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Gaming companies keep walking into the Ugandan Knuckles trap.
As internet memes take up a larger and larger chunk of popular culture, it makes sense that companies want to co-opt them for marketing. The problem with memes, though, is the same thing that makes them great: They’re democratic, and they’re not vetted by the censors and gatekeepers of traditional media. PC gaming hardware company Razer learned that the hard way recently when it unwittingly shared a very popular racist meme, Ugandan Knuckles.
This Razer tweet featuring the character went out over the weekend. It has since been deleted.
Ugandan Knuckles is one of the most pervasive memes of the year, and it’s especially hard to escape in gaming circles. If you’re playing VRChat or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, watching popular streamers, or even watching live esports events, there he is. His wacky, googly eyes and “do you know de wey?” catchphrase are everywhere. Although he just looks like a wibbly-wobbly version of a popular Sonic the Hedgehog character, Ugandan Knuckles has taken on some seriously racist connotations.
Esports leagues have already had problems with teams and fans promoting the Ugandan caricature on livestreams, and now Razer has also acknowledged it promoted the meme without understanding its implications.
We shared a tweet from a member of our community. It was highlighted to us that the meme shared may have negative undertones.⁰⁰We reached out to the user who clarified he was unaware of the connotations and had no ill-will. Both parties decided it best to remove the content.
— RΛZΞR (@Razer) January 28, 2018
Razer’s social media team was initially defiant when people called them out on Twitter for using the meme, but the company eventually gave up and took down the tweet. Gizmodo’s callout post, “Does Razer know it posted a racist meme?” probably helped.
Ugandan Knuckles started out innocently enough, as a weird character on a YouTube gaming channel. His Ugandan catchphrases were taken from a low-budget action-comedy flick called Who Killed Captain Alex?, which was actually produced in Uganda. The people who made the movie think the meme is pretty funny.
But it’s evolved into something else, as some gamers started pushing the envelope of what they could get away with using the character. They made saying “n***a” and making fun of African languages that use tongue clicks part of the Knuckles repertoire, and when anyone complained, they reveled in “triggering” the “social justice warriors.” Now the larger group of Knuckles fans, who didn’t intend for the meme to be offensive, is chafing at the criticism.
Haha I like how you mocked people for criticing you for the meme, but still bent over to SJWs later. Definitely a misstep. How disappointing. pic.twitter.com/Zf8Slm8dHM
— Rowl (@RowlWool) January 28, 2018
The meme is almost as stale as people getting upset by everything. RIP fun in 2018
— Brosmobile (@brosmobile) January 28, 2018
When I see a company being politically correct makes me wanna puke 🤮
— Consuela (@ConsuelaCoin) January 29, 2018
Ugandan Knuckles has become, like Pepe the Frog, a “free speech” mascot for gamers who don’t want to worry about being called racist. The more people complain about Knuckles, the more fun the meme becomes for the defiant fans who support it. This is quite a conundrum for companies in the gaming space, who risk alienating customers by taking a side. Ugandan Knuckles may be wildly popular right now, but using him for marketing has proven to be more trouble than it’s worth.
Jay Hathaway is a former senior writer who specialized in internet memes and weird online culture. He previously served as the Daily Dot’s news editor, was a staff writer at Gawker, and edited the classic websites Urlesque and Download Squad. His work has also appeared on nymag.com, suicidegirls.com, and the Morning News.