In the weeks since George Floyd’s death, a historic number of people in the United States (and all over the world) have hit the streets to protest his murder and the murders of countless other Black Americans by police. That’s an unequivocally good and necessary thing. I’m not here to say otherwise. I just have a few questions about this:
The first time I saw this message was at a protest in downtown Los Angeles, and it actually stopped me in my tracks. Racism is small dick energy. Racism...is small dick energy. Racism is small dick energy? My mind raced to unpack the tiny package. How did this person arrive at this message? Of the many, many, many roads to take with a protest sign, why did they choose this particular thoroughfare? I was stupefied. I was transfixed. Half of the small group I was protesting with was similarly dumbfounded, while the other half found the whole thing totally unsurprising.
“It’s just a play on big dick energy,” my friend said.
Yes, I knew that already. I was not satisfied with this explanation.
I was still thinking about the sign a few days later when I spoke with a friend in Chicago. Completely unprompted, she told me she had seen a notable sign at one of her local protests:
“RACISM IS SMALL DICK ENERGY”
After this conversation, my mind truly started to unravel. I asked friends in New York: yes, they had seen it too. Friends in Detroit: Confirmed. Discourse Blog’s own Samantha Grasso had heard a report of one in Austin. Australia. Poland. Cologne. The United Kingdom. Krakow. Berlin. I myself saw another one at a protest in Hollywood. There’s even merch. All over the world, protesters can agree: Racism is small dick energy.
As mentioned before, I understand on a technical level where this comes from. Many of us were first introduced to the concept of Big Dick Energy approximately 5,000 years ago (OK, exactly two years ago) because of Pete Davidson and Ariana Grande, and in the intervening 24 months, the idea has fully permeated our ever-deteriorating communal consciousness. So yes, it makes sense, in some way, that BDE has reached the point in its journey where it’s being flipped to...denounce racism. Still it’s continued to haunt me: Of all the cultural reference points, why this one? Why now?
It’s not just racism that has small dick energy. Trump does too, according to signs I’ve seen at recent protests. So does white supremacy. Together, these signs start to bring into focus what feels like the quieter, darker issue that has gnawed at me over the last several weeks as we ingest wide-ranging activist messages online and in the street. It’s not just about a tired joke, though the joke is tired, and also problematic for its possible transphobic connotations and, in some cases, racist objectification. On a broader scale, it’s about activism that feels—even in the slightest of ways—avoidant about why we’re all protesting in the first place.
The vast majority of the signage I’ve observed in both virtual and physical spaces has been focused on supporting Black lives and denouncing police, but there’s also been a lot of signs about Trump. “FUCK DONALD TRUMP” is the most common. True, yes, agreed. Fuck that dude, absolutely. But you have to wonder, again, what motivates someone to write that particular message on a sign ahead of a demonstration for Black lives and against police brutality. Yes, fuck Trump. Yes, end white supremacy. Yes, racism has small dick energy (I mean, NO, but yes). But also, what about “Black Lives Matter”?
To be fair, I have a sense that part of what’s happening here is that some less-active activists are recycling signs from 2016 and beyond. It’s been a long four years. There is a lot to be angry about. But frankly, it’s very easy to say racism is bad. We see high profile racists denounce racism all the time. And it’s easy to hate Trump. He is loathsome! Those things can be true and also not the focus right now. And they can definitely be stated without internet jokes.
Cultural reference points are shorthand. They’re easy. And some would argue, I’m sure, that jokes about BDE are useful in coping with the trials of the real world while making activism accessible to newcomers, à la comparing Trump to Voldemort. (On that particular point, I, my colleague Katherine Krueger, and I’m pretty sure most of Gen Z would disagree.) But the practice is also lazy and trends toward euphemism. It’s a way of putting a barrier between yourself and what’s happening in the real world. It matters that we say Black Lives Matter, and the names of victims like Breonna Taylor, and the names of the cops who killed her: Brett Hankison, Myles Cosgrove, and Jonathan Mattingly.
“Racism is small dick energy” is mostly dumb and innocuous, I know. People are trying to be silly and creative while fighting for something better and that’s a net positive, and there are more important things to do than spend time picking these things apart. But as activism (hopefully) becomes more ingrained in daily life long-term, we’ll have to make room for more complex and nuanced discussions rather than framing things in terms of simple wins or losses. Unfortunately for you and me right now, that means thinking about whether racism is capable of having dick energy, and the merits of saying so.
Protests can and should have space for humor and joy. Both are essential in life and in the fight for justice, and we’ve seen many instances of them alongside anger and violence these last few weeks. And in a time of physical distancing, protesting itself can feel like a life-affirming act. Let’s just make sure that bad jokes don’t come at the expense of the activism itself, or small dicks.