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Is it racist to use the Kekistani flag?

I was recently queried by a reporter in Arizona covering a story about some conservative university students who caused a scandal by displaying a Kekistani flag. It turns out that I am now the academic expert on this topic. His specific question was the degree to which Kekistan is rooted in racism. I have no idea about the specific situation at the university in Arizona, but here is what I told him (lightly edited/revised). It’s a more general point, and I'm sure he'll only use a quote or two, so I’m posting it here.

How rooted in racism is the Kekistani flag? The answer to this question depends on how one defines racism. Today, many on the Left consider nearness to racists to be racist: for instance, to speak with a racist in public is to “platform” racism and therefore promote racism. Or, to use a symbol that was one time used by one racist one year ago — this would count as some degree of racism because one is “co-signing” the racist or “dog whistling” to a racist audience. This is what I have elsewhere called a “guilt-contagion model” of racism. If that is your model of racism, then sure, the Kekistani flag will be seen as racist, because it has probably been used for pretty explicit racist signaling by some pretty explicit racists in its life as a viral meme.

The problem is that, when applied to internet meme culture, the guilt-contagion model makes no sense. Viral memes are, by definition, picked up and extended in dozens, hundreds, often thousands of different directions. In this context, even a large number of racist uses of a meme cannot disqualify the entire meme as racist, if there are way more non-racist uses of the meme. This is especially obvious when you keep in mind that memes are, by definition, radically decontextualized (any one adoption will have a very low degree of integration with, or accountability to, the previous instances; its “viral” nature is based precisely on this extreme flexibility and lack of respect for earlier instances of the meme).

When you look at the origin and history of the Kekistan meme, it’s pretty clear that it was not launched or intended as a racist project, and when you look at the available data on how it is actually used (as I have done), it’s pretty clear that racism is not even close to being one of its primary meanings. So in my judgment, I don’t think you can call the Kekistani flag racist, no. People who call the Kekistani flag racist are relying on a definition of racism that makes no sense in the internet age.

It does not surprise me that conservative college students might want to display this flag, in part because, to some conservatives, the flag now represents unfair overreach by social liberals to smear many non-racist conservatives as racist. Again, the dynamic nature of meme culture confounds our efforts to pin down a meme’s meaning, because the media response to a meme can rapidly become the basis for new instances of the meme. Of course, there might be some racist in the group, I have no idea about the situation. My point is that the meme itself simply does not give anyone sufficient evidence to infer that there must be a racist behind it, or even that it’s likely for there to be a racist behind it. It’s perfectly possible that they are signaling their belief in free speech, and that they are using this symbol precisely because they know that many on the left will (incorrectly) call it racist! This might prove their point about free speech, it might gain attention, rally members, etc. — all perfectly reasonable goals of any political organization, having nothing necessarily to do with racism.

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