The Jemima Effect


This popular meme is very silly, of course. I am kind of amazed it’s even necessary to debunk it, but, look: Pontius Pilate. He’s very famous! He’s in the Bible, and he’s Italian. I don’t just mean, he’s Roman (which of course he is; there’s more than one Roman in the Bible—to whom do you think Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans?), I mean he’s Italian, in that (based on his name) his ancestors came from the ancient region of Italia, which is the southern part of the Italian peninsula. Calling him Italian isn’t even anachronistic.

He’s not even the only white person in the bible. In addition to Romans, the Bible if full of Greeks! Have a look at Paul’s travels: all across Asia Minor (which in those pre-Turk days was primarily Greek) and up and down Greece proper (of course he then goes to Roma). The letters to the Thessalonians are letters to the city of Thessalonica.

It’s not just the New Testament. Greeks are all over Maccabees. Get out your concordances: There are Greeks in Joel 3:6. Ezekiel 27:13 mentions that Greek merchants (and slavers) were in Tyre. The grandchildren of Japheth (traditionally the ancestor or Europeans) include the inhabitants of Rhodes. Look, you can find plenty of examples yourself, if the simple Pontius Pilate is insufficient refutation.

More importantly, perhaps, until relatively recently almost all the people in the bible were white! Not all of them of course, not the Candace and probably not Zipporah, but most of them. Because when people started worrying about race in any kind of systematic way, their conclusion was that the Near East was full of white people. Look in some nineteenth-century geography books. Like this one: “The Caucasian race includes almost all the nations of Europe, and their descendants in America; also the Hindoos, Persians and Arabians in Asia, and the Abyssinians, Egyptians and Moors in Africa.”

Or here’s another example from 1848; you can read it for yourself.

You know the racist trope* of a white person ruling over natives in the heart of Africa? The ur-text for (at least one branch of) this trope is H. Rider Haggard’s 1886 novel She, about a “mighty Queen of a savage people, a white woman of peculiar loveliness.” This white woman, it turns out, is an Arab.

I’m not trying to gloss over a complicated system of racial privilege. But look at these attempts to gloss over a complicated system of racial privilege. Of course Italian (or Irish or Armenian) immigrants were discriminated against; of course they were also white.

We are essentially quibbling over the word “white,” which is a vague enough term that we can move around within its orbit, using it inconsistently but as a we see fit. And, the thing is—we kind of know we do it. When I pointed out that the bible meme above was incorrect, the most common response I got was that “white” is a contemporary, C21 concept, so no white people could appear in the Bible by definition.

This is a fine response, in the sense that it is irrefutable. But no one is going around sharing memes that say “There are no yuppies in the Bible. Take all the time you need with that.”

Also not in the Bible: Jazz; yoga pants; video game addicts; QVC. IS YOUR MIND BLOWN YET?

Why would someone share a meme that is obviously false and that they claim not to believe in anyway? What is going on?

The answer, of course, is that the meme has nothing to do with the Bible. It has to do with demographics.

I know I’m indulging in mindreading here, but what goes around comes around. Here is what the Bible meme “means”; here is what we are thinking when we share the Bible meme:

  1. There is a demographic of people who read the bible
  2. I bet they are white!
  3. I bet they are they’re racist!
  4. I bet they would hate it if I told them the Bible is full of races they hate!
  5. Ha ha ha! Gotcha!

This cascade of thoughts can fall apart in many places. Many many Bible-readers in America are not white, to start with—I don’t mean in an ambiguous not-white way, like they’re Armenian. I mean they are black. Furthermore, even if they are white, the correlation between conservative “churchy types” and racism is not necessarily what the demographic that posts this meme wants it to be. See this article on conservative church-goers: One relevant sentence: “Specifically, favorable feelings toward black people increase from 48 percent among Trump voters who never attend church to 73 percent among those who attend more than once a week — a 25-point increase.”

So this meme is complete nonsense, easily debunked by a fourth-grade knowledge of the Bible; its reason for existence requires false suppositions; if pressed we’ll admit the whole thing is a sham; and yet we are willing to share it because we know that there are We and there are They, and Our fantasy is that They won’t like what we’ve done ha ha ha!

Now, the miracle of social media means that the demographic who shares this meme will share it with the same demographic, and it’s very possible no Bible readers will ever see the meme; no one will ever take all the time they need. Even if Aunt Mabel did see it, she’d know in an instant that it was absurd and demonstrably false.

Here’s the question, though: If Aunt Mabel sees it, will she be offended?

Yes, of course she will. She’ll know the meme is false. She’ll know the suppositions under which it was posted are irrelevant. But she’ll be offended anyway, because she know that he whole point of the meme—it makes no sense otherwise—is to hurt her.

This is known as the Jemima effect.

If you are in my demographic, when you heard that Aunt Jemima is going to be rebranding its pancake spread, you probably said either “good!” or “about dang time!” But that’s not all you said. You also said that They were losing their minds over the change, the big cry babies!

I should stress that I don’t care if Aunt Jemima, or Consolidated Foods or whoever, changes a name. I recognize that Aunt Jemima has racist origins, and I recognize that Aunt Jemima got redesigned decades ago to remove all trace of those racist origins, so now, and for many years before now, Aunt Jemima has been just another face on a box, no different than Little Debbie, Mr. Clean, or Captain Crunch. Still Consolidated Foods can change whatever they wish. The change does not affect me; I don’t even use this weird breakfast slather. Caring about a company’s mascots is a little weird.

But Aunt Mabel probably does not care about a mascot; she knows, however, that there are We and there are They…

You may object here: The move to eliminate the Jemima mascot has nothing to do with Aunt Mabel or Them! It’s certainly possible this is true, but remember that we live in a paranoid age of dog whistles. Everything They do (Tulsa/Juneteenth) is designed to hurt us; are we really supposed to pretend that We and Our statements are pure, devoid of malice and seeking only truth?

Oh, come on. We claimed there were no white people in the Bible.

This is the thing we are not allowed to assert. That everything They do is about Us, and everything We do is also about Us. That’s straight up paranoid!

Even if we had no secret desire to “own the conservatives” with the Jemima swap…how would conservatives know that? Sure a lot of conservatives are trapped in a Fox News/OAN/National Enquirer bubble (just as we are in our own HuffPo/Kos/Salon bubble), but if Aunt Mabel stuck her head out of the bubble, what would she see? “I MADE UP SOMETHING DEMONSTRABLY FALSE TO ‘GET’ MY ANTAGONISTS!” That’s what she’d see.

Aunt Mabel knows that the loss of Aunt Jemima is seen as a victory for Our side, and she knows that in this zero sum game, a victory for Us is a loss for Them (i.e. Her). Of course she’s going to be “in full meltdown mode.”

Then we call her racist, and then she gets mad at that and the dialectic keeps going.

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