Harambe jokes spark dialogue on UMass Amherst campus

Photo by Ayla Safran '19

Photo by Ayla Safran '19


The University of Massachusetts Amherst received a deluge of criticism on Tuesday for banning Harambe jokes, apparently due to concerns that the jokes would be interpreted as “micro-aggressions” towards African-American students. Several blogs and websites accused the university of displaying the censorship and over-political correctness that, many have argued, plagues colleges and universities nationwide. 

Harambe, a silverback gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, was shot and killed this summer when a small child entered his enclosure. Since his death, #Harambe has frequently trended on Twitter and Facebook, among other social media platforms. 

Harambe is also the name of the African Heritage Student Community in Coolidge Hall at UMass Amherst — ‘Harambe’ is a Swahili word for “pulling together.” Two Resident Assistants in Sycamore Residence Hall noted the Harambe jokes throughout the dorms, and sent out an email, warning that such jokes could be regarded as “a direct attack to our campus’s African-American community.” The Resident Assistants also noted that the catchphrase “dicks out for Harambe,” could be reported as a Title IX incident. 

UMass Amherst officials, in a statement issued by the University of Massachusetts Office of News and Media Relations, were quick to point out that the University did not espouse the Resident Assistant’s position as university policy, saying, “As an institution that values free speech and the exchange of ideas, UMass Amherst has not taken any steps to ban jokes or references about Harambe the gorilla.”

Officials did, however, defend the actions of the Resident Assistants. The statement also read, “The email sent by two well-intentioned undergraduate student resident assistants was a cautionary attempt to advise new students on their floor that the Harambe reference could be considered offensive to residents of the campus’s Harambee [sic] community, a residential program focused on African and African-American history and culture, and that all students should be treated with respect and civility. The resident assistants were upholding their responsibility to encourage an inclusive living environment for the students on their floor.”

Blogs and websites were in an uproar over the email sent by the Resident Assistants. Some bloggers felt invoking Title IX was uncalled for. Robby Soave wrote for Reason.com that, “The RAs are wrong, of course: federal sex-equality laws do not prohibit students from telling stupid jokes. But the mere fact that students in a position of authority would cite Title IX as evidence of self-censorship as an official requirement of dormitory life shows how destructive the federal government’s guidance on the subject has been.” A storm of furious tweets, ranging from, “Does this mean UMass Amherst won’t accept my application if I have a Harambe portrait tattooed on my neck?” to, “So are they comparing black people to Gorillas?” surfaced online. 

Controversy has sparked on a number of college campuses within the last year regarding censorship and political correctness. Most notably, the Wesleyan Argus, Wesleyan College’s newspaper, issued an apology for publishing an Op/Ed critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. UMass Amherst is another school to provoke backlash, from both within and beyond the school’s community, on political correctness and where to draw the line.