Go Ahead, Joke About the Pandemic

The public-health power of humor on Black Twitter

Laughing-to-the-point-of-tears emoji, but the tears are the Twitter blue-bird logo.
The Atlantic

Jokes are rich notions. The Black comedic and satirical traditions have for decades fascinated scholars and comedians, many of whom have converged on the idea that trauma is a defining feature of Black comedy. W. E. B Du Bois wrote in The Humor of Negroes that humor is partly “a defense mechanism; reaction from tragedy; oppositions set out in the face of hurt and insult.”

Much of today’s Black humor is driven by Black Twitter, a community that is nebulous in construction but focused in execution. Humor is one of its chief weapons, and it lives even in sad moments.

Elon Musk’s recent purchase of Twitter has fostered anxiety among some users about the future of Black Twitter. Rumored changes to the platform—touted as the promotion of free speech—have led many to speculate that bigoted behavior will flourish with fewer consequences, threatening the comfort of marginalized groups on Twitter. This, coupled with the firing of Twitter staff working on ethical AI, which focused on developing more transparent algorithms, have left some wondering whether Black Twitter’s days are numbered.

I’m not a comedian, or even that good at Twitter. I’m a computational scientist. But I’m interested in how epidemics interact with society and culture, and COVID-19 gave me a new and powerful appreciation for Black Twitter—its reach, resonance, and ability to offer therapeutic humor during our darkest hours. And while I would stop short of arguing that Black Twitter was a force for promoting public health, its salutary effects on the communities most affected by the pandemic are undeniable.

Days after the Omicron variant became national news, Black Twitter rebranded the variant Omarion, after the former lead singer from the popular 2000s boy band B2K. Once the nickname gained a strong social-media footprint, the real-life Omarion got in on the action, sharing a satirical public-service announcement clarifying that he is not a variant of SARS-CoV-2.

“This is Omarion. I am an artist. Not a variant,” he said in a TikTok video, which he then shared with his 1.3 million Twitter followers. “If you just so happen to run into me on the street, you don’t have to isolate for five days, nor do you have to have a negative test result to dance to my music.”

The joke was only possible because in December of last year, society understood what a variant was, and knew what isolating for five days meant. This is reflective of a public that now functions with a working knowledge of basic epidemiology. What made the nickname funny? Maybe it’s that Omarion was a familiar name that served to highlight how peculiar a label Omicron was, especially after the more conventional Greek-letter names given to the other variants. The new term felt calming, and clarifying: We may not know a lot about what is happening with COVID-19, but we sure know who Omarion is.

Long before “Omarion,” the first Black Twitter nickname for the virus was “the Rona,” which became popular just as the pandemic was hitting American soil. The logic of Black humor seemed to imply that the coronavirus was going to be around for a while, so we might as well give it a friendlier name.

More revealing than the nicknaming of the variants were the memes associated with the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. A trio of names popular on Black Twitter, for example, dubbed a vaccinated individual a Pfizer Princess, a Moderna Mami, or a Johnson & Johnson Jawn. Jokes about vaccines were a more tolerable way to take the ordeal seriously and build community around it.

The vaccine nicknames are informative because vaccine hesitancy was one of the most contentious issues of the COVID era. Saturday Night Live did a parody about the reasons Black people were less likely to be vaccinated. The sketch was based on reality: Early on, Black adults were among the most vaccine-hesitant of all groups; only 42 percent intended to get the vaccine, compared with 63 percent of Hispanic and 61 percent of white adults. Explanations for the hesitation included lack of access; distrust due to historic and contemporary racial discrimination, especially from the medical establishment; and discomfort with how quickly the vaccine was produced as well as the standard fallout from the COVID-19 misinformation-verse.

And yet vaccine hesitancy dropped significantly faster in the Black community than among white people in 2021, and by the end of that year Black Americans were no longer the country’s most vaccine-hesitant demographic. The change had several causes, including targeted outreach efforts. It would be irresponsible to argue that Twitter nicknames persuaded people to get vaccinated, but I can’t help seeing a connection: Vaccine adoption increased at the same time that Black people started to feel comfortable enough to joke about it.

What would a Black Twitter–less pandemic—or some other form of social upheaval—have looked like? Black Twitter has served as the racial conscience of social media. It praises us for our merits, drags us for our sins, and somehow gives us reprieve from the cesspool of lying, trolling, and abuse that can happen in the digital world. So the question is not offered out of paranoia, but to explore how forces like Black Twitter shape our lives in panic settings: They educate, entertain, and clarify in times of collective bemusement.

The memes that lived within and emerged from Black Twitter helped reveal the racial disparities that defined much of the pandemic. Without this chorus, Black people may never have known just how different our experiences are from other people. The laughter behind nicknames like Omarion reminds us that—from influenza in 1918 to HIV/AIDS to COVID-19—the most reliable projection in American history is that every community won’t “catch the same cold,” even when everyone is living with the same pandemic.

This reality is absurd, depressing, and good material for Black Twitter, or whatever its future replacement will be.