me a break!!! Dont feel bad at all for having fun!!

  4. The Miami Heat version is pretty good….

  5. Meh. White folk steal everything. Including us.

  6. I totally grew up the same way (somewhere in between black and white and feeling a liiiitle stuck) and I felt some guilt at first for not being offended but I think that is the problem sometimes. EVERYTHING is so serious. Those videos are amazing and I wonder what would have happened if people played along and had a positive attitude instead of being so upset about it.

  7. Pingback: The Politics of Being Friends with White People….and Latinos, Blacks, Jews, Indians and Generally Most Other Humans. | Natural Selection

Leave a Reply