Turning Our Children Into Memes Should Be Off Limits

by Altheria Gaston

I love a good laugh. From television shows featuring outlandish pranks to romantic comedies with artful dialogue, I appreciate wit, humor, and sarcasm. In fact, I sometimes consider myself a comedian want-to-be because I can usually, whether purposely or not, make people laugh. But there are some subjects that I don’t find funny, like poking fun at children, especially a child who’s thought to be suffering from cancer.

That’s exactly what’s happened over the last few days. Countless memes have been created and circulated on social media using the face of an African-American girl thought to be ailing Casey Bardowell who is suffering from the side effects of leukemia treatment. A statement on Bardowell’s website reads, “Although reported otherwise, the baby's image being circulated in several hurtful memes is NOT Casey.” Nevertheless, this misnomer does not minimize the cruelty of these insensitive acts. As I’ve seen some of these memes on my timeline, I’ve asked myself, “Why is this ok?” The short answer is that poking fun of at a child’s looks, like these memes do, is never ok.

The memes vary in their representations, but several depict the child’s face on adult bodies (even men’s bodies like rapper Rick Ross), sometimes participating in questionable adult activities and wearing revealing clothes. While I would like to think that the creators and circulators of the memes were not being intentionally vicious, they need to be reminded of the power of images and representations. These latest memes convey several harmful messages: 1) that we don’t believe that the children used in the memes are beautiful, 2) that we would rather NOT see them as children, and 3) that we don’t care about the long-term effects upon the children and their parents. The adulterated images are purposely distorted to look unattractive, even repulsive. They rob children of the innocence of childhood by forcing mature behavior (one meme depicts her smoking). Further, these people are not considerate of how the memes might cause these children to be bullied by friends and possibly judged by teachers.
This recent onslaught of memes using the image that resembles Casey Bardowell is the second one that preys on an African-American girl in the last few months. In March, Kyra Pringle posted a picture on Facebook of her daughter Mariah on her second birthday. Mariah has a condition called chromosome 2p duplication syndrome that affects not only her appearance but her learning and motor skills. Mariah soon became the victim of hurtful memes and jokes that were widely circulated on social media.

Although parents should not be blamed for these damaging memes, there are many risks involved in sharing children’s pictures online. Parenting magazine calls one of those risks “digital kidnapping,” a form of kidnapping in which perpetrators steal photos of your children and pretends to be their parents. One of the risks of parents innocently and proudly posting pictures of children on social media is that we make our children vulnerable to ridicule and mockery. People who create memes by altering photos and adding text may be lurking among our friends and followers. A March 2015 Washington Post article asks the question, “Will the rise of ‘over-sharenting’ mean the end of privacy for our children?” As is evident in the memes shared this week, vultures are invading parents’ and children’s privacy and using photos in destructive ways.
Disappointingly, the two children at the center of these memes have been Black girls. Black girls who are already growing up in a society that doesn’t embrace their beauty and encourage their talents. Black girls who are more likely to get suspended from schools than any other girls. Black girls who will grow up to be Black women who are susceptible to police brutality. Black girls will grow up to be Black women who are more likely than White women to be incarcerated. With all the challenges our girls face, it’s reckless and wrong to use their images to portray them negatively. As Black women, it is up to us to demand that our girls are respected and honored, not humiliated and ridiculed.
Sadly, most of the memes I saw on my timeline were posted by African Americans. Too often, we are unaware that we are the enemy within. Instead of circulating memes that devalue them, let’s show our support for organizations that aim to empower Black girls, like Pretty Brown Girl.

Laughter is good for the soul. But don’t let the laughter be at the expense of our children.

Altheria Gaston is a regular contributor at For Harriet. You can find her on Twitter @altheriagaston.

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