my HR rep keeps using a Pepe the Frog emoji

A reader writes:

We use an internal messaging service at work that allows people to make and recall emojis by writing anything into parentheses. For example, if I designed an emoji of my face, uploaded it and called it “Tina,” anyone in the company could type “Tina” and that emoji would come up. It’s generally great and fun and collaborative.

One issue is there’s a dancing frog which shares its likeness with Pepe the alt right frog. Pepe is, obviously, a totem that is synonymous with hate speech. Unfortunately my HR rep in the office has taken to using this dancing frog in her office correspondence. All the f’ing time. I am confident she doesn’t know what Pepe is or represents, as she is not particularly culturally up to date. She thinks it’s just a celebratory dancing frog. Our company, however, is a very internet savvy digital media agency so EVERYONE ELSE knows exactly what it is.

I really am uncomfortable when she uses the Pepe, as it seriously dampers conversations. I want to let her know but I don’t want her to think I’m being condescending or pretentious. I also don’t want her to think it is a political thing as I am outspokenly against the current administration and I’m not confident that she feels the same. It’s a hate symbol thing. I would go to HR with it, but she is HR.

I’m seriously baffled by what to do, though it may seem trivial.

Why on earth is no one else in your office speaking up and telling her?

This doesn’t have to be complicated.

It would actually be more awkward if she did know the story behind the symbol — although speaking up about it would still be the right thing to do (even more so, in fact).

But in this case, since she genuinely doesn’t know, you’ll be filling her in on something that a reasonable person would be grateful to know. And even if she’s not a reasonable person, it’s still a valid thing for you to point out.

You could just say this: “I’m pretty sure that you don’t realize that that dancing frog emoji is identical to a symbol that has become associated with racism, anti-semitism, and other hate speech. I know that’s not how you’re intending it, but given that it’s become so strongly associated with those things, I figured you wouldn’t want to keep sending it out in company correspondence!”

If she seems skeptical, you could add, “The Anti-Defamation League added it to its database of hate symbols last year.”

That should be enough to take care of it. But if for some reason it isn’t, the next time she sends something out with the frog on it, I’d hope you could get others on your staff to add their voices to yours too, so that the chorus of people telling her to knock it off is louder.

{ 724 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask a Manager* Post author

    I’m really not interested in hosting a debate about whether not people find the symbol to be a hate symbol. It’s been covered sufficiently below. If you’d like to comment on this post, please stick to giving advice to the letter writer.

    1. S. Johnson*

      This comment section is an interesting study of what people do with the information they are given.

    2. Specialk9*

      Actual advice for the OP:

      You need to figure out what kind of person she is, and any potential blowback you might have. Some people are reasonable, but a lot of people take constructive criticism very badly, and punish the messenger.

      1 – She is a reasonable, kind person: print out an article about Pepe as hate symbol, and say gently ” I know you are kind, thoughtful person. And I figured that if I were accidentally using a symbol that offended people, I would like to know. But with the way the Internet changes so fast, it can be hard to stay on top of things. The frog that used to be innocent is now associated with hate speech against women, people of color, and Jews. I figured you’d be horrified to realize your IM handle looks like it.”

      2- print out the article, leave it in her mailbox or office, anonymously. This is usually a cowardly, not very respectable way of doing this, and ot could really hurt her feelings and make her feel surrounded by criticism. In this case, though, she is the HR lady who’s using a hate symbol, so it’s not as bad as usual. But still not ideal.

      3- have a conversation near her about the frog and it’s new status, I.e current events. Most people are not slick enough to pull this off without being really obvious, but maybe you could manage it.

    3. Marla Beard*

      I think I’d lead with letting her know the ADL added that symbol to their database of hate speech icons. I’d probably say “I know you wouldn’t mean to upset anyone by using the Pepe emoji, but it has recently become popular with hate groups, and the Anti-Defamation League has added it to their database of hate speech symbols. Someone who doesn’t know you as well might not realize you didn’t mean to use it that way.” If emailing her, you could even send a link to the article:

    4. The OG Anonsie*

      Boy, I remember when Pepe the frog was just a garden variety crap meme and the frog emoji was just a frog emoji. The evolution has been pretty weird.

      I’m still mad that it’s ruined the Kermit drinking tea set we used to use. Sigh.

  2. Granny K*

    Ok, I’ll admit it. I had never heard of Pepe the alt right frog until reading this article. Perhaps I am snow-blind by my own liberalism. Thank you for the information.

    1. This Daydreamer*

      You can’t know everything. My dad worked on Obama’s campaign, well, both of them but this was during his first term. I had to explain birtherism to him. He really hoped I was kidding.

      1. Case of the Mondays*

        My dad also worked on Obama’s campaign. He legit thought that “teabagger” was the correct term used for someone in the teaparty. He didn’t know it was offensive. He didn’t know what teabagging was. I had to explain teabagging to my elderly father.

        1. Snark*

          ….did you, perchance, record that conversation? Because as a conoisseur of awkwardness, I believe I would treasure that like an original Picasso.

        2. Anon today...and tomorrow*

          I once attended a party where the host’s elderly grandmother told a joke that involved teabagging as part of the punchline. I didn’t know what the term meant at the time but I was shocked that this 91 year old woman did!

          1. Sarah*

            That reminds me of the time my sweet little cookie-baking, church-going grandma dropped a “That’s what she said!” into the conversation. It was amazing.

            1. De Minimis*

              I admire older people, they usually say/do what they want because they’ve long quit worrying about what people think!

        3. Paige Turner*

          I’m sorry for how awkward that must have been but I just laughed for five straight minutes.

        4. Lala*

          If it makes you feel any better, I had to explain to my mom what a golden shower was after watching one of Stephen Colbert’s monologues with her.

          1. Detective Right-All-The-Time*

            I had to explain what “thirst” meant after my mom wrote something on facebook about thirsting after the Lord.

            1. Katty Korner*

              Thirsting after the Lord has a few thousand years of standing. Silly to think that the fleeting slang usage would confuse anyone.

        5. mrs__peel*

          When I was in my 20s, my grandfather asked me what a “booty call” was (when the film of the same name came out and was being advertised on TV). But I chickened out and pretended not to know.

          1. De Minimis*

            At my last job, my office-mate was in her mid-60s. I was mortified once because I had to explain the term “trippin’ balls” to her [can’t remember how she had heard it but she wanted to know what it meant, I think she saw it in a comment for a news article she read online] and also “butt dial.”

            1. Lefty*

              As a 23 year old, I once had a supervisor ask me if she could “use my recent college brain” to help decipher the decals on her 17 year old’s back windshield. It was the heyday of Dane Cook… so the stickers were a “shocker” and a “superfinger”. She asked what those meant and I gave her the option of hearing it from me (in the most clinical terms I could muster) or reading online. She asked for my definition and declared she’d be buying a window scraper.

              Two weeks later, she asked me to explain the phrase “superman that ho” and I told her she’d need to use her home computer for Urban Dictionary on that one! I’m pretty sure she used it quite a bit after that- the 17 year old was the oldest of her 5 kids.

            2. Lindsay J*

              I had to explain to my conservative office manager what 420 references after someone (I think it was the pizza guy) said happy holiday to her and she was confused because Earth Day wasn’t for another several days.

          2. SpaceySteph*

            My mom posted a picture on facebook the other day of her with her kickboxing instructor (a 30-something, super buff dude) wearing shirts that said “Kickbox and Chill.” Guess who didn’t know what Netflix and Chill is…

            1. Violet Rose*

              My mom didn’t know either – and after an exhausting workday, she once said “I don’t want to do anything, I just want to Netflix and chill!” I refused to explain, but did insist she google what she just said.

              It did mean that a few hours later, when she was poking fun at me for something silly I did, I got to retort, “go chill with your Netflix!”

        6. Mallory Janis Ian*

          I was driving my son and his fellow Boy Scouts to scout camp, and I overheard them from the backseat say something about teabagging. I swear, kids in the backseat of a car forget that parents can even hear them, and they will say almost anything if you stay quiet enough up front. Anyway, I embarrassed them all, because I didn’t know what teabagging was and I asked them! They were about 13 – 14 years old at the time. There were exclamations of surprise that they didn’t know I was listening and, “Man, no mom has ever asked me that before!” etc. I was embarrassed, too, when I found out what it was. :-0

        7. SusanIvanova*

          Shortly after my company installed a net nanny that blocked, amongst other things, UrbanDictionary, someone sent out a press release with a quote that used “teabag” in the same sense as your father. Internal IRC was flooded with “if only they could’ve seen the search results from UrbanDictionary…”

        8. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          To be fair, there was a very brief period of time when several Tea Party members referred to themselves as “tea baggers” in the national press because they did not know about the other meaning for that term. But it is kind of you to have let him know.

          1. Paul*

            I have a friend that snuck into some local rallys holding up a giant sign that said something like “We’re proud to teabag”.

            he knew damn well what it means and we found it funny (the depths of my distaste for the movement are hard to explain).

        9. Bryce*

          I had a similar conversation with my mom when she called a fair game (where you toss beanbags into a slanted target) “cornhole”. I’m still not sure if she was putting me on, that slang was all over the place in the 90s at least.

            1. Wendy Darling*

              My apartment complex threw a party with lawn games and there were boards with holes in them labeled “cornhole”. I giggled the same giggle I did when I was in London every time someone mentioned Cockfosters.

            2. Bryce*

              Agreed, but hearing a sixty-*cough* year-old mother happily exclaim “ooo, there’s cornhole over there!” warrants a heads-up. It was a Nanny Ogg moment. My uncertainty whether she was putting me on was not knowing the entendre. She’s a mischievous one, and has played innocent before.

              1. Brisvegan*

                Love your Discworld reference!

                Nanny Ogg would be grinning, winking and using all the rude terms!

            3. This Daydreamer*

              My state’s lottery had a game called cornhole at one point. Those ads were even worse than their usual.

          1. Rainy, PI*

            That is one hundred percent what that game is called here, and it is EXTREMELY popular with my coworkers, so at every staff retreat, out comes the cornhole set.

            1. I Dodged a Ballet*

              It’s a very popular game at my company outing too and no one blushes at the name. We eat hot dogs and ice cream and play cornhole!

              1. Rainy, PI*

                I have one coworker who has begun calling it “*cough* beanbag” but he’s the only one. I’m guessing he just found out the other meaning.

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            No, that’s what it’s called! It’s still the name of the game in many parts of the country (folks played it annually at a work event, and there was a lot of active discussion of cornhole). She’s not putting you on. But the other connotation is unfortunate.

          3. Else*

            That is totally what it’s called in the Southeast! First time I ever heard it called that, it was at a block party on a street that included a gay bar, so it took me a long time to realize the cornhole setup in front of the other bar wasn’t making some kind of nasty remark about its neighbor. Now I’ve moved to the Midwest, where apparently it’s called Bags… That still sounds dirty to me!

        10. KelsBells*

          My (very sweet) mother used the term “shot his wad” once and I nearly died. She claims she thought it was derived from guns and gun culture, but I’m not entirely sure I believe her.

        11. TinyRaptor*

          I feel you. I ended up explaining “furries” to the graphic design/marketing person in my first student worker job in college. She had read an article that had talked about people incorporating animal characteristics into their everyday personalities but had neglected to mention the more private activities furrydom is known for. She was embarrassed but kind when I explained that furry had a more riské meaning on the internet, which the article (apparently) had not covered.

          1. Elizabeth H.*

            I explained furries to my mom once. It’s pretty complicated to explain because at this point I feel like there are enough self-identified furries who don’t see it as a sex thing (like your graphic designer read about) that we now know about, that you have to give both definitions and probably emphasize the aspects that are not related to sexuality, as I think the sexuality-involving meaning has kind of dominated the popular image.

          2. Oh fandom*

            Watching a youtube vid of a Stargate actors panel where one of Christopher Judge’s fellow actors has to explain to him what furries are, live in the middle of a convention hall, is still one of my fondest memories from Stargate fandom.

            1. mrs__peel*

              I saw a similar thing on a panel of Star Trek: TNG actors, where someone asked Jonathan Frakes if he knew that he was an icon “in the bear community” and his fellow cast members had to explain to him what that meant. It was quite hilarious (and on YouTube, I think).

        12. Nic*

          When working for a video game company I had to explain to a very kind older sounding woman why she couldn’t use an abbreviation of her name as a character name. It was something similar to Camila Townsend, and she had shortened it to “Cameltoe”. The sheer level of awkward of having to explain that one.
          Same job, having to explain go someone why “Yiffinmaster” was not appropriate. Don’t google that one at work.

          1. pope suburban*

            Oh god. I had to explain “yiffing” to my manager at a summer job. I was working as a server, and there was this huge group of furries that came in one day. Which, okay, no big deal once you get past the fake-fur ears/tail/gloves. Buuuuut then things took a turn for the lewd, I have to figure because they assumed that no one would know what they meant. One look at my horrified face and I got to explain *why* we might want to consider asking them to stop it or leave. It was…awkward.

        13. Bob*

          There’s a new sitcom named “I’m Sorry” where the main character has to explain teabagging to her mother. It’s a pretty good show though fairly off-color.

        14. Whoopsy*

          Given what they’ve done to the state of American politics, as far as I’m concerned, yeah, teabagger’s fine.

      2. MindOverMoneyChick*

        And me to the list of people who had no idea this was a thing. I’m wondering if I’m just clueless or this somehow splits along demographic lines that leave me out of the loop.

        1. Artemesia*

          I am an old lady and I know about Pepe, but I’m sure I came late to the party. Today it is so easy to google phrases you are not familiar with and symbols you don’t know. This has saved me from a few embarrassing moments. Perhaps providing the HR rep with a couple of links perhaps one to its use as hate speech and one to the ADL site would be helpful to bolster this. Or she could just google Pepe.

          1. Sheesh*

            How would she know to Google Pepe if she doesn’t even know it’s a thing, or what the character’s name is? Should I Google each and every symbol or phrase I use, even ones I am using with good intentions?

            1. Jessie the First (or second)*

              I think Artemesia is just noting that if someone lets the HR rep know how the image has been coopted by a group of people as dog whiste, the HR rep can then dig into it on her own, and would not necessarily need to be provided with links.

              No one is saying you need to google everything you type. But if someone comes up to you and lets you know that you have been inadvertently using a symbol that commonly used in a hateful way, you have Google at your disposal to learn more.

        2. Specialk9*

          It didn’t use to be, and the creator hates that it’s been stolen by the bigots, but… It’s a done deal by now, sadly.

          1. MCMonkeyBean*

            Everything I’ve read from him, he seems pretty ambivalent about it: “I don’t have any regrets about anything. I do my own thing, and if anything, it’s been kind of interesting to see all the evolutions of Pepe. Yeah, no regrets.”

            1. SleepyMel*

              No, he wants to take Pepe back. I donated $ to his gofundme page to take Pepe back from the alt right. But it was really just my way of saying “hey I’m sorry about what happened to your frog, here’s $20”

                1. AW*

                  Last I heard he’d officially killed off the character. The other characters had a funeral for him.

            2. The OG Anonsie*

              I took his initial reaction to mean he wasn’t sorry that he made a poorly drawn frog now that some other turds were using it for their own purposes, slash, that he didn’t feel personally responsible for the shift since that wasn’t what he was trying to do. Which I think is pretty valid, you know, who could have predicted a crappy frog to turn into this?

        3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I don’t think it’s demographic lines per se—I think it’s whether people are familiar with or active with internet forums / Twitter / social media and also whether they are hip to memes. IME, the lack of knowing seems to cut across political and demographic lines, although folks who are less active in the interactive forum/social media parts of the interweb do tend to trend a bit older. I’m sure for some folks there is also a bubble effect.

        4. Kat M.*

          I think it has more to do with your online habits than your age, although there’s obviously a ton of correlation between the two. Anyone on Reddit probably knows about Pepe, for example.

    2. Just Another Techie*

      I only recently learned about the use of triple-parentheses around a name as anti-Semitic hate speech. I’d been using multiple parens around a name since the early 2000’s to indicate giving the named person a hug, but apparently (according to ADL) it’s been used by white supremacists since 2014. I was ever so grateful when a friend gave me a little nudge and told me that hey, that thing doesn’t mean what it used to me.

      1. Beckie*

        And, in an additional bit of complexity, some Jewish people put the triple parentheses around their own names (especially on Twitter) in solidarity with those who are targeted by anti-Semitic attacks.

        1. Just Another Techie*

          Sure, but as a (no longer practicing but still culturally) Muslim, it would be *wildly* inappropriate for me to keep using it!

        2. Saysame*

          Non-Jewish folks do it too, as a sign of solidarity and a way to mess with Twitter trolls.

          1. queenbeemimi*

            I’ve seen Jewish people ask us not to, though. I’m sure they’re not the Official Spokespersons of Judaism Online or anything, but I’ve seen it enough that it makes me feel like the correct thing for me, a gentile, to do is… not.

      2. MuseumChick*

        I’m learning all kinds of new things today. I had never heard of this before. #themoreyouknow.

      3. Turquoise Cow*

        I married into a very liberal and politically active Jewish family (although my husband is not really practicing, his sister and her husband are rabbis), and I did not know this.

      4. Anonymous 40*

        The multiple-parentheses-hug thing goes back to at least the early days of public access to the internet with LOL and colon-parenthesis smilies. It was already a well established thing on AOL in 1995. I was so confused when I started seeing the new context. When I finally read the explanation I felt like a digital dinosaur.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Yes, this. This is (a small part of) what sucks about white supremacist organizations coopting otherwise innocuous symbols. Things that were super normal and non-offensive end up becoming something totally different, and it’s a real impediment to communication for those who are using prior forms of those symbols/punctuation.

    3. Kathleen Adams*

      I never ever never would have guessed this either. I consider myself fairly up on the news and social media, but I have been avoiding the media fringe ever since Election Day (it just pisses me off too much, and life’s too short), so I guess that’s why.

      Because otherwise, I would have said that a dancing frog sounds *great*.

      1. Moose and Squirrel*

        Yeah, I collect frogs so if I were unaware of the evolution of Pepe I could end up making a mistake like this. I would also be very, very greatful to whomever tipped me off to my faux pas.

    4. Nervous Accountant*

      Same. I follow a lot of meme pages on Instagram and I’ve seen Pepe used for like relationship stuff…never for hate speech, it’s so bizarre to me.

    5. just another day*

      omg, I’ve seen Pepe memes all over the place, but sarcastic ones, not hateful or racist ones! I’d have never have known this was a thing. I thought it was the equivalent of grumpy cat or Ermahgerd girl! egads!

      1. BuildMeUp*

        If I’m remembering right, it started as an ordinary meme and was co-opted by the alt-right.

        1. Snark*

          It was originally a cartoon character, and the cartoonist is the furthest thing from the alt-right, so it’s actually caused him a lot of pain to see his character – who was kind of sweet and awkward in the strip – turned into this totem of assholes.

          1. Gazebo Slayer*

            Yeah, it upset him so much he *killed off the character* (who as I understand it started off as sort of a lovable slacker/stoner). I feel really bad for that cartoonist losing his own creation that way.

    6. D.W.*

      Millennial here, I was not familiar with Pepe the Frog either. I just read an NPR article about it. I learned something today!

      LW, just let the HR person know. Frame it as a “I’m not sure if you’re aware…”.

    7. The Expendable Redshirt*

      Also, no clue who Pepe the frog was. I expected the HR Person was using the Loony Toon dancing frog.

  3. persimmon*

    There was a really interesting Reply All episode about how it happened that Pepe became a hate symbol, and how sad his original creator is about it. Might be helpful if she’s at all a podcast person.

    1. DecorativeCacti*

      I might have to listen to that myself because I thought that whole thing was blown out of proportion. I don’t see Pepe and think “hate speech” unless someone had literally put hate speech with the image. In which case I know whoever edited it is a bigot, but I don’t take it out on the frog.

      If I was the OP, I wouldn’t say anything.

      1. Mustache Cat*

        I don’t see Pepe and think “hate speech” unless someone had literally put hate speech with the image.

        That’s the point of how it gets used, though. It’s meant as a symbol that one racist can use to identify another racist, while seeming innocent enough that bystanders don’t understand what’s going on/giving them plausible deniability.

        1. AMPG*

          There are a ton of dog-whistle signifiers among the white supremacist underground, and it’s (IMO) worth it to do the research to be able to recognize them. Things like 88 (since H is the 8th letter of the alphabet, 88 = HH, which is short for “Heil Hitler) or “14 words” (which signifies a specific racist slogan that I’m not going to reprint).

          1. Snark*

            Unfortunately, shit like this is once again becoming a part of our national political and social discussion, so yes, people do need to know how this works.

          2. Nameless*

            You’d need to do a lot of research. For example, 88 is used by Chinese people as a cute way to say “goodbye”.

            1. Detective Amy Santiago*

              Context matters.

              If I saw a Chinese person using 88, I would not assume they were a white supremacist. Conversely, if I saw a white dude using it, I would not assume they were saying goodbye.

              1. AthenaC*

                … unless he’s fluent in Mandarin, married to a Chinese woman, friendly with the Chinese-American community, or any number of other not-rare scenarios.

                Assumptions are tricky.

                1. AMPG*

                  But that’s why you should know what these dog whistles are. If you’re a white person in a situation where using 88 with Chinese friends/family is a thing you do, you should know that there’s a different context if you use it around other white people.

                2. AthenaC*

                  @AMPG – If something is more commonly used by non-racists in a benign context, I question the wisdom of deeming it a “dog whistle.” Which applies to quite a few “dog whistles,” actually.

                  What outcome are we looking for here? Do we want to allow white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other hate groups to cordon off ever-increasing real estate in the English language? When we spend more time policing the words of non-racists than we do catching actual racists (which is what is happening), then something in your racist-detection software needs to be updated. For example, the number of things considered to be “dog-whistles” and potentially the concept of dog-whistle itself.

                3. pope suburban*

                  Well, that seems like a great time to employ the strategy recommended to this letter writer, and ask. “Hey, what does that mean?” is a pretty quick way to clear that kind of concern up. If the person is indeed Chinese-speaking or part of a Chinese family, they’ll say, “Oh, it’s a thing my family/friends/students do to say goodbye.” Of course, there lurks the possibility that this is *not* what one will hear, and so I couldn’t blame someone for not asking, it’s just that the tools to complete that picture (and possibly run far, far away) are easily available.

                4. AthenaC*

                  @pope suburban – but what gives YOU the authority to do that? Either: 1) you know the person well enough to know what they mean; or 2) that’s a weirdly invasive question to ask a stranger.

                5. Gadfly*

                  There is no harm in simply marking it as a red flag and then being cautious. If they keep having hints, you know to back away/run. If it is a one off thing or they do other things that suggest another meaning, proceed.

                6. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  When a significant part of the population uses it as a dog whistle, it’s not reasonable to try to trump that fact by saying “well not everyone” and thus “it’s not a dog whistle.” That is not how dog whistles work—their power/slickness is that they can also be deployed innocuously so that someone has plausible deniability. Your example is a perfect example of why we should be more attuned to and aware of dog whistles, as opposed to ignoring them and pretending they’re innocuous when they are not.

                7. pope suburban*

                  I was unaware that asking questions to learn thing or prevent misunderstandings was a reserved right? People have asked me what a turn of phrase means before, and it never occurred to me to think of it as some kind of arrogant or entitled grilling. Not everyone knows the same stuff, after all. There have been some pretty funny discussion upthread here, about just that.

                  Generally, I don’t know that it’s all that constructive to tell people that they can’t assume because it’s rude, but they can’t ask because it’s rude too. That’s how major and needless misunderstandings and errors happen. Being able to ask a question in good faith is important, and a big chunk of what AAM exists to teach people. Heck, that’s what this letter was about- learning to be forthright about important things that have the potential to be sticky.

                8. AthenaC*

                  @PCBH –

                  1) How do you know that “a significant portion of the population” uses it as a dog whistle? I don’t have data on that and I suspect you don’t either. But I do know that Chinese people (even Chinese people residing in the States) greatly outnumber racists that would use 88.
                  2) I never said “well not everyone.” Please read what I actually said.
                  3) From what I’ve seen, the only “power / slickness” of an alleged dogwhistle is to start arguments on whether a person who used it is a racist or not.

                  I think there’s two things going on here:

                  1) Factual dispute as to how common a racist or non-racist usage of something is (Although I have never encountered 88 out and about, because I spend much more time among Chinese speakers than I do among racists, I would be that if I do encounter 88, it would be the Chinese meaning rather than the racist meaning.)
                  2) Judgmental dispute as to when a symbol should formally be cordoned off as unacceptable for use. I totally agree that the n-word and the swastika are off-limits. But there’s a lot of gray area where things are rapidly changing, and I don’t think it’s wise to preemptively assign racists the victory over language.

                9. AthenaC*

                  @pope suburban – Must be a regional thing, or maybe I’ve lived in Chicago too long, but here there’s a difference between: 1) a thinly-veiled “are you a racist?” question; and 2) “awesome tie! Where did you get it?” And even when you do option #2, I get the sense that most people are only politely tolerant of the imposition into their time to give you the 10-second answer.

                  There’s also a difference in setting – here on AAM (and other sites), this is an acceptable setting to ask questions and discuss things. Out and about – not nearly as often.

                  In this specific letter, the OP has an existing work relationship with the person in question. And the question concerns communication that is directed at the OP as part of a group. The OP has standing to learn how to navigate and address this. If the OP merely overheard communication NOT directed at her, the answer might be different; it would be much more likely to be an unwelcome intrusion.

            2. Optimistic Prime*

              I just searched 88 and literally the first result in Google is the Anti-Defamation League’s entry about it. The third result is the Wikipedia article on 88, which explains both the Chinese and Neo-Nazi significance. The fourth result is a Slate article explaining the significance of it to white supremacists, and the fifth result is the Urban Dictionary entry for it.

          3. Chinook*

            Pity the poor hockey player who chose 88 for his jersey number because 1988 was a significant year for him.

            1. chomps*

              Like Patrick Kane? (Is that why he chose it? I never really thought about it before).

          4. De Minimis*

            The 14/88 thing I used to see more in chat rooms, not so much in real life. Might be different now, though.

            1. Nephron*

              You see it in comments mostly youtube and reddit. Going through videos by the Young Turks will have a few showing especially if they covered something about the alt-right.

            2. EmilyG*

              Unfortunately, yes. Here’s an article from today, about it showing up on building sites.


              “Several members of the union that represents crane operators and other heavy-machinery workers — who spoke to PlanPhilly under the condition of anonymity — say white supremacist symbols like the numbers 88 and 14 are commonly found inside trailers and on worksites across the city manned by Local 542.”

      2. The Strand*

        I’m surprised by that. We saw vandalism of Pepe at a grocery parking lot and knew exactly who it was targeting and what it meant.

      3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Would you say the same thing about a swastika? Or the triple parentheses echo? Or other terms/images used instrumentally to refer to white supremacy? Because that’s how Pepe is being used, and the image has that connotation regardless of whether it accompanies “literal” hate speech.

    2. sam*

      This was a really good episode (and a great show generally).

      Also, this is literally a conversation I had to have with my stepmom recently. She LOVES texting “cute” emojis to people. I had to sit her down and give her a (very depressing) lesson in what all of the “alternative” hate-y and/or political meanings for various emojis were just so she didn’t accidentally declare herself a member of the alt-right. (or for that matter, the DSA).

          1. Kinsley M.*

            Ok but my love of Beauty and the Beast is symbolized by a red rose too, and I’d argue the Disney use is way more prevalent.

            1. The OG Anonsie*

              I mean, it depends on where you are. Like, a frog or a rose don’t only mean the one thing in all contexts. But if you see a dude with a bunch of frog emojis in his name on Twitter or wearing around a pin of it, that dude is likely making a specific statement. If your buddy sends you a rose emoji in a text that doesn’t suddenly become different in meaning than he intended.

          2. Kiki*

            Huh, TIL. I’m not in the habit of sending red rose emojis to people, but my husband sometimes sends them to me. Next time he does I’ll accuse him of befriending socialists a-la Tim Curry as Wadsworth.

          3. Just Another Techie*

            And here I was embarrassed when a younger cousin had to explain to me what eggplants mean. Sigh.

            1. DataQueen*

              That’s the one I told my mom never to use again, and everyone should warn thier moms about. Anything else, I think we can allow them to me clueless moms.

                1. Specialk9*

                  I can’t help but mentally hold up an eggplant against penises I’ve seen and think, naaaaahhhhh, but maybe a small cucumber. But good to know the double meaning!

                2. LBK*

                  FWIW I think there was a dearth of phallic imagery in the early sets of emojis and that was about as close as you could get. There’s probably more physiologically accurate options available now but that one has kinda stuck around out of tradition.

                3. Moose and Squirrel*

                  I always used the banana for that. Sigh. I need to have a more exciting life.

                4. Gadfly*

                  It was also initally referencing asian eggplants (the shape fit a little better) and the color…

            2. Decima Dewey*

              I didn’t know this. Now I miss the days when I thought an eggplant was a vegetable in ratatouille.

            3. Your Weird Uncle*

              IIRC, George Stephanopoulos was on some morning program shortly after Apple released a set of new emojis and said, ‘My teenage daughter is really into the eggplant and the taco emojis!’

              I’m still cringing for both of them.

            4. Alex the Alchemist*

              I had to explain to my pastor once that “Cake By the Ocean” by DNCE wasn’t about actual cake. Talk about awkward.

              1. Dim Senior*

                I… did not know that. Puts the “see you licking frosting from your own hands” line in a very new light….

              2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                There’s a really funny Carpool Karaoke episode with Nick Jonas and Demi Lovato. Nick tries to explain how his brother and DNCE came up with the phrase (apparently it was an ESL moment where they were trying to recall “sex on the beach” and ended up with “cake by the ocean”).

            5. mrs__peel*

              My 26-year-old sister told me that she only *just* figured the eggplant thing out. (And she’s a married woman to boot! She doesn’t waste nearly as much time on the internet as I do, though…)

            6. Artemesia*

              So sad to learn this as eggplants are our family Christmas celebration symbol for reasons that are entirely innocent of its emoji meaning and totally idiosyncratic to the family. Every year someone gets an eggplant themed gift.

              1. pope suburban*

                Now I’m reminded of the traditional (German? I’ve heard it so attributed, but it’s kind of got a whiff of urban legend about it) pickle ornament for the Christmas tree, and giggling because my inner twelve year-old is apparently close to the surface today.

          4. SJ*

            I didn’t know this until recently and I had a red rose next to my name on Twitter because I thought it was cute. I was like GAHHHH! and changed it to a different flower.

          5. LBK*

            Well, this is super confusing with all the Sasha Velour fans who’ve added it to their profiles recently…

              1. Elizabeth H.*

                It has much more radical/extreme/fringey connotations in the US because our mainstream political parties are further right than in a lot of other western countries.

                1. Kiki*

                  Is the DSA considered extreme or radical in some areas? I guess I can see that, if it’s a very conservative area. I live somewhere extremely liberal so the DSA is not mainstream but not seen as radical either.

                2. Elizabeth H.*

                  Not like it’s a radical party like the Symbionese Liberation Army or something but like in the US we don’t have any mainstream socialist parties and it’s not accepted as a “normal” part of the political spectrum, with members of the party well represented in the parliamentary body, in the same way it might be in Canada or European countries.

                3. sam*

                  Kiki – while the DSA is an actual organization, some of its more “colorful” members are basically part of the alt-left brocialist crowd that can be as fringe-y as the alt-right.

                  It’s one thing if you *want* to identify yourself that way. it’s another if you put the red rose in your twitter handle because you think it’s cute, and you’ve accidentally scared half your family into thinking you’re quitting your job to become a member of antifa and write for Jacobin.

                4. AD*

                  Are we lumping in the DSA w/hate groups? I’m hoping that’s not the direction this conversation is going in.

                5. Elizabeth H.*

                  @AD No, not at all – it was originally referenced as an example of inadvertently mis-identifying yourself with any type of group/belief, even one that wasn’t especially controversial or viewed in a negative light. Commenter sam had written “. . . just so she didn’t accidentally declare herself a member of the alt-right. (or for that matter, the DSA)” – I think sam was using it as a counter-example.

                6. sb*

                  Also, the subset of the DSA that is using the rose emoji a lot on twitter is not the entire DSA, and is mostly the brocialist/fringe crowd. The non-edgy socialists just use their words.

      1. Another person*

        That is way too much to keep track of. Some small splinter group starts using an emoji to mean something to each other and no one else is “allowed” to use it anymore? 99% of the population doesn’t know unless they specifically look it up. Why shouldn’t she use the ones she likes in her personal correspondence?

        I would argue against the use of emojis in the work place at all, though, since in most offices I’ve worked in, using emojis in general would be seen as unprofessional.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Far more than 1% of the population is aware of this.

          But it doesn’t matter. No one is saying she’s a terrible person for using it unknowingly. But it’s inappropriate for work, and so it should be explained to her.

          1. Another person*

            I’m not talking about Pepe, I’m talking about the red rose and the whole list of other things someone told their step mom not to use. That is going way too far IMO.

              1. Formica Dinette*

                IMO, there are few emojis that one shouldn’t use (like Pepe). For the rest… eh, life is full of symbolism you may or may not be aware of. That’s why us olds used to say, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              I think it’s more about being aware of what your words/symbols mean. It’s ok not to know all of it, but it’s also worth knowing what’s out there so that you don’t accidentally send out a signal you may not mean (or that misrepresents your values/identity), like OP’s coworker.

              1. The OG Anonsie*

                Exactly. No one is arguing you can’t text a rose or a frog to your friends, but you might need to know what it will look like if you put it in your Twitter handle or something.

        2. Kimberlee, Esq.*

          It’s not so much that others aren’t allowed to use it, it’s that if you use a symbol, you probably want to be aware if you’re accidentally associating yourself with something you don’t want to. Sure, you CAN put a Pepe emoji in your twitter handle if you think its cute, but then a lot of people on Twitter will think you’re a Nazi. It’s just how symbols work… they mean different things over time. And if I were using a symbol that made other people assume certain things about me, I would certainly want to know, if only so I could make an informed decision about whether or my intended audience would agree.

        3. NW Mossy*

          My company uses instant-messaging software like the OP’s that will automatically turn certain characters in parentheses into emojis. This seems fine until you’re trying to cite sections of the tax code and get 401(k) turned into 401-red-smoochy-lips and 403(b) into 403-pint-of-beer. In a message to the head of your division. I still have residual embarrassment and it was 2 years ago!

          1. HB*

            I used that exact instant message program at my accounting job! Haha, the kissy is the worst!

          2. Wintermute*

            TO avoid that a lot of people use spaces, so 403( b ) because the last thing you want is something potentially sensitive turned into a silly face.

      2. Katniss*

        Yup, and Facebook stickers get taken over by this stuff too. Like Trash Dove a couple of months ago.

          1. Katniss*

            At some point, for some reason, it got taken over by alt-right people and MRA/MGTOW groups especially and became a calling card for each other to invade different liberal-minded Facebook groups. It happened a lot on Everyday Feminism, Exposing Men’s Rights Activism, Dismantle Misogyny, and a few other groups: any post would eventually be invaded by members of hate groups flooding it with that dove.

      3. Specialk9*

        I don’t know any of these emoji meanings. Do you have a link? I don’t even know what DSA stands for.

        1. feminazgul*

          Democratic Socialists of America. The rose (not just the rose emoji) has been the symbol of the DSA for decades, it’s not new. Nobody is saying the rose emoji only means socialist folks, but it’s been used as a shorthand way for people to identify each other.

    3. Amber T*

      What made me realize that symbols are ever changing with history was, funnily enough Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code (the movie, though I’m sure it was explained in the book too, I just don’t remember). Think of the swastika – if you saw that painted on a wall or someone wearing it, you’d know exactly what that person is trying to say. The swastika has been around for thousands of years and has meant things like “goodness.” Yet in more recent history, it’s original meaning was twisted horrifically and is now a symbol for something disgusting.

      OP, I don’t think she’ll be mad at you for telling her. I think she’s going to be extremely embarrassed, but if she’s a decent person, she’ll thank you for the heads up and stop using it.

      1. MuseumSara*

        There was a piece of pottery from ancient Greece with a swastika on it at the museum I used to work at. I had quite a few conversations with people who were upset to see it but then calmed down and became interested to discover the history of the symbol and what it had previously meant.

        1. Gadfly*

          It is on some of the earliest pottery and woven goods we have–one of humanity’s most primordial symbols. And theose monsters ruined it for the Western world. My husband has a lot of ties to India, and it can be emotionally hard sometimes as a blue eyed blonde for me to have some of his stuff like books and art and such with swastikas on display in our home. A black vashnava can get away with it better than I can. And I know some of his paler and even from India co-religionists have gotten side-eye or worse when they have stuff like a bag or saree with it.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        The swastika is a religious symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism that’s literally several thousands of years old. Hitler coopted it when he set out to create all his mythology about “Aryans” and a “perfect/pure race.” But yes, it’s extraordinarily frustrating for people from those religious groups because it retains religious meaning (and you’ll find swastikas all over India/Nepal), but it has a very different context outside of South Asia.

      3. Elizabeth West*

        When I was a kid, I found out about the old swastika before I found out about the Nazi co-opting of it. So of course what did I do? Scratched some into my nightstand, which I still have. I really need to refinish that thing. >_<

        1. Ego Chamber*

          Eh, it happens. When I was in 2nd grade we watched a documentary about Japan and swastikas (or whatever the correct term for them when the arms go the other way is) were kind of all over the place.

          So what did I do? I drew a bunch of them on a piece of paper and folded a crane out of it, because I was bored or something, I dunno… and then I got screamed at by some of my classmates who were more woke than I was. because I didn’t know about the holocaust when I was 8. Fun times.

    4. DataQueen*

      Persimmon, you beat me to it – This episode was excellent, and I was so glad I listened to it, because I had NO IDEA this frog that i’d seen plenty of times on the internet was a hate symbol. And I consider myself fairly hip and up to speed on memes, and I had no idea. It’s definitely helpful! Any episode where they have a segment of Yes Yes No is just so interesting, and it shows me a new side of things, especially political topics, very frequently.

    5. memyselfandi*

      I was coming here to reference the Reply All podcast on this topic. All this stuff about the meaning attached to emojis is something I really haven’t grappled with. Symbols and their meanings are what bind a society together. Yet we live in a society compartmentalized by the variety of means of communication. And, things evolve. But, sometimes an eggplant is just an eggplant.

  4. Steve*

    Sometimes I don’t understand why the letter writers can’t see the answer. This is one of those times. Just tell the person is the obvious answer.

    1. Leatherwings*

      I don’t think that’s fair! Especially in a situation like this where there’s so much cultural stuff and politics wrapped up in it that it can make it awkward and uncomfortable at work!

      I agree with Allison’s answer, but these kinds of conversations can be tough to have.

      1. The Supreme Troll*

        Yes, and I believe it is normal human nature to be apprehensive that when explaining something like this, the other person can take it the wrong way and be defensive about it. At least, that is my personal feeling and why I sometimes can be too cautious.

        1. Samata*

          Or apprehensive because she could say “oh, I know what it means”..and then you have to deal with having an HR person who is that inappropriate.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Also, most people are conflict averse and are not comfortable with being direct. Bringing up this issue is going to feel awkward, and most people avoid having awkward conversations if they think they can live with the discomfort. And I think that’s particularly true with symbols that touch on emotionally-charged issues, like white supremacy and racism, because no one wants to inadvertently accuse their coworker of bandying about a really racist image if it’s clear that the coworker had no idea of what the image meant.

    2. Coffee Addict*

      It’s hard to see things clearly when you’re in the thick of things. It’s awkward to bring things like this up at work, especially with a coworker that might be sensitive to this kind of feedback.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          So very much of this. I also think we’re in a semi-unique political moment where people are feeling their politics on a very visceral level, which can make it hard to remember that the symbology isn’t really about partisan politics (well, unless you’re a white supremacist). And I’m sure it feels even more frustrating when you have to see it used repeatedly and are already frustrated/annoyed.

          I’m hoping OP will be able to take a step back and either speak to their coworker or convince others to take up the issue. I imagine the HR person will be mortified to have misused the symbol, and if they’re a normal person, will not want to propagate white supremacist hate speech on their official business communications. If I were making this mistake I would want to know. I think a gentle, non-accusatory, direct conversation could go a long way, here.

    3. Not Neo*

      I sort of felt the same way (tell her, obviously!) But then, a while back a coworker connected with me on LinkedIn and I noticed her tagline referenced “taking the red pill.” It’s a Matrix reference, but one that’s been co-opted by a particularly unpleasant set of anti-feminist MRAs.

      “Someone should tell her,” I thought. I have yet to do so because it feels super awkward.

      To be fair, I don’t really know this person. We worked on opposite coasts and have never met in person, and even our email contact was quite limited. Still…

    4. Elizabeth H.*

      I think a lot of the time the person has an idea of what they can do to solve the problem/what they want to do but write in for help on specific wording, which Alison is really helpful with.

    5. Stellaaaaa*

      Sometimes letters have a subtext of “But really, am I correct in thinking this is a problem in the first place?” and I think this is one of them. If Alison’s answer and the rest of the comments had a vibe of “It’s only 7 online racists using that emoji in the alt way, so there’s no need to ‘educate’ someone who you know is already on the correct side of the issues, or to tell her to stop using an emoji that she enjoys using.” But since it’s clear that a lot of people know about the implications of using the emoji, that validates the OP and gives her more standing to bring it up.

      Identifying problems worth solving (as opposed to things that just ping our individual radar) is one of those intuitive things that is necessary to learn but hard to get a concrete education in. It’s good to ask if you’re unsure.

    6. Charisma*

      Sometimes you really need to have someone objective give you permission to do the “obvious” thing and hot button issues have a tendency to give people tunnel vision. Situations like this can be incredibly touchy if handled the wrong way. An outside perspective is not a horrible thing to reach out for.

      1. Specialk9*

        Or just need help with a script for how to say something touchy… or whether the OP has to be the one to throw themself on the hand grenade or best just left alone.

        1. Charisma*

          Exactly! Especially within a workplace environment. If this was purely a “social” environment, the majority of people wouldn’t be this cautious when broaching the topic and I’d imagine that someone would have said something long ago. But that isn’t the case. It’s the workplace, and workplaces are fraught with potentially unforeseen consequences if you act out (even with good intentions) on impulse alone.

    7. MCMonkeyBean*

      I think a lot of times they know the answer but are afraid of confrontation so they just need an extra push to tell them they definitely should have that conversation they suspected they needed to have.

    8. GirlwithaPearl*

      I agree Steve, and I also think this is one of those things that white people (I assumed LW is white because I think she would have mentioned otherwise) need to take on and not leave to people of color to handle alone.

      In face power and privilege trainings these are called courageous conversations or accountability conversations and they are really important and attainable anti racism strategies white people can employ. At a bare minimum.

  5. This Daydreamer*

    Ouch. I winced just reading about this. I don’t blame you for not wanting to have that conversation but someone has to. And please gods let this be a case of simply not knowing what Pepe is.

  6. Sibley*

    Pepe is a bad thing now? I’m sad! I thought it was just a cute drawing.

    Seriously people, STOP with the taking over of perfectly good things for bad purposes. (Pepe, the swastika, etc).

    1. Jaguar*

      Yeah, it’s kinda weird that a letter writer that describes themselves (tangentially, anyway) as Internet savvy seems to deny the massive, decade-long use of the meme in a non-political way and only acknowledge the more recent (and I would say context-specific) connotation.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        She’s not denying the previous use of it! But the point is that it’s now considered a hate symbol. Symbols and meanings can change over time, and you can acknowledge a current meaning without being oblivious to a previous one. Swastikas used to have a non-offensive meaning, but that doesn’t change the fact that it would be wildly inappropriate to use one now.

        1. Jaguar*

          Well, denying was the wrong word. Seemingly unaware would be a better description.

          I don’t want to get too far into this because it’s a dumb meme and who cares, but it’s worth noting for the OP, if they’re unaware, that there is a huge history of innocuous use of the image and only a very recent and of debatable size usage of it as a white supremacist thing. I don’t think it’s accurate or truthful to say it’s a hate speech thing now. I think it’s only accurate to say that it is in certain contexts. It’s easy to only find out about Pepe recently and then only know that understanding of it, but it would be similar to hear Native Americans being called “Indians” and think it’s racist. The context of usage does matter. And just personally, having some white supremacists start using something and then everyone just surrendering it to them bugs me. Why do they get to have it?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I mean, the ADL now lists it as a hate symbol.

            Regardless of its history, that’s where it’s at now. So for the purpose of this letter, an HR person using it in work correspondence is wildly inappropriate and needs to stop.

            1. JessaB*

              OMG I just Googled ADL Hate Symbols and the very first “is this what you’re looking for” pop up whilst I was typing was Pepe. Either Google is so amazingly onto what I’m looking at and threw that on because we’re talking about Pepe, or it’s really a way bigger thing than I thought.

          2. Leatherwings*

            I seriously doubt that the OP is unaware of this. But it’s not debatable that this is now been co-opted as a racist image. And not in certain contexts either. But even so, in the work context that’s where it probably matters the most.

            It sucks that it’s now a hateful image, but I find it vastly useless to sit around and wonder if it’s okay in some contexts and not in others. At work, you cannot use symbols that have been widely coopted by nazis.

            1. Falling Diphthong*

              This. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the number 88 or the initials HH (i.e. 8th letter of the alphabet)–but you should not have a cute emoji you think sends the message ‘soooooo cute’ incorporating that imagery when others will recognize it as an alt-right invocation of Heil Hitler. And if you do by accident, like Sam’s stepmom, it’s kind of other people to fill you in.

              1. AndersonDarling*

                My husband had to fill me in on the 88. I was thinking that 8’s were good luck…but not anymore.

                1. SarahTheEntwife*

                  They are lucky in Chinese culture — there’s a chain of grocery stores called Super 88.

              2. EEKS*

                EEKS. I didn’t know about HH. I work for a business called HH for short. It’s a law firm and the two named partner’s names start with H like Harrison and Hendricks. Our business cards and other marketing material have HH all over them.

                1. Falling Diphthong*

                  Here I think context gives you a break–if it’s in an innocuous context then people will look for the other possible meanings. Same with 88 in a Chinese context.

                  But if you’re going to play devil’s advocate on a comment thread, and your avatar is an 88, people are likely to figure you’re deliberately adding a layer of “hey, those in the know, I am one of you.” (And if someone thinks it should obviously invokes Herbert Hoover in political discussion, kind of someone else to tell them that’s not the default meaning.)

                  Before you get HH tattooed on your body (as an ode to your grandmother Hope Hickenlooper) it would be kind if the tattoo artist mentioned that most people with an HH tattoo are not thinking “Grandma was an early member of the ACLU, and I want to commemorate that.”

                2. Manders*

                  I’m ethnically Jewish and pretty clued into dog-whistle Semitism, and I don’t think you would have to worry about this one. I’d be suspicious if I saw HH or 88 in a tattoo or a social media profile, but in this case it’s pretty clear that it’s the firm’s initials and it’s not terribly uncommon for businesses or individuals to have those initials.

                  The awkward thing about the Pepe symbol is that jerks chose something they knew would be confusing to outsiders, and tricking an older lady into unknowingly using the symbol and making other people uncomfortable is part of the appeal for them.

                3. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                  The awkward thing about the Pepe symbol is that jerks chose something they knew would be confusing to outsiders, and tricking an older lady into unknowingly using the symbol and making other people uncomfortable is part of the appeal for them.

                  This pretty much sums it up.

                4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  When it refers to actual names, you’re usually safe. I have a classmate whose initials are HH. No one thinks she’s a white supremacist for using them to represent her name.

                5. EmilyG*

                  I don’t think that’s a problem because HH isn’t used as a slogan as far as I know. The reason 88 became a slogan is that Nazi symbols are forbidden in Germany. 88 was a sneaky way for neonazis to get around the laws and identify each other. In the US there are no laws against the more blatant forms like “Heil Hitler” itself but it’s a dogwhistle and I suspect it also seems kind of clever to them.

                  They take that very seriously over in Germany, by the way.

            2. Jaguar*

              Yeah, I think I’m just very skeptical of how wide it’s been used as hate speech and disturbed by how quickly people have been to surrender it as hate speech. The ADA thing happened extremely fast, which is bizarre. I think a lot of people don’t see any racist association with the image.

              But of course context matters. If someone tweeted out that they just ate whatever their favourite food is and attached a “Feels good man” Pepe image, you’d see something as problematic there? People still use the meme in its original form, and people in the comments here have been surprised to learn about the white supremacist angle on it. At some point, demanding everyone stop using it becomes advertising on behalf of its new meaning.

              1. Leatherwings*

                I don’t mean to be glib, but this isn’t something you’re going to be able to be skeptical about if you do some googling.

                Maybe on some platforms there are none co-opted versions of this meme. But in the political world it’s 100% coopted and you cannot use it on your office slack channel.

                And this probably isn’t the appropriate place to be discussing re-claiming this image, but the office slack channel certainly isn’t the place to do it. And to be frank, I would never want to be associated with it and am skeptical of someone who would take up that mantle even passively.

                1. Gadfly*

                  Well, ‘It was just a joke’ is pretty widely accepted as a legitimate excuse for all sorts of nastiness. As long as that is true, that is what it will pretend to be.

            3. Snark*

              “At work, you cannot use symbols that have been widely coopted by nazis.”

              Things I never expected to see written on AAM.

              1. Kelly L.*

                Once again, we’re in sync with Captain Awkward, which this week featured “don’t date Nazis.”

            4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              Yeah; the OP seems pretty aware that it had an innocuous history. Isn’t that the story for most images/symbols that are converted into symbols of hatred and bigotry? Many of them have (or had) long histories of widespread and non-offensive use. The swastika is an obvious example, as is the cross. But there are others, as well.

              Depending on context, that long, innocuous history unfortunately does not outweigh or cancel or invalidate the fact that a symbol is now used by a significant portion of the population as a mascot for hate speech.

          3. Dulf*

            Work correspondence isn’t the right place to start reclaiming the emoji, even if you think that is something worth doing.

          4. Just Answering*

            I agree. If we end up taking offense and allowing evil to corrupt every symbol, we’ll soon have no symbols left and nothing we can say. If it is not put into the context of hate, then I wouldn’t assume it has anything to do with hate. Why allow good things to be “stolen?” Why accept the symbolism?

            And, seriously, the ADF isn’t the Almighty. They definitely make mistakes, and they certainly have their own agenda at times.

            1. Falling Diphthong*

              Um, you can’t have a symbol and ignore its meaning. That ignores the entire concept of ‘symbol.’

            2. Pearly Girl*

              Isn’t this rather hyperbolic? This is a rare case of evil corrupting one symbol.

            3. N.J.*

              Well, you may be right to a certain point, but we also can’t ignore when symbols are associated with something evil. For example, the swastika has been a deeply sacred religious symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism etc. since the time of ancient civilization, but it would be naive and ill advised to ignore that the Nazi’s co-opted it as their symbol and that in modern history it is associated, in many contexts, with hateful ideas. That doesn’t mean that someone who is using it for a legitimate symbolic purpose, say, a religious ceremony, can’t use it. It does mean that somebody throwing it around in an instant messaging system would be deeply misguided or willfully hateful, depending. It’s not that far of a stretch to consider this Pepe the Frog thing in the same way. We can’t ignore that symbols start out positive or neutral then can be used for hateful things and the impact those symbols then have because of that dichotomy between what it used to mean and what it means now.

            4. Specialk9*

              You don’t get to decide what meaning people take from symbols that have been adopted by, and clearly associated with, groups that want to harm and genocide whole groups of people. You just don’t.

              1. Electric Hedgehog*

                Not to be a butt about this, but isn’t that the whole idea of this post? To force someone else to take a specific meaning to her emoji that she almost certainly did not intend?

                I think what you actually meant to say is ‘You don’t get to decide that a symbol associated with hate speech means something other than its worst possible connotation’. Which I agree with in a work setting, but maybe not in people’s personal lives.

                1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                  No, the point is to make the HR lady aware that this is ONE of the possible meanings, and therefore maybe not great to use as a casual thing at the office.

                2. Anon for this2*

                  Assuming the emoji is even recognizable as a Pepe stand in to anyone other than the OP. Again, I think that operation in an abundance of caution with regards to symbols in the workplace is a winning plan of action.

                3. Specialk9*

                  The alt right is more personal to me than perhaps to you. They want me and my child to die and that’s hard not to take personally. This is apparently a low stakes argument to you and I’m getting angry. So I’m going to stop.

                4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  If that’s what you’re taking away as the “whole idea of this post,” then you’re missing the whole idea of the post.

                  I don’t understand the “ostrich in the sand” approach to symbology. Symbols have meaning. Sometimes really repugnant and horrific ideological groups coopt or adopt symbols, and then the meaning changes. Wouldn’t you rather be aware that your symbol could mean something harmful to others than to simply ignore it and say, “well, it doesn’t mean that to me!”

                  This is not how language, symbols, or communication work. They aren’t defined by how we feel individually, and acknowledging that language is informed by social context is not “forcing” someone to accept a meaning they don’t intend. It’s the equivalent of giving someone a dictionary definition that says, “1. A cartoon created by X. 2. (pejorative) a symbol coopted by white supremacists to signal racial hatred towards non-whites.”

                5. seejay*

                  And to piggyback on what PCBH said: symbols convey unspoken meaning to people that will give first (second/third) impressions to people. While someone might not outwardly say “I’m a racist!” if they’re wearing a Pepe pin or something similar, I’m going to make a judgement about them based on that and file that away as whether they’re “safe” or “not safe” in my books (or trustworthy, etc). If some situation arises where I need to approach this person, I’ve already catagorized them as unsafe.

                  Direct example in my workplace: we have a member in our HR who vocally supported a certain politician that is in direct opposition to everything our office represents. Three of us know this and have all classified this person as unsafe since that politician is a direct threat to who we are: queer, women and/or immigrants. This person is in HR and we’re *supposed* to be able to trust them as HR, but none of us do because they’ve made their political affiliation known and it’s directly in opposition to who we are. Maybe they wouldn’t hold our sexual identity, gender or immigration status against us, but… we also don’t know if they would because it’s an unknown factor. They supported a politician that was vocal against these three particular factors so why would we trust that they’d treat us fairly? We can’t risk it.

                  This person spoke about their political support, but it would have been the same if they wore a pin or such showing their support of said politician. Symbols have meanings and tell you something about a person and sometimes you need to make a judgement about whether you can trust that person based on that.

            5. NaoNao*

              But it’s not “taking offense”. It’s recognizing that certain groups, whose behavior is something “you” wouldn’t want yourself aligned with, have, for the moment, co-opted (and very thoroughly) a symbol. By continuing to insist on using it “in a non-hate way”, you’re downplaying the power of symbols to be used as dogwhistle identifiers, *which can be denied as such because they can point to people who “refuse” to use it in that way*. “But look at Linda! There’s no way she’s a _____!” Thus hate groups are able to continue their “work” without strong resistance.
              Additionally, symbols, as have been pointed out here, are there to clue a viewer in to one data point.
              In a discussion about an unrelated (yet politically fraught) topic, a male friend asked me plaintively “Well, you mean I can NEVER say _____?”.
              I answered: “You can. I just have a significant data point about you that you may not want me having or that might not accurately reflect on your actual views and who you are. That’s all. Consider that.”
              Many people have asked throughout modern history hard questions of “how did this atrocity happen?”
              The answer is, sadly, usually because average citizens chose to look away, “refuse to take offense”, declare it not their business, or operate in fear.

              1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                Thank you for spelling this out so clearly and for taking the time to do it. It’s very helpful and bang on.

          5. animaniactoo*

            Because sometimes they can’t prevent it, particularly if it’s not copyrighted or the copyright owner has not defended the copyright enough so that they’ve basically lost the right.

            Of the many things that Fred Rogers did to earn my undying admiration (apart from by all accounts genuinely being a nice guy and exactly who you saw on tv every day), was to enforce his copyright on the theme song for his show when the KKK started using it for parodies on their phone lines:


            1. Tuesday*

              Good lord. The description of that phone recording is nauseating. How are people so awful?

            2. Ego Chamber*

              There’s no obligation to defend a copyright and copyrights can’t be lost. You’re thinking trademarks.

          6. Lln*

            I became a big fan of the original cartoon back when it first went viral on StumbleUpon and such, but if I were in the OP’s situation I’d have written basically the exact same letter. Pepe’s innocent past simply isn’t relevant to this issue – nobody’s accusing the HR rep of anything except being unaware of neo-nazi symbolism, which is not in and of itself a bad thing!

          7. Cyrus*

            ” I don’t think it’s accurate or truthful to say it’s a hate speech thing now.”

            Few people here seem to think that the HR rep was intentionally using it that way. They’re concerned that she’s probably unaware of its connotations.

            “And just personally, having some white supremacists start using something and then everyone just surrendering it to them bugs me. Why do they get to have it?”

            It’s not like they get to have all frogs, or all uses of the phrase “feels bad, man.” But draw the frog with MS Paint in a particular style and include the phrase or something derivative of it and we’re getting distinctive. Likewise, “storm front” is the name of a white supremacist Web site, of a novel about a wizard detective in which the weather is a plot point, and of a common meteorological phenomenon. If anyone gets the Web site confused with the book, it should only take 30 seconds to explain that there’s no connection. (For the record, the Web site is older, but didn’t become well-known until after the book was published.)

          8. Kate 2*

            Agreed! As this comment section shows, most people did not know about Pepe the frog. Not only that, apparently the coworker isn’t even using Pepe!! She is just using *a* frog emoji. Sorry people, but I love frogs and I am not going to stop using them because some jerks also use them. I am reclaiming frogs!

      2. Jessie the First (or second)*

        Well, yes, of course the image was used in a vastly different way, but that does not change that it has been unfortunately co-opted as hate speech by a group of people. Sure, you can argue “but it didn’t used to be that! And it isn’t always that now! So I don’t mean anything by it!” But there are an almost infinite number of *other* symbols that have NO connection to hate-speech, and this is just a silly emoji on a chat program, and so why die on the hill of “but I like the meme”? As an HR rep, do you think she wants to be worrying every new hire who sees that emoji and has to spend time anxiously wondering if she *means* the message behind it?

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          This, absolutely.

          Is there a notable benefit in using that particular image? Is there a notable negative to using that image? I’m not seeing a plus to outweigh the minus.

          1. myswtghst*

            This is where I land on it. When the positive is “I like the cute dancing frog” and the negative is “employees might think HR is cool with white supremacy”, I feel like it’s time to stop using the emoji.

      3. Leatherwings*

        The prior history doesn’t matter so much in everyday use when it’s *now* considered to be a hate symbol. I don’t think it’s even remotely necessary for the OP or anyone in their workplace to acknowledge the benevolent history.

        1. LCL*

          No, it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge the benevolent history of something that was corrupted, if you are going to tell them to stop using the symbol because it now has a bad meaning. OP wants to act in good faith and tell HR person why the meme is now bad. If OP wants to do this, for the most effective and respectful adult to adult conversation OP will have to briefly mention the background. It’s not enough to tell someone to stop using inflammatory symbols or terms if the thing being discussed is a dog whistle item. That’s the very essence of a dog whistle, it’s meaning is hidden if you don’t know it already.

      4. BananaPants*

        Until maybe 6 months ago I had no idea that Pepe was an extreme political/hate symbol now. Fortunately, very few people on my social media friends lists are folks who would use it in the current context and I usually don’t get involved in political discussions/debates online. I just didn’t SEE it that much – I kept seeing it used by overtly-racist commenters on news sites and Googled it, but until then I seriously had no idea.

        I can see someone who’s reasonably tech-savvy still not knowing what this particular cartoon frog has been recently associated with.

    2. Myrin*

      Right? I’m not a huge fan of Pepe in particular because I find him pretty ugly but in general, I’m very up-to-date and knowledgeable with regards to memes and I’ve literally never before heard or seen any of this “Pepe embodies hate speech” thing before. I am, to use a relevant expression, shook.

      1. Sleepyhead*

        It’s interesting how many different responses are here in regards to knowing about it being a hate symbol or not. I’m in Canada but it was even in the news here a few weeks ago when the creator killed off Pepe because he was so disgusted by how its been co-opted.

        If you spend any time near reddit or similar sites, it’s hard to avoid seeing some discussion of Pepe as a symbol for alt right.

        1. Myrin*

          I dislike reddit and the only maybe-similar site I could see this on is tumblr, but even there I only follow a handful of people so if they don’t post about it, I’ll never know. I’m also not in the US or even an English-speaking country in general and don’t really follow the news, so I’m not hugely surprised this shift didn’t reach me (okay, no, that’s lie, I’m still shook).

          1. Jessie the First (or second)*

            I am never on reddit. Never look at tumblr. It’s definitely been in the news, with stories in mainstream places (WaPo for example). But if you do not follow news, and you don’t dive into the basement of reddit, and you don’t hang out with white supremacists, it is hardly surprising that you wouldn’t know!

            And that is the appeal of these symbols to a lot of these hate groups – they co-opt seemingly benign things. They know what it means to them and it acts as a calling card – a coded hello to other members – and word of its use gets out *just enough* so that people who are targeted by these groups may know what it means…but plenty of other people will not know, and will continue to use them. And then, the targets of those groups are faced with anxiety because they see these images in places and have to stress- “is this person part of that group? Is this a message? Do I need to be worried?”

            Which is why NOT using them, if you are not part of that hate group, is a wise choice. Using it even benignly feeds into their mission (to spread fear and anxiety). Reclaiming is possible but it can’t be done just by using it, and certainly not in work chat programs. So telling HR would be a kindness here.

            1. BananaPants*

              Exactly. I subscribe to and read WaPo, but I must have missed articles about it (I get the digital edition and usually only read “above the fold”, as it were). I just don’t go to subreddits where use of Pepe is a thing. Tumblr isn’t my thing. For personal social media it’s Facebook, Twitter, and occasional Instagram and fortunately none of my friends appear to be the sort of people who use Pepe in the current context.

              I thought Pepe was kind of ugly, but didn’t get why I kept seeing the picture pop up on Facebook comments on news stories and on Tweets. I eventually noticed that it usually showed up along with racist or sexist comments about news stories along with a then-candidate’s tag line hashtag, but it took a while before I googled it and discovered that the ugly cartoon frog was actually an alt-right thing.

          2. Raine*

            Pepe was actually huge on tumblr not long ago (couple years maybe) because the meme morphed into the “rare pepe” meme which was basically ‘find or photoshop pepe outside of the comic context’ and was generally super cute and harmless. When I heard it had been coopted by hate sites my first thought was ‘how even??’

      2. chomps*

        Do you hang out in political spaces on the internet? I do and I’ve known about Pepe as a white supremacist symbol for months. And I’d never seen it before that. So it’s pretty well known among people who follow this stuff.

        1. Myrin*

          Not at all (especially not American ones, but not really ones of my own country, either) which I guess is the explanation for that. Still, I encounter the regular Pepe often enough that I’d have thought I’d heard about this somewhere, but I guess not.

  7. Michael*

    If the icon was uploaded as a custom icon, then perhaps a system admin person could remove it.

    1. k.k*

      This is a great idea. It also eliminates the chance of anyone else using it without knowing the meaning.

      I still think OP should give her coworker a heads-up, but if for some reason she really think that the coworker will take the news poorly from her, this is a safe way off passing off that responsibility.

    2. Falling Diphthong*

      This seems a logical response–rather than expect every employee to know the cultural history of every emoji and use them only where appropriate, just delete any that are intended to invoke ideas you wouldn’t shout from the roof of the company. (And it would be entirely possible that someone would introduce an emoji they think of as ‘frogs are cute’ with no knowledge of the background for that particular frog.)

    3. Sled Dog Mama*

      I think this would be the easiest way to address it. Have an Admin send out a memo that due to some new cultural associations that the company does not want itself associated with X, Y and Z have been removed from the database.

      1. Natalie*

        Oh, hard disagree, especially if she’s the only person who’s been using it. I would be indescribably embarrassed if I was inadvertently using this symbol and the first time I heard about it was an all staff email.

        Removing it from the database is fine, but someone should alert her to this in private first.

    4. Brogrammer*

      This is a simple and elegant solution. They could even replace it with a different cartoon frog that hasn’t been coopted as a hate symbol. People probably wouldn’t even notice.

    5. Amy*

      This was my first thought too. Cluing the HR person in would also be a kind thing to do, but work-communication things shouldn’t have hate symbols available in them in the first place! Plus, removing it is a more systemic solution–maybe everyone else who currently works there knows better, but companies hire new people on occasion, so to me it makes more sense to just eliminate the problem than to try and educate everyone who might use it.

  8. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I have completely missed the whole Pepe thing and when I read ‘dancing frog’ my mind went to “Michigan J. Frog” so I’m really hoping this is just a bit of confusion.

    1. kittymommy*

      Yeah I’ve never heard of this either and was completely confused (still am a little as this probably isn’t something I can look up at work).
      I say just tell her, she likely had no clue about this. And if she does that’s a whole other problem

        1. Your Weird Uncle*

          I still regularly get ‘Hello, mah hunny, hello, mah baby’ stuck in my head. Like, at least once a week.

        2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          The dividing line — who thinks of Michigan J. Frog, and who thinks of Spaceballs :)

      1. The OG Anonsie*

        My first thought was that, then Dave Chappelle’s bit about it. “F— that frog!” It plays in my head every time I see these bums on Twitter with the frog emoji in their name line.

    2. JulieBulie*

      I had the same reaction about the dancing frog.
      Honestly, with an emoji being so small, how can you tell one emoji frog from another?

      (Is there a hopping bunny emoji the HR person can use instead? Or have the hopping bunny emojis been co-opted too? I would like to see a lot more hopping bunnies.)

      1. JulieBulie*

        Oh – Michigan J. Frog has a top hat and a walking-stick. Yeah, I don’t think you could mistake Pepe for him.

  9. Roscoe*

    I’m pretty culturally up to date, and I had no idea about this thing. I had to google it, and I realized I’d seen the frog before, but had no idea it was considered a hate symbol. Definitely tell her. But its weird that everyone else at your office was aware of this. I think if someone sent it to me, I wouldn’t find it offensive at all. I always thought it was just a high frog.

    1. LBK*

      My guess would be that your awareness of it is probably heavily predicated on how far you’ve waded into political Twitter, especially in some of the grosser hashtags that trended or the replies to some of the high visibility figures related to this past election. I haven’t seen it quite as much lately but it was all over Hillary’s mentions, for instance.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I mean, it’s also all over cable and print news (from all political persuasions, including the WSJ), as well as late night talk shows. I understand that a lot of folks are unplugging from all of that stuff, right now, and I think it’s extremely easy to miss this shift. But that’s what makes a dog whistle effective, right?

    2. chomps*

      I think people’s awareness is based on how much political information they seek out. I’d never heard of Pepe before a few months ago, but I’m super into politics and it’s been well-known in political news outlets and online spaces for a while. It’s less pop-culture and more politics.

      1. Always amazed*

        I’ve never heard of Pepe, nor seen the emoji or drawing or whatever. I am apolitical and despise the news, so…
        Yeah. No clue.
        Well I’m at it, what’s up with this ugly “world is flat” bumper sticker thing?

        I always learn so much from this site. Probably too much.

        I have grown children – five of them – I know all of the urban dictionary type sex phrases. My kids would share them with me at dinner, believe it or not. They think they’re hysterical. They love to see their mother shocked.

        In all honesty, a few weeks back with the comment thread about the word “whore”. I do not live in a weird part of the country, I live in the United States, and just about everyone I know uses the word “whore” as very interchangeable with “slut”.

        So, yeah, it is possible to be considered relatively normal and be totally unaware of a symbol or saying or a word that other people find incredibly offensive because It’s been given a different meaning.

        1. Nonprofit pro*

          By interchangeably, you mean that everyone avoids using both those words because neither is appropriate, right?

  10. Society of Meme Preservation*

    Pepe the Frog existed as a meme before the alt right added their spin on him. I’m not excusing the use of Pepe, but he has a more complicated past than what most people are aware of.
    His early incarnations said “Feels bad, man.” with a down cast expression. People then redrew him to echo whatever sentiment they felt at the time.
    At the same time, nothing like this has ever really existed, a recognizable mascot with no copyright protection (although there might be one, I can’t think of it at the time.
    Anyway, it’s be nice if the alt-right kept their hands off of stuff so other people can enjoy it.

      1. Lefty*

        I came to share this link as well. The ADL acknowledges that it “did not originally have racist or anti-Semitic connotations” and that it was appropriated. I can commiserate with long-term Pepe lovers, but sadly it has become enmeshed with some nastiness that shouldn’t show up at work.

        1. CityMouse*

          It is like Archer fans who bought “ISIS” stuff before that became the name of that horrible group. Watching reruns of that show can be slightly jarring.

          1. LCL*

            I have a young niece named Isis. Born about a year before ISIS started getting a lot of press.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              Oh man, that poor kid. Isis is such a gorgeous name, and it sucks to have it associated with something completely unrelated and abhorrent.

          2. Your Weird Uncle*

            One of our work software programs was called ISIS until fairly recently; I used to jump every time someone mentioned it!

            1. KellyK*

              A friend of mine (who may work with the same software) discovered while Googling something software-related for work that the organization has an online application form. He did *not* click the link and he *did* pre-emptively tell IT.

          3. JulieBulie*

            And there was a live-action kids show about a superhero named Isis (based on the Egyptian goddess of the same name). “Oh mighty Isis!” sounds a lot different in 2017 than it did in 1975!

          4. Akcipitrokulo*

            Yeah…. the Infant Sleep Information Source at Durham University was there first. …

          5. BananaPants*

            A company that I know of used to sell a product under the trade name Isis. It had problems and was pulled from the market before the start of the terrorist organization, which in retrospect was probably a blessing for their marketing department.

    1. Sassy AE*

      Preach it. I’m old enough to have read the original Pepe comic, and lived through his rise as an innocuous weird meme to his fall as a hate symbol “adopted” by Stormfront. The blend of underground Internet subculture and fascism has been distressing and disheartening.

    2. Emi.*

      Anyway, it’s be nice if the alt-right kept their hands off of stuff so other people can enjoy it.

      And if the non-alt-right stopped immediately letting them have everything they touch. It really bugs me that it’s become such a, dare I say it, meme to write all these “Did you know that X innocuous thing is used to mean something bad by a bunch of internet trolls, and now (a) it means nothing but that and (b) no one can use it for anything else” pieces. Pepe wouldn’t be so strongly associated with the alt-right if everyone else didn’t freak out about it so much, because part of the strength of that association comes from histrionic liberal “explainers” and part of it comes from other people jumping ship. People believing (b) makes (a) more true when it didn’t have to be.

      That said, I don’t think anyone should wade into this at work, and certainly not via emoji.

      1. Elizabeth H.*

        I get what you are trying to say but I think this particular issue (negative connotations of the Pepe frog image) is much more mundane and less ambiguous/emotionally fraught/over-dramatized than you are making it out to be. I don’t have a great love for the “explaining” you seem to be referring to but this seems pretty cut and dry to me and not really like histrionics or like it is being blown out of proportion. Also, what are we really losing? It’s a stupid internet meme and unpleasant to look at anyway. This is definitely not the symbol I would pick to wage a case against oversensitivity over.

        1. Emi.*

          The thing is, no hill of this kind is worth dying on–not Pepe, not trash dove, whatever. But the overall result is that the alt-right gets way more control over internet semiotics and culture than I think they deserve. I don’t really know what to do about it, though.

          1. Ego Chamber*

            If they chose a hill people were willing to die on, it would stop, at least for a little while—doubly so if it’s a hill that has a large corporation holding the chains of many vicious IP lawyers.

            Personally, I hope they try for Mickey Mouse next, because Walt Disney Corp would throw a shitfit (justified) and bankrupt their asses (also justified). ;D

      2. Anonymous 40*

        But the suggestion wasn’t to forbid the coworker from using the frog. It was to make her aware that it implies something very different to people with whom she may not want to unintentionally associate herself. Nobody’s saying “you CAN’T use that.” They’re saying “here’s why you might not want to.”

      3. Society of Meme Preservation*

        Ouch! I’m not sure how I offended you by giving the background on the subject. I guess I didn’t stress enough that Pepe shouldn’t appear in a professional environment, but I guess my interest in only giving a background on the issue was “too liberal”. Far be it for me to make the mistake of educating anyone, even HR personnel on it’s origin, perhaps save someone’s job because they posted would could be construed as hate speech at work. Trust me, I’ll not be doing that again.

        1. Emi.*

          Golly, you didn’t offend me–the opposite, in fact! It sounds like I was unclear. The “explainers” that irk me are the ones claiming that, like, no one who’s not a Nazi can touch Pepe again ever, and you should watch your Facebook feeds carefully because your friends who share frog memes from three years ago are probably horrible, etc etc etc, usually by undervaluing the “complicated past” you pointed out. Sorry about the misunderstanding!

          1. Society of Meme Preservation*

            Oh thank goodness! My reading comprehension must be taking a dip lately!
            I feel better reading your response. Thank you!

    3. LBK*

      It seems to me that a lot of the sites where the meme originally flourished have now evolved into alt-right havens. I’d suspect there’s plenty of overlap between the users of its old and new meanings.

  11. Pearly Girl*


    I’m the kind of person who would speak directly to the employee face to face. “You prolly didn’t realize that your frog is a hateful symbol used by the alt-right and represents this this and that. I hope you’ll consider changing it since I find it extremely offensive, and I’m guessing a lot of our coworkers do too.”

  12. SL #2*

    She’s got to stop using that meme. It doesn’t matter if she doesn’t know what it represents now, she needs to be told and then if she still doesn’t understand why she needs to stop, then she really should not be an HR rep and you need to bring it to a grand-boss or something.

    Maybe I’m more sensitive to this because I know what it represents, but I absolutely would not feel comfortable working with an HR rep openly using that meme in whatever context.

  13. Brogrammer*

    I never thought I’d see a post about Pepe the Frog on a workplace advice site, but here it is. It’s actually quite timely – the creator is currently running a Kickstarter to “save Pepe” from his hijacking as an alt-right symbol. It remains to be seen if that will work.

    What a world we live in.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      I’m kind of curious how he’s intending to put the Kickstarter funds to use. Is there an actual plan, or just “give me money so I can sue the internet”?

      1. Kelly L.*

        It’s to write a new comic book about him where he’s against everything the alt-right stands for, as originally intended.

  14. Samata*

    I have never heard of Pepe and I adore frogs….so this is something I could see myself doing and I would want to know immediately that I needed to stop

    I would hope if you approached is as “Hey, not sure if you know what this means but…” conversation and let her know it makes people uncomfortable she would understand (esp. as an HR person) and the human part of her would likely be motrified.

  15. Zip Silver*

    Pepe’s not a hate symbol. The meme had been around longer than last year. It’s 100% acceptable to still use it.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s on official lists of hate symbols. You can argue that you don’t think it should be, but there’s no way you can say it’s 100% acceptable to use it. It’s clearly not.

      1. Dan*

        So… I find the shifting cultural meanings of words to be a bit fascinating. It’s kind of a shock to find that something that you’ve used for awhile (as in several years; I’m not referring specifically to Pepe, as I never heard of him) is now considered to a have a strong negative connotation… or for that matter, you grow up in areas where the words were acceptable in everyday use, and then move somewhere where those words become serious offensive. Never mind the impact that the internet has had on this phenomenon, I think some of us are still getting used to it.

        And then who is to say when the usage of a word has shifted from acceptable to not acceptable? To me, that’s an interesting question in and of itself. I mean, certainly official lists of hate symbols qualify…

        Along those lines, formal dictionaries like Miriam Webster don’t help, and perhaps even hurt — the first three definitions for the word “gay” are definitions I haven’t seen used in common speech in at least a decade, if ever.

          1. Snark*

            Are you seriously pushing back against the assertion that meaning and symbolism changes over time?

        1. Kiki*

          >And then who is to say when the usage of a word has shifted from acceptable to not acceptable?

          I don’t think there’s one true answer to that, but I think you can easily tell when there’s been a big cultural shift. I was talked to my coworker who is in his late 50’s about how when he was a kid and sang the “eeney meeney miney mo” song it was not a “tiger” you were catching by the toe. He would sing the original version as a kid and teenager without even thinking about it, but by the time he was in his 20’s he was very aware that the original version was no longer acceptable. No one ever told him to replace the original word with “tiger”, he just caught on that things had progressed since he learned it.

          1. AthenaC*

            “I think you can easily tell when there’s been a big cultural shift.”

            But that’s increasingly not true, which is why we are even having this discussion in the first place.

          2. Specialk9*

            That utterly blew me away when I first learned what word used to be sung – to kids! – in place of tiger. Ugh.

          3. Cedrus Libani*

            There’s been a similar shift more recently. I’m 31, and when I was a kid, sitting cross-legged in a circle was universally known as “Indian style”. If you’re more than a year or two younger, you call it “criss-cross applesauce”. (Which…okay, that needed to happen. But I’m kind of curious how the early education hive mind moved so quickly, apparently moments after I was old enough to sit at a desk.)

            1. Ego Chamber*

              It didn’t move quickly at all. :(

              I’m 33, I had a friend the same age as me who is First Nations heritage and when we were small children, she refused to sit “Indian style” all through grade school. She was pretty vocal with teachers that since she was an Indian, however she sat was therefore Indian style. (Her father was First Nations but her mother was white, so teachers were getting sassed by a little blue-eyed blonde girl about entrenched racism. Looking back, it was amazing.) Teachers around here now say “cross-legged,” which is less stupidly twee than the applesauce thing but I don’t remember when they switched over.

            2. cross-leg sitter*

              I don’t think the change was all that sudden, and it clearly happened at different times in different communities. I’m 34 grew up in the midwest, and my family and all my schools growing up called it “cross-legged.” I was really confused by references to “Indian style” and always thought it meant lotus pose (feet on top of knees rather than below).

          4. Former Employee*

            It was “tiger” when I was a kid in in the 50’s. However, I was a New York kid. I suspect that the rhyme changed as it made its way North so that the word was “tiger” to Northern kids way before the culture shift made it “tiger” everywhere.

        2. CMart*

          “And then who is to say when the usage of a word has shifted from acceptable to not acceptable?”

          As you pointed out, an official list of hate symbols is certainly a good indicator. I also think that in general if someone tells you something is offensive, and you don’t want to be offensive, it’s best to just stop using it pending further investigation.

          In general, unless the word is your own name, I don’t think it’s terribly unreasonable to just cease using it if someone asks you to. If my 70 year old mom can avoid using “Oriental” to describe people after the one time I said “hey, using it in that way is actually offensive to people nowadays”, I think we all can do the same when a new definition takes us by surprise.

        3. I_am_RADAR*

          My 94-year old Grandma used to always say, “Don’t get gay, now!” and she meant it soley as “Don’t go do something silly.” She never, ever meant it as a slam against homosexuals or any way close to that connotation, but today you’d never be able to say that without it sounding like you were slamming gay people.

      2. Eric*

        Oh wow. I didn’t know there was an official list of hate symbols so I went looking for it. Did you know that 100% is also a hate symbol. I’ll be sure to let my kids’ teachers know not to put that on their homework!!

        Almost had to go to therapy there. Thanks for the assist!

        1. AthenaC*

          It looks like many numbers are on the “official” hate symbol list. I appreciate wanting to be polite and avoiding legitimate hate symbols, but if everything on the “official” ADL list is to be avoided as hate speech … well, that is logistically problematic. And it calls into question both the credibility of the list itself and the wisdom of using such a list the way Alison and others are suggesting.

          1. Snark*

            Context does still matter, with a lot of this stuff. A tattoo artist might want to dig a little deeper into otherwise inoccuous numbers to make sure they’re not integrating that symbolism into their work. The ADL list is pretty comprehensive, and some of it only makes sense in certain context.

            Pepe, however, is high-profile and well-known enough of a symbol that using it intentionally or not, it’s going to be more obvious.

            1. Falling Diphthong*

              This–it’s a comprehensive list covering things you might see in a lot of different narrow contexts, that you can check if a seemingly innocuous symbol or phrase keeps showing up in weird places. “Ah, that’s probably what they’re signaling. Now those posts make a lot more sense.”

              In the context ‘this symbol is ME’–an avatar, a tattoo–where that’s often the main or only thing people know about you, it’s helpful if people clue you in that, for example, your Keynesian posts are being read as ironic in the context of an economics thread because your avatar is a red rose. There’s nothing hateful there, but it is confusing to people who are accustomed to seeing the rose used to symbolize something you were unaware of. And if they’re judging all of you based on your three posts… yes, they are weighing the rose a lot more than they would otherwise.

              There’s this whole interesting field of sociology and how we make snap judgments based on appearance–people with smile lines are seen as upper class, for example–and avatars are the electronic version of this.

            2. AthenaC*

              Well, then, let’s consider this particular context, which is: a dancing frog that is not Pepe used in a clearly not-racist context.

              Someone elsewhere in the thread took the time to say that even according to the ADL’s entry on Pepe, a dancing frog would not be offensive in this context.

              However, as I noted elsewhere, the dancing frog is offensive to its intended audience, and that’s enough of a reason to say something. Unfortunate, IMO, because I think dancing frogs are cute.

          2. BananaPants*

            Yeah, especially with numbers. Like, our kid has to pick a sports jersey number and it wouldn’t even occur to me that a 1 or 2 digit number would be considered hate speech. She’s 6 – she’d have no idea that 88 (for example) is apparently a hate symbol, she just likes the number.

            It becomes less logistically-problematic when it’s an actual phrase or picture versus a number.

    2. Leatherwings*

      EVEN IF this is true (which it is not), it’s still perceived as a hate symbol which means it’s inappropriate to use in a work context.

    3. Gandalf the Nude*

      Richard Spencer was explaining its new symbolism when he was punched in the face. I feel like that was Pepe’s death knell.

      1. Brogrammer*

        I watched that video about a dozen times because it was just so satisfying, but I never actually listened to what he was saying. Maybe I should have.

            1. Anonymous 40*

              I laughed so hard at that when it first came out that my wife honestly thought there was something wrong with me. Makes me smile just thinking about it.

            2. Czhorat*

              I liked the New Order version.

              Most of all, I liked that it happened. It’s perhaps best with the original audio because he’s getting this absurdly softball and friendly interview when the antifa black blocker flies in out of nowhere to shut him up.

              I abhor violence, but that was a great moment in an otherwise dark day.

      2. Snark*

        I feel like that was the universe reassuring us that karma does indeed exist, and is locked in quantum entanglement with irony.

    4. k.k*

      Even if that was true (which it is not), it is certainly is not acceptable for the HR to be using it in work correspondence.

    5. MuseumChick*

      The swastika has a history spanning hundreds, if not thousands of years as a positive symbol. Then this crazy German guy decided to use it for less than two decades.

      Sometimes symbols are co-opted and tainted so badly they can never be used again. The opposite can also happen (the pink triangle for example). Once something becomes a symbol of hate, it is no longer acceptable to use.

  16. Dan*

    “Pepe is, obviously, a totem that is synonymous with hate speech.”

    I’m not nit-picking the language, I swear, but the use of “obviously” always gets me. If it’s obvious, why do you have to say it? And if you have to say it, then it’s not obvious, right? (A vast majority of the time someone rights “obviously” it was never obvious to me, including here.) I find it fascinating that a majority of the commenters here, including me, didn’t know about Pepe the frog. Hell, I never even heard of Pepe the frog.

    1. TeacherNerd*

      Might I just add, Dan, that I include a 2-minute mini-lesson on using the word “obviously.” (I’m an English and college writing teacher.) Years ago I had read Michael Crichton’s autobiography; at one point he wrote about his professional shift from medicine to writing, and he included a piece of advice about using “obviously” in his writing, along the lines of what you included. For some reason, that always stayed with me, and as throughout the semester we talk about one’s rhetorical choices, the use of “obviously” comes up. In this case, it’s a tad off topic, but there are times when it’s relevant. :-)

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        My favorite one is the discussion we’ve had occasionally on this blog, where a LW will use “needless to say” and then follow it with something particularly amazing.

        1. MJ (Aotearoa/New Zealand)*

          Like the OP who “needless to say” emailed his girlfriend’s boss because Boss and Girlfriend had some drinks after a client meeting? “Needless to say” almost always seems to precede something gobsmacking, here!

    2. Sue Wilson*

      If it’s obvious, why do you have to say it
      I mean rhetorically it’s about expressing underlying premises an argument might be based on that you want to be sure your audience understands that you know. I’m not saying it’s always used that way, if you want a reason why it comes up, that’s it.

    3. NaoNao*

      It’s similar to when people use “literally”. They’re using a word in a slightly “off-label” way to emphasize meaning or add meaning in a shorthand way.
      In this case, I read it to mean “this following fact is something I’m not going to explain, argue about, or qualify. Moving on to the rest of the sentence…”
      It’s a bit of weird meta-commentary that people in the comments are hashing out the use of words in a letter about the use of words and symbols, and how they change or don’t over time.
      Some people are more “purists” and if something was given or developed one meaning and held onto it for years/decades/centuries, well, darnit, that’s how “we” use it.
      Some people, like myself, who minored in linguistics, are excited and interested to see new uses of language, new forms (like emoji, which I defended to my mom as “not lazy and here’s why”) and expansions and changing of language forms.
      Look, I have my “nails on a chalkboard” phrases (hubby, kiddos, and “littles”, I’m looking at you!) but I am vain and don’t want to be seen as “Get off my Lawn!” as I ahem, get older, so….I try to be all cool and lexicon-y and figure out how it’s being used *now* and if indeed there is a grammatically sound case.
      Which I humbly submit that there is in this case. :)

  17. Pearly Girl*

    I find it somewhat surprising that people don’t recognize that Pepe has been adopted by the alt-right and used as a hate symbol.

    I follow politics and read news sites regularly and it was ALL OVER many of them, especially during 2016, in news reports about The Orange Toddler’s campaign supporters.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I probably read something about it at some point, but there’s SO MUCH crap to wade through these days that it’s easy to forget.

    2. Leatherwings*

      I understand how this has gotten lost in a swirl of political news in the past year, but to me it’s obvious to anyone who has heard of the meme in the past year. Again, I understand why/how you might’ve skipped over it, but there are million articles on the internet on this. I think the word “obvious” just means “undeniable once googled”

    3. SarahTheEntwife*

      Yeah, I’m so fascinated by what corners of pop culture various people end up in — I’m not in any way disputing that the cartoon started out innocuously, but I’ve *only* seen it used as a hate symbol.

    4. Dan*

      TBH, it’s kind of easy if you don’t travel in alt-right circles and avoid Facebook. I get all of my news from the Washington Post, and usually read it once per day. If they ever brought up the frog, it was buried.

      1. New HR Assistant*

        Well, I’ve read 6 different articles from the Washington Post about it this year, plus 2 on NPR, so I don’t know that it’s fair to say it was only news on Facebook and Alt-Right (Nazi, cause I like to call them what they are) circles. It’s hard to keep on top of everything with the news lately, but I think it’s also fair to say this has been a news story.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        The WaPo covered it at least a dozen times during fall 2016 and even early 2017—it was a “top story” and “trending story” for several days in several different weeks. You may have missed it, but it wasn’t buried.

    5. paul*

      Not everyone is heavily involved in politics, particularly in the fringe BS like the alt-right.

      1. Pearly Girl*

        I’m not heavily involved. I read. And it was very prevalent in stories on mainstream (as opposed to alt-right) media outlets, illustrating how and when it was used to promote hatred.

      2. Stop feigning surprise*

        Stop pretending this is out of left field. I’m sorry you don’t read the news. All of these articles mention pepe as a hate symbol in the last year are just from CNN. Imagine if I’d included links form the dozens of other popular news sources (who have all reported on this).

        1. Paul*

          Congratulations on misinterpreting my statement, thanks? I said not everyone is involved in politics, and not everyone heavily follows news. Those are true statements. And while, yes, CNN did talk about Pepe on their website intermittently, he wasn’t getting a lot of air time or coverage in print media. It is entirely feasible for someone to have missed the story. It wouldn’t make them particularly ignorant. I’m absolutely sure you and I both missed more important news stories than some jackass racist using a previously established meme or symbol sometime in the last year.

        2. Mazzy*

          Uh….this is all CNN….CNN is definitely not the only news source, I don’t think something being on CNN = everyone knows about it!

          1. Fiennes*

            I haven’t seen CNN in years, and I’m not even that deep into online culture, and even I have known that Pepe the frog became a hate symbol some time back.

        3. BananaPants*

          I’m a WaPo subscriber and somehow missed the articles in late 2016. Sometimes people who are heavily involved in politics don’t seem to understand that not everyone’s life revolves around it. Given the political climate in the US for the last 18 months, I frequently have to tune out somewhat for my own well-being.

      3. Snark*

        Well, first off, you really should be involved in politics. It’s a bit important, and you do have skin in the game whether you like it or not. And secondly, this is not fringe BS. If you haven’t noticed, some very prominent people in this country were fervently supported by the alt-right, and arguably ARE alt-right, and are making public policy and law on the basis of alt-right beliefs, and we’ve long since passed the point where this could be safely ignored.

        1. Nox*

          I would like to advise people to becareful when saying that all people need to be involved in politics. I restrict my exposure to it to maintain my mental health and I feel purple should be mindful that while issues matter, there are some sick people out there like myself who are unable to digest too much on top of having enough spoons to live.

          1. Snark*

            This is getting into the territory of “not everyone can eat sandwiches” arguments, not to minimize your personal limits.

            1. No, please*

              I feel like it’s getting into the “please be kind to fellow commenters” territory. You sound condescending. Your over-all point is valid but sounds argumentative. Sometimes I read comments on here that irritate me and I have to choose to move on because I can’t think of a response that isn’t rude.

              1. Nox*

                Thank you. That was what I was trying to convey to snark. This is part of the reason why I always try to point out to neurotypical people that it is a privilege to imurse yourself in stressful topics like politics and I feel it’s my job as a mental health ally to not stay silent on that because I think it’s something people aren’t aware of [similar to the pepe meme stuff being a hate symbol now].

                1. No, please*

                  You are very welcome. I am in the same/similar boat. I have PTSD and some extras, just for fun. I had to stop reading the news a few weeks ago due to severe anxiety. I’m slowly getting back in to the new developments. My life drastically improved when I stopped checking my news app religiously.

              2. Snark*

                It’s not unkind, or condescending, or argumentative to make a declarative general statement directed at one person without a paragraph of exceptions, qualifications and disclaimers just in case a non-neurotypical person might read it and take it personally. I am willing to be disagreed with, and I think your point is good – yes, people should engage with politics to the extent is healthy and sane for them. But you can tell me that without calling me out, without imputing malign motives and personality traits, and without being passive aggressive, all of which you are doing and none of which encourages me to be my best self when interacting with you.

                Alison asks us to give each other and letter writers the benefit of the doubt here, and she’s also asked us not to dissect each others’ posts. The trend where we call each other out every time someone says something that could be interpreted as problematic or just not sufficiently woke is, paradoxically, making this a more hostile place.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          paul is pretty engaged, and as a regular commenter, I think we should be a little more gracious with his comments.

          I don’t think he’s arguing that people should be disengaged, nor is he trying to negate Pepe’s current meaning or the rise of the “alt-right” in mainstream politics. But I do think it’s fair to point out that this last political cycle was surprising in many ways (seriously, who thought white supremacists would feel comfortable being “out” and trying to gain a foothold in mainstream politics…. and that it would work?) and that some folks have tuned out simply to preserve their sanity. And some folks are into local politics, but not so much national politics, or not this part of national politics, and that doesn’t mean that they’re failing to acknowledge that they have skin in the game. I don’t blame folks who don’t want to engage with that part of the web.

          1. No, please*

            Exactly! Sometimes I have to tune out for my own health. It doesn’t mean I don’t care. I care immensely. I am disturbed by what I’m seeing and hearing. I will still vote. I will continue to read the news regularly, but not constantly.

          2. Paul*

            and even people that follow politics don’t catch everything. I mean, how much has everyone here followed each and every thing that pops up in the news? There’s a ton of noise, and no one catches everything.

            1. Rana*

              ^^this. I’m pretty aware of political topics, and follow a number of different sources, and there’s always going to be something I don’t know about. There’s just too much.

              With regards to Pepe specifically, I had a vague sense that the frog had somehow become “wrong” but didn’t know specifically, nor could I point to an article about it. But I do have a general policy now of not using images and symbols in public unless I’m sure there’s not some coded alternate image I’m unaware of. Sometimes a cute animal is just a cute animal. Sometimes it says – perhaps inadvertently – something about your politics, or your sexuality, or whatever. I remember when you could “poke” people on Facebook, and they added “trout slapping” as an option. One friend was merrily using that left and right because it entertained her… until her horrified teenage children explained what it actually meant. It happens!

    6. Raine*

      I’m not surprised at all. My association with Pepe was as a meme and image macro that was used literally on every single image board and forum on the internet by a diverse and varied crossection of people. So when I heard on the news that the frog had shown up on racist subreddits and therefore must be some kind of racist code image I kind of rolled my eyes because I thought it was a bunch of adults not understanding how memes work again. Only then it actually morphed into a hate image because alt righters were like “Oh hey that sounds like a fun idea.” But before it actually showed up on the list of legit hate symbols I still thought it was just “grownups don’t get the internet” as usual.

      1. Paul*

        Same. My introduction to it was on the Tennessee Titans reddit actually, where he was kind of a mascot for their misfortune for years (which I, as an old Oilers fan, reveled in).

        1. Paul*

          and I’m going to say this goes back 3-4 years, well before the alt right used him (since I’m sure someone would at least think of a Tennessee/alt right joke).

    7. LCL*

      Something we all should remember is that not everyone gets their news on line, especially about politics. yeah, I knew about that image because I waste time on reddit and other on line venues. But there are people I know, am even related to, who I could totally see picking up this image and using it if they use the computer in their job but aren’t really on line savvy. I agree with what Alison said completely. The question was asked in good faith, answer it in good faith, and go home and spend some time on reddit.

      1. Specialk9*

        Again, none if us are assuming anyone knows, but we are saying that once one knows, stop using it.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        It was actually really common on TV, too. Of course, people could still have missed that this happened (and I don’t fault them for missing it), but it wasn’t an internet-only issue—it was pretty widely covered in multiple mainstream outlets, including local and cable news as well as entertainment shows.

        1. Mazzy*

          I read a newspaper, sometimes I buy the times, I listen to NPR and AM stations in the car, and sometimes pop through popular TV stations and websites and still have never heard of this, just because something was on a mainstream outlet doesn’t mean it is on when the majority of people are looking.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I’m not disagreeing with you? I’m just clarifying that coverage of Pepe’s rise as a racist meme wasn’t exclusively relegated to Reddit, Twitter, and white supremacist “news” sites.

    8. KTM*

      I’m one of them… And I’ve thought that about other people on this blog before! (Like, how do they not know that?). I listen to NPR most days, read the NYTimes most days, and am on Facebook, etc. I’m not sure how it slipped through but I’d never heard of this. I will say that I don’t actively seek out political news sites but it’s not like I’m not up to date on current news/politics.

    9. Brett*

      It’s partly because many many people purposely avoid politics and political news, especially now.

      It is amazing the range of racist symbols out there that people are only aware of because of niche reporting. I think most people would be shocked to know that Coors beer is a prominent racist symbol (it is an acronym for a racist slogan that purposely coopted the corporate logo because of the Coors family’s questionable support of extreme right wing causes). White or red shoelaces on boots are another major racist symbol, as well as virtually any black and white depiction of an eagle or pit bull.

      I think the use of Pepe as a racist symbol is most similar to the use of Thor’s hammer (and reading what the ADL says about both, they draw similar parallels). Both symbols are heavily used as racist symbols and certainly anyone that follows the related arenas (Pepe in the US politics, Thor’s hammer in paganism) would immediately recognize them as racist symbols. Yet, the vast majority of uses of both symbols are not racists, and the ADL cautions in both cases never to interpret them as racist symbols without having the context of their use. Norse runes are yet another one, clearly a racist symbol in many contexts because of their extensive use by the Nazi, but far more commonly used in non-racist ways.

      1. Anonymity*

        In re: Norse runes – TIL!

        I may have to have an uncomfortable conversation with my brother, who is fascinated by Norse mythology and has a very noticeable tattoo on one side of his neck that includes runes.

  18. Just Answering*

    According to the ADF link above: “However, because so many Pepe the Frog memes are not bigoted in nature, it is important to examine use of the meme only in context. The mere fact of posting a Pepe meme does not mean that someone is racist or white supremacist. However, if the meme itself is racist or anti-Semitic in nature, or if it appears in a context containing bigoted or offensive language or symbols, then it may have been used for hateful purposes.
    In the fall of 2016, the ADL teamed with Pepe creator Matt Furie to form a #SavePepe campaign to reclaim the symbol from those who use it with hateful intentions.”

    Notice, they are saying NOT to accept its use as being racist and wrong. They are saying NOT to judge someone’s use of it unless it is in a bad context. They are trying (with the creator) to *reclaim* its use.

    In other words, I don’t believe she should be told to stop unless the context also were racist.

    1. Leatherwings*

      On the internet, maybe. In a group of friends, maybe. But at work, this is something that can SO easily be misinterpreted and make someone really uncomfortable.

    2. Dulf*

      She should be told to stop because she’s making people uncomfortable. If the use of an image has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine its intent it doesn’t belong in the workplace.

    3. Pearly Girl*

      The woman is in HR and the symbol has negative connotations. Isn’t that enough of a reason to stop?

    4. paul*

      I tend towards finding emojis and .gifs annoying and unprofessional to begin with, and that’s enough to make me tell someone not to use them, period. But I’m glad it’s not just a blanket “this is evila nd people that use it are racist” condemnation from the ADF. Pepe’s been around a minute, and one sub-group of an already fringe movement used it in a hate speech context and now hand wavign ensues. Blech.

    5. CityMouse*

      Reclaimed use is not a good idea around the office. For instance even if you are openly LGBT and part of the reclaiming movement, it is still a bad idea to use “queer” in that manner around the office because it still carrier bad connotations for some people in that group. Err on the side of not hurting people.

      1. tigerlily*

        I agree with you when it comes to Pepe the Frog, but hard disagree with your queer example. Queer has become very widespread as a positive/neutral term for that specific population – the bookstores in my city have a Queer Literature section, for example, or you could major in Queer Studies at my university. And personally, no one gets to police the term with which I identify.

        1. Brett*

          “Queer has become very widespread as a positive/neutral term for that specific population”

          Maybe that’s a regional issue? LGBT is often purposely used among midwest groups because they still consider the word to be extremely divisive. This is not just because they still consider it to be a derogatory term, but also because they reject the reclamation as a symbol of opposition to liberal conservatism (the push to same sex marriage, adoption rights, and military inclusiveness, and other rights and mores associated with mainstream societal identity).

    6. Anon-ish On Occasion*

      I remember when Pepe was just a frog. But if my HR person used it, this is what I’d do:

      1) Say nothing. <—-This is not advice. I think it's the wrong thing to do. But I'd do it.
      2) Keep a close eye on anything this person said or did in my presence to see if anything sketchy popped up.
      3) Go way out of my way to never involve HR in anything unless I literally had no choice, because better safe than sorry.

      I suspect that's not the message HR wants to send.

    7. LBK*

      If the OP tells her and she doesn’t care, fine, whatever, but I think it’s at least worth clarifying with her whether she understands the associations with the meme or whether she’s oblivious. The world doesn’t end if you can’t use a frog emoji anymore so I think she’s likely to just drop it once she’s informed rather than try to take some kind of stand about it.

    8. Annabelle*

      I don’t think work is the appropriate place to reclaim controversial symbols. I’m a lesbian, but I don’t refer to myself as the D word in the office. That would be incredibly unwise.

    9. Elizabeth H.*

      The idea isn’t that we (or the coworkers) are judging her use of it, or misunderstanding her intent in using the emoji, the idea is that its connotations are so bad that people find it jarring and unpleasant to see.

    10. JulieBulie*

      She should at least be alerted to the connotation so that she can decide for herself if that is the image she wants to represent HR.

    11. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      If you were consistently telegraphing a really offensive word or symbol, even though you were unaware that it was offensive, wouldn’t you want someone to tell you? Or would you prefer to be mistaken for a white supremacist? Because your appeal to context isn’t really relevant to the issue that OP has raised, which is whether we should tell people (especially people responsible for diversity policies, like HR) that what they’re saying is a dog whistle when in their hearts they mean it in a non-dog-whistle way.

      I seriously do not understand why we should protect or shield ignorance instead of sharing important information that materially affects a person’s work relationships.

    12. Creag an Tuire*

      FWIW, the ADL hasn’t updated their page, but Mutt Furie has officially given up on saving Pepe, and “killed” him. So if nothing else, she should stop using the image because the creator has asked for it to be retired.

  19. Fabulous*

    I’ve seen this frog meme many times in the past few years but didn’t know it had a name. DEFINITELY didn’t know it’s become a hate symbol. I still think it’s a funny looking side-eyes looking frog, but definitely won’t be using it again with its new connotations!

  20. Quilter*

    My first thought was to wonder if the OP would be old enough to know the Michigan J Frog character and whether she could mistake it for Pepe the Frog. Alternatively, I wondered whether the HR person was older and didn’t realize that there is a current Pepe the Frog character and is using that accidentally in place of Michigan J Frog.

    Either way, I think the OP should assume lack of ill-intent on the HR person’s part regardless of whatever her political leanings are. Being in a different age bracket does mean having different cultural references as a result and it may be that the HR person was a fan of Bugs Bunny growing up or that she watched a lot of CW, none of which has anything to do with the Pepe character. This isn’t to say that there is anything wrong with saying something to HR, only that the OP should be aware that there is another dancing cartoon frog that isn’t Pepe and that was created by a totally different person.

    1. Robbenmel*

      Hello, my baby, hello my honey, …..! Yes, I am that age. I always loved Michigan J. Frog. And I am sad that cartoons are not safe. :(

      1. Recruit-o-Rama*

        My husband and I sing this to each other all the time, we love Michigan J. Frog. “Hello my ragtime gaaaaaalllll!”

    2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      I don’t think anyone is assuming ill intent here; it’s just a simple matter of streams that should absolutely not be crossed.

      A little like if someone applied for an HR job and their email was wakeenjones1488@whatever. Sure, they could be history buffs, or it could be their old address, or whatever — but that’s still not something you want to see.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        I would actually probably parse 1488 as 1-4-88 and assume it was their birthday.

        1. Sylvia*

          It’s the “fourteen words” (not posting it, a white supremacist saying) and “heil Hitler.”

          1. Buffy*

            Ugh as someone who was born on August 14, 1988 I’m glad I’ve never included that in my e-mail address..

            1. Sylvia*

              Anyone who can see you and guess your age would know what you mean, anyway. :) I only know this crap because I did some research a few years ago.

              1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                Yep, the way I learned about it was another advice column (which I since can’t find anymore) where someone asked whether getting a ‘1488’ tattoo would matter for their employment chances.

                That was a pretty special read; I’m sad it seems to have disappeared into the wilds of the internet.

            2. Paul*

              yeah, I wouldn’t jump to 88 in an email = supremacist either, although I’m aware it’s used that way at times. My kid brother was born in 1988 and he’s had the same email (firstlastname88) for years and years.

              I *would* prob ably subject them to some scrutiny in interactions with POC though, at least at first.

    3. Another person*

      I wondered this too but am approaching this as if the LW knows the difference. It would be a sad day indeed if all cartoon frogs were forbidden because some bad guys took over the Pepe meme!

    4. Kyrielle*

      I agree. Fortunately, that is exactly what the OP has done! “I am confident she doesn’t know what Pepe is or represents, as she is not particularly culturally up to date. She thinks it’s just a celebratory dancing frog.”

    5. Candi*

      You wouldn’t have to be that old to know about Michigan. Aside from reruns and DVD releases, in the early-mid 1990s there was a cartoon block (channel 10 on local cable) called ‘the WB’. MJF appeared before and after commercial breaks and in between shows, as well as introducing cute little segments here and there. He also appeared in a couple episodes of Tiny Toons.

      The LW needs to tell HR rep about Pepe essentially being swiped and forced into a new mold. And then ask IT if the pic can be removed from the database, to avoid accidents from muscle memory if nothing else.

  21. Mes*

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the HR person does know what it means. It’s a very well-known hate symbol.

  22. Moon Elf Tempest Cleric*

    I’m in my late 20s and this thread is making me paranoid about all the emojis I might be using wrong! Did know about Pepe, though.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      I’m in a constant battle with my phone.
      Me: “My mom asked for your shirt–”
      Phone: “Oooh, ooh, would you like to use a shirt emoji rather than the word ‘shirt’?”
      Me: “No. Stop that.”

      1. Anonymous 40*

        Half the reason I rarely use anything beyond the smiley face emoji. Especially the fruits and vegetables.

      2. Rana*

        I don’t get the auto-suggest of pictures either. If I wanted a picture, I’d choose it deliberately.

        I think the use of symbols in texts among friends is far safer than things displayed out for the general public to see. Context matters a lot. Among my parent friends, we’re going to get that a kitty cat emoji is there because our preschoolers like cats, and not assume that it’s a “pussy” (this is, as far as I know, NOT a thing… but I’m sure there’s some group of friends where it means something else, because, in-jokes exist).

    2. Anonymous 40*

      Last night the children’s pastor at our church commented on something on Facebook with a heart and a taco emoji. It cracked me up because of this discussion, even though I knew exactly what she meant. Then I pictured trying to explain the other possible interpretation to her and cracked up even more.

  23. Another person*

    Since it seems the potential to accidentally offend using any emoji with unknown meanings is endless, unless you make a serious effort to keep up on trends (I learned a new one in the comments), I would avoid using any emojis at all in the workplace. LW might approach it that way with the dancing frog person, so they don’t feel bad about not knowing about Pepe.

      1. Lindsay J*

        Yeah, honestly, I don’t see the need for emojis at work.

        I occasionally include a :) in my emails when it’s the only way I can think of to soften my tone. But that’s it, and I only do that with people I’m on what I consider a casual email level with. I wouldn’t do it with say my boss’s boss, or with someone I’ve never met.

        I kind of feel it’s like overly personal email signatures (ones with a quote, clip art, anything other than name and contact info really). There’s not really any upside, they generally look unprofessional at best, and the potential for land mines is real. There was a woman at my last job who had something like “All glory to the Lord” in her email signature. And while it didn’t make me uncomfortable because of the religious mention, I know that that might make others uncomfortable. And it did make me uncomfortable because it just seemed very out of sync for a professional environment.

    1. Paul*

      Agreed. Plus…I mean, a dancing froggy isn’t exactly professional IMO anyway. I hate that the alt right has tried to co-opt it, and I resent how readily people bought into it having been co-opted, but this isn’t the time and place to fight it.

      1. Nox*

        I keep my emojis pretty simple with just faces and avoid use of them in official emails. This is sad that symbols and someone’s creation can get abused to the point of being made a hate symbol. I really feel bad for the artist woo created pepe….it kinda makes me nervous to ever try to publish any of my art at this point.

      2. Lissa*

        This is kind of my feeling. I think there *is* room for debate about coopting symbols, how universal certain knowledge is, etc. But if something is even slightly off or questionable, at work? best not. Unless the ‘upside’ of doing it is way more compelling than “I think the frog is cute.”

  24. Buggle Snubby*

    A few days after the election, a small rubber frog (with a more than passing resemblance to Pepe) holding two American flags appeared in the office of my grand-boss. I know who my grand-boss voted for because he made a comment about it the day after the election, and it is in alignment with folks who use Pepe as a hate symbol, so while I have no proof that he knows what it stands for, I have been assuming that he does know and that it’s a plausibly deniable visual dog whistle. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in the office who recognizes this frog though (it’s definitely not a savvy office), and I haven’t felt safe enough to report it. It’s a pretty dysfunctional situation that I’m hoping to get out of ASAP (and drop a report on HR on my way out).

    1. Another person*

      It could just be a gift he received and didn’t know what he was signalling, or it could be intentional.

      Either way, it is usually best to get away from dysfunctional situations whenever possible.

  25. CityMouse*

    I knew about PePe, but I am going to go a step further: even if it weren’t a hate symbol, which makes this clearly unacceptable, wouldn’t it be mildly unprofessional to have a dancing frog emoji in all your work emails anyway? Combo that with the chance of putting something you don’t recognize in like pepe or pedobear and just, no. Don’t do it.

      1. CityMouse*

        I thought it went beyond that based on LW’s description of her using it in “office correspondence” but I could be misreading it.

  26. Tiffin*

    I can see why this conversation would be awkward, but you really would be doing her a kindness. When she finds out, she’s going to wonder why no one said anything sooner and likely feel embarrassed. The longer she goes without finding out, the more embarrassed she is likely to be.

    And, on the off chance that she does know what it means and uses it anyway… well, that’s good information for you to have.

  27. Just Visiting*

    Wait, IS it Pepe, or just merely a dancing frog? There isn’t a Unicode emoji for this specific frog, although there is one that’s just A frog. It’s not animated, though. Or is this a custom emoji that she uploaded? I wouldn’t use the generic frog emoji anyway because I’ve seen it used by alt-righters on Twitter, and I agree she should be told, but I also wouldn’t leap to generic non-Pepe frog = alt-right without supporting evidence. How she reacts to being told about Pepe will tell you everything.

    1. LBK*

      I’m guessing this is Slack, where I believe you can indeed upload custom emojis that then become usable by anyone on the system.

    2. Manders*

      Different programs and platforms have different versions of emojis, so it’s possible the usual frog emoji looks like Pepe in this particular chat app. I think some chat programs also let the admins add extra emojis that aren’t in the usual list, so it’s possible that this weird dancing frog ended up enabled by accident.

  28. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

    Can we stop using the term “alt-right” – call them what they are. White supremacists, white nationalists, racists (link to follow)

    OP, I get why this is difficult. Because of your differing political beliefs, you are afraid that a) she knows what it is or b) she will think it is only offensive to certain people. But if she is otherwise a competent, fair, and level-headed HR person, I think it is more likely that she just doesn’t know and will be grateful someone pointed it out to her. I would have this conversation in person, as awkward as that might be, so it’s clear this is a “hey you probably didn’t know” thing. Maybe bring a cookie ;)

    Whether or not it is universally recognized as hate speech is irrelevant here, IMO. The fact remains that it is widely enough recognized as one that it is inappropriate for work and the HR person of all people should be told how it comes across.

    I am curious to know how the conversation goes. Please do update us!

    1. Anon for this*

      I have to say, I take issue with your first sentence.

      On occasion, you do find people who self-identify as alt-right while still openly and actively condemning white supremacist, white nationalist and racist ideas and dialog. These people consider themselves to be ultra conservative in other ways – in regards to economic and judicial policy, for example. The use the term alt-right because there’s no other handy-dandy bucket term to identify with. They get their news, in part, from alt-right news sources because they find the left leaning bias on main stream media to just be too much. But they can be good, decent, non-jackass people, who find the Nazi viewpoint every bit as repellent as you and I do.

      My brother is one of these. He is also one of the smartest and most thoughtful people I have ever met. I’m fine with calling actual white supremacists, Nazis, white nationalists, and racists by the appropriate term, but sometimes alt-right just means ‘really, really conservative politically speaking’.

      1. Anon for this2*

        It turns out there are two of us posting under this handle today. Sorry about that, other anon person!

      2. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

        In the specific context of Pepe, alt-right refers to racists. So call them racists.

        In the broader sense, alt-right encompasses all manner of bigotry, and it is not widely or frequently used to mean extremely conservative regarding policy. That is referred to as the far right or ultra conservative or what-have-you. Alt-right is a term coined to bring legitimacy to bigotry.

        1. Anon for this2*

          I don’t calling a whole group of people with diverse viewpoints bigots without something concrete to back it up. Again, while racists usually equal alt right, I am not comfortable saying that alt right usually equals racists.

          And perhaps his self-labeling is problematic as historian says below. But I’m fairly certain that any label that people like him apply to themselves would eventually be co-opted by horrible nasty people very much like Pepe was. I’m not sure there’s a winning solution there, except to vigorously oppose those who behave badly within that group.

        2. Dankar*

          The fact that Richard Spencer was the one that coined the term illustrates, quite clearly, who makes up the “alt-right” movement. I think you’re absolutely right that it’s a catch-all for bigotry, and primarily for white supremacists.

          OP, even if you can get the emoji removed as suggested elsewhere on this thread, please do tell her. It will be an awkward conversation, but she would probably want to know. (I would!) And think about it this way–the discomfort you feel in that moment will be felt for far less time than you’ve already spent agonizing over this!

      3. historian*

        I’m not going to tell anyone how to identify, but I’ll say that if I were your brother I’d steer clear of using the “alt right” identifier for himself – even if he is not himself white supremacist – because of how aligned it is with white supremacism. (I’ll second the referral to the AP guidelines on the term.) Wouldn’t “far right” be a better name for what you’re describing?

      4. Sue Wilson*

        I mean, those alt-right news sources are encouraging “white nationalist and racist ideas and dialog” and were doing so before they branded themselves alt-right so, I don’t know what your brother expects people to think even if he explains that it’s just about where he gets his news.

        1. Gazebo Slayer*

          This. Also… I wouldn’t be surprised if your brother is not being honest with you about his worst beliefs. People who identify as alt-right are notorious for lying, obfuscating, and cloaking their nastiest views under a layer of “irony” or “satire.” They often concern-troll and present themselves as “conservatives” or even “moderate Republicans” or the like when it serves their purposes, and they lie lie lie without shame any chance they get and spread fake news and the idea that “truth” is a quaint and outdated notion.

      5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        If you identify as “alt right” but do not identify with white supremacy, then you are using the wrong terminology to refer to your beliefs. “Alt right” did not exist as a term prior to its creation and usage by white supremacists who espouse an explicitly white nationalist political platform. It was specifically created to help mainstream the idea of white nationalist and white supremacist political beliefs.

        It does not refer simply to people with far-right or extremely conservative beliefs—it is explicitly defined by and connected to white supremacy. The guidance I GOTS TO KNOW! provided from the AP may be helpful in clarifying this. If your brother is not a white supremacist but simply extremely conservative, he should be aware that he is telegraphing to others that he supports white supremacy. This isn’t about people labeling a group they disagree with as bigots. It’s about the actual etymology and history of the term.

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          This this this. If your brother really isn’t alt-right, he should probably stop telling people he is. He can say “far right” or something similar.

      6. Ann O.*

        Why doesn’t he simply call himself “really conservative” then? (And also, he hates the left-leaning bias on mainstream media but he’s completely fine with the overt bias of the alt-right sites?)

        The alt-right is about white nationalism. Sure, we can split hairs about how sincerely racist all people who self-identify as alt-right are, and I’ve read some interesting articles about the various different flavors of white nationalism/white supremacy that make up the alt-right, but white nationalism is what the term means. If your brother doesn’t want to be grouped in with them, he should pick a different term to self-identify with.

        1. Gadfly*

          Be fair, it is also about misogyny and homophobia. They have a few interests outside of white supremacy.

    2. Annabelle*

      While I really loathe people calling actual neo-Nazi groups “alt-right”, it’s worth noting that other extremely conservative people – MRA’s, anti-choice activists, fundamentalists – also use the term. I don’t like how euphemistic it sounds, but it works fine as a catchall term when you’re referring to such a wide swath of people.

      1. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

        It covers a great number of sins, but when dealing with Pepe it is primarily racists. Though I am sure other forms of bigotry find their way in there too.

        1. Annabelle*

          That’s true; I haven’t seen Pepe appropriated by other types of bigots so far.

    3. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

      At any rate, OP, I would use the term racist or white supremacists when talking to the HR rep, not “alt-right” – because if she thinks it is just about being **really** republican, like anon for this mentioned about his brother above , she’ll miss why it is an issue.

  29. SideshowStarlet*

    Oh, Letter Writer, you should definitely say something to the HR rep. To make things less awkward, I would frame it as something you just recently discovered and are alerting her to in order to prevent her being put in a bad position (rather than something that you and the rest of the team knew about all along). This way, it gives the HR rep a chance to simply stop using this mascot without wondering why nobody mentioned anything before and how many of her coworkers think she is practicing hate speech.

  30. extra anon today*

    “I’m pretty culturally up to date, and I had no idea about this thing.” Why are you all saying this? I actually AM culturally UTD and I think I’ve known about Pepe since early 2016, possibly earlier. Maybe look deep inside yourself and ask if you’re as hip as you think you are!

      1. Elizabeth H.*

        Eh, don’t disagree about tone of comment but I don’t really understand why people feel the need to comment this either, especially because in this case, people attesting that they don’t have these associations, haven’t heard of it, don’t think it’s so obviously associated with hate speech sort of sounds like taking a position of disbelieving the letter writer/the advice, even if they don’t actually mean it that way.

        1. Stellaaaaa*

          I think it’s more like…you know how the internet makes Dr. Who seem more popular in the US than it really is? If you took the things that are popular or buzzed-about online and tried to talk about those things among Non Internet People, you’d realize that a lot of them had never even heard about these things. If OP is considering talking to her coworker about the emojis, it would be valuable for her to find out if it wasn’t actually a racist symbol and was in fact only used that way once by one person. What if Alison’s response had been, “That isn’t actually a racist symbol and you’d be causing trouble by bringing it up”? I don’t think the comments are swinging that way, but it’s not unnecessary to determine the legitimacy of a problem before telling people to change their actions.

        2. Detective Amy Santiago*

          I think most of us who said that were actually trying to let the LW know that we would appreciate a heads up because we didn’t know and that may be the case with the HR rep.

        3. Emi.*

          I think it’s to show how likely it is that the HR rep thinks it’s just a regular frog.

          1. Elizabeth H.*

            We all agree the HR rep thinks it’s just a regular frog – that’s not the point.

    1. Stellaaaaa*

      I mean, I know I’m not cool. I also make a point of avoiding reddit, alt right nonsense, and anything else that’s guaranteed to make me angry. As much as the Pepe meme could be considered well-known, you do need to be tapped into a particular branch of internet stuff to be aware of it, and many people simply aren’t.

      1. De Minimis*

        I’m of a similar bent, I only know about these things once they hit the regular news media. I’ve been on the internet a long time, but I really curate my various “feeds” on social media and don’t really interact a lot, so I’m usually the last to know. I go to Reddit, but only to places dedicated to specific topics, so I don’t see a lot of angry political stuff.

        I did know about Pepe, but not till late last year, and I also heard about the thing about the brackets around the same time.

    2. Fake Eleanor*

      Turns out that XKCD’s “Ten Thousand” doesn’t only apply to discovering fun things.

      I knew about Pepe, but it’s not exactly surprising that a whole lot of people didn’t — even people who spend time on the internet.

    3. BananaPants*

      Congratulations on being hip and with it, I guess? A lot of people had no idea who Pepe was until he started showing up in alt-right Twitter users’ tweets or they saw it on racist Facebook comments on news stories.

  31. Jeanne*

    I’ve never heard of this symbol. I’m hoping she is just ignorant of its other uses. I think you’d be doing a favor by telling her. She shouldn’t be kept in the dark forever. I know it can be tempting to stay out of it. I say you should err on the side of helping her out.

    1. Jeanne*

      In addition, even if it wasn’t considered racist now, I can’t think why he would belong in every email. That’s a bit crazy.

    1. Kiki*

      It’s not the emojis themselves that offend people, it’s the message being sent by the person using the emojis. For example, if a senior male colleague of mine sent me a *text of an eggplant emoji, peach emoji, and a winky face emoji then I would be very upset. And not at all because of the cartoon drawings of fruits and vegetables, but because of the message that colleague was getting across through the emojis.

      *I am using a real life example here. Happened to someone at a past job, not me specifically, but I saw the text.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          Just because something is cute doesn’t make it less racist, sexist, otherwise offensive though.

        2. Kiki*

          Why is it ridiculous? In my example, would it have been ridiculous if the senior colleague had sent actual text words saying “I want to _ you in the _?” And if not, why is the emoji version ridiculous and the text version not when they mean the same inappropriate, offensive thing?

        3. CityMouse*

          How so? That is a case of clear sexual harassment. The medium should not affect whether offensive, racist, or harassing messages are wrong.

        4. LBK*

          Language is arbitrary. Something bad is still bad whether it’s written in words or pictures; there’s nothing that makes the random shapes we think of as letters inherently more serious. It’s the meaning that matters.

        5. Jessie the First (or second)*

          You find it ridiculous because you think pictures and symbols should not offend? Or just emoji pictures specifically?
          If the former, then I am *sure* if you study, oh I don’t know, World War 2 history, you can come across some symbols that would justifiably offend people if those symbols were plastered across their work correspondence. So, I assume the problem is that it is an emoji, in which case – do you have reason to believe that regular images that are offensive in other contexts cannot be translated into emojis? Or do you think such images become no longer offensive once they become emojis?

          Regardless, work communication isn’t social communication, and needs to held to a different standard than what you could use talking among your friends. This is ESPECIALLY true when it’s an HR rep. An HR rep presumably does not want to *inadvertently* send out any dog whistle messages across the company, and so letting her know she is using a dog whistle is a good idea.

        6. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          So you find it ridiculous that people can be offended by messages conveyed via symbolism rather than text?

        7. seejay*

          You sound like the people I saw on another post in another forum who told a bunch of minorities they were being “overly sensitive” because a racial slur was “just a word” and they should just get over it instead of being offended by it.

          Emoji or not, it’s a symbol that’s been co-opted by a group with hateful and horrible ideologies and saying “get over it, it’s just a symbol and stop being offended by it” is short-sighted and cruel to those it’s intended to target.

        8. Nope!*

          So do I. So the frog “looks like” Pepe – it’s a dancing frog emoji, for god’s sakes! That’s like being offended on Halloween because a kid’s ghost costume looks like a KKK robe. The world needs to get a grip and lighten up.

          1. Snark*

            Or we could take OP at her word that the resemblance is obvious. Pepe is distinctive, whether it’s dancing or not, and most generic frog emoji and cartoons do not actually look like that – and if it looks like Pepe, it probably is. If a kid is wearing a pointy hood and a robe with crosses on it, it’s foolish not to take that on face value.

        9. Snark*

          No offense, Janelle, but whether you find it ridiculous or not is really beside the point. Emoji communicate things, and some emoji communicate things that can be offensive or problematic, and O brave new world, thy kingdom come.

    2. LBK*

      Oh c’mon, it’s not the emoji itself that’s the issue, it’s the intention of people who use it as a hate symbol. A swastika’s just a bunch of lines but if someone drew one on a Jewish coworker’s desk at work I don’t think you’d tell them to get over it and not be offended.

      1. Ann O.*

        This poster probably would not, but people have seriously argued with me that saying “Hitler did nothing wrong” isn’t offensive because it’s simply a joking meme. Sadly, we are in an era where people will gaslight anything.

    3. AthenaC*

      Would you feel differently about a cutesy dancing swastika emoji?

      Emojis certainly have the capacity to be offensive. Whether the one being discussed specifically is offensive … well, it’s offensive to its intended audience and that’s all that really matters.

    4. Anonymous 40*

      I promise you the rest of us would rather not either, but given the lack of alternatives, here we are.

    5. Katie the Fed*

      So don’t. Move somewhere that people can be as openly offensive as possible. But the rest of us are still trying to have a civilization..

    6. Bryce*

      Hate speech targeted at you feels like an icicle through the heart. Like a bomb of fear and sadness has just gone off. Is that enough reason for you not to encourage it happening to people?

      1. EmilyG*

        Thanks for posting this because it’s both eloquent and a point that seems to be mostly missing from this conversation. I rarely hear anyone saying “why are we making such a big deal out of this” when they’re the ones who are the targets…

  32. BytetheBullet*

    OP, I think you’d be doing the HR rep a kindness by pointing out what Pepe the Frog stands for! And it might be an awkward conversation, but I think you’d score points anyway (once the embarrassment dies down, that is).

    I always hope someone helps me out if I’m doing something embarrassing in the work context.

    1. Myrin*


      OP, as far as I can see, the reason you hesitate to have this conversation with your coworker boils down to the fact that you “don’t want her to think [you’re] being condescending or pretentious”. And honestly, I’m not really seeing why that would happen, as long as you use kind language and a friendly manner and don’t mock her about her ignorance or similar.

      You also say that you “don’t want her to think it is a political thing” but I’d say that as soon as hate speech or similar is involved, it automatically becomes a political thing and there’s nothing really you can do about it. If she actually believes that she should be allowed to use symbols of hate speech, the problem is much bigger than poor Pepe, but I’m assuming that since she doesn’t even seem to know the meme, she might be completely ready to use another happy funny dancing animal.

  33. Black Bellamy*

    I don’t know if anyone noticed, but the OP did not say it was Pepe. She said it shared a likeness. So that could mean the OP sees a similarity no one else will. I just looked up dancing frog emojis and there’s hundreds of them. Maybe some share a likeness with Pepe, not sure, but I did not see an actual dancing Pepe emoji.

    This could be a case where the OP is just a little too sensitive.

    1. Emi.*

      Oooh, I missed that. Yeah, if this is just a frog that looks kinda like Pepe, it’s different.

      1. Snark*

        But is it really? If the resemblance is close enough to be suggestive, and other people get uncomfortable in the same conversations, it’s irrelevant whether it’s a line tracing of an original cartoon or not.

        1. Emi.*

          I think it depends on *how* close. Ideally we’d have some kind of “would a reasonable person think this was Pepe” test. If it bothered the OP enough to write to AAM about it, it probably passes that test (and I think you should err on the side of caution at work anyhow), but Pepe-like emoji are less clear-cut than actual Pepes.

    2. Elizabeth H.*

      I assumed that when the letter writer wrote “shares its likeness” she just meant that the frog doing the dancing is a Pepe-looking frog. The original depiction isn’t dancing so it couldn’t be an “actual” Pepe image. I doubt this kind of thing would be easy to misinterpret, because you have so little visual information that can be contained in an emoji they usually are easy to interpret.

    3. Myrin*

      I saw that as well, but since I know that there actually is a dancing Pepe (I put a link to it in my name – thanks for that wonderful idea, Emi.!), I assumed that that’s the one she meant. (It simultaneously is and isn’t a Pepe – it’s obviously the exact same face but the actual meme only shows a close-up of the face with a bit of shoulder/held-up hands.)

      But even if that isn’t the case, OP said that her company “is a very internet savvy digital media agency so EVERYONE ELSE knows exactly what it is”, this doesn’t seem like a case of OP seeing a similarity that no one else has picked up on (in fact, that sentence reads to me like she’s actually talked about this issue with others in her company who share her feelings).

    4. TooCows*

      The possibility of mistaking one frog for another reminds me of the cases where someone used the word “niggardly” and then was on the receiving end of much vitriol by people who didn’t understand the definition and etymology of the word.

      1. Anonymous 40*

        It’s hard to imagine someone using the word “niggardly,” instead of one of its many synonyms, without knowing how the word sounds. It’s very easy to imagine many people being unaware of the etymology of a rarely used word.

        1. Kelly L.*

          The last few times I saw someone using “niggardly,” I ended up being pretty sure they had used it on purpose hoping someone would misinterpret it as the slur and start a fight, which the word-user could then feel superior in.

        2. Jerry Vandesic*

          There was a case a few years ago of a political aide in DC who was in exactly that situation. They used the word innocently in a conversation, someone who didn’t know the word took offense, and the speaker ended up losing their job. After a while they were offered the job back, but they didn’t go back.

  34. Rockhopper*

    I am in the group who don’t even know what this frog looks like, let alone that he is a hate-speech symbol. So, OP, know that if you gently brought it up to me with the caveat “I’m sure you didn’t know this but,” I would be mortified but also extremely grateful to you. Of course, I don’t use emojis at work, only with my 20-something kids and they know that mom is clueless.

  35. stitchinthyme*

    Years ago, I had a little piece of thin rope tied into a noose in my cubicle at work. I didn’t mean anything by it; I just knew how to tie one, the bit of rope was around, and so it was there. Although I was not unfamiliar with the history of lynchings, I just didn’t even think about it in this particular instance, until one day a coworker who was visiting my cube said something like, “I don’t know if you’re aware, but displaying a noose has a lot of negative connotations that I really doubt you actually mean, because of all the race-based lynchings that have happened in US history.” I was horrified that anyone might interpret it this way and removed it immediately. I was also grateful to my coworker for pointing it out.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Oh man, I could totally see something like that happening to me. I learned a lot of knots from my dad (a sailor!) and I love toying with string as a fidget item… I could totally see my practice bowlines or similar being noose-like enough to cause some discomfort. I’ll keep an eye on myself for that.

    2. Lily Rowan*

      That’s really the perfect analogy. Of course you didn’t mean that and it was simple to avoid once it was pointed out.

    3. Katie the Fed*

      I used a racial slur by accident once. Where I come from, it’s a shorter version of “raccoon” and I had NEVER heard the other usage. I made a comment about wanting to go hunting for them (it was a joke about my midwest background) and someone took it a VERY DIFFERENT WAY. There was a stunned silence and then someone filled me in. To this day I’m still mortified.

      1. Paul*

        I had almost the exact same experience (with the exact same phrase I bet). Never knew it was used that way as a kid.

        I still use it in some context (particularly when they’re in trash at 3am and freaking otu the neighborhood dogs) but not generally in public

      2. Anon for this one*

        That particular word happens to be my last name. I discovered it was a slur when I was a little kid because of stuff written on a bathroom wall. I’m sure that was an awkward conversation for my teacher and then my parents.

    4. Al Lo*

      I had a similar experience once. When one of the early Pirates of the Carribean movies was released, Disney sold a necklace shaped like a noose (I think it was a charm on the necklace; not the actual chain itself), and there was a huge uproar about it.

      I, living in Canada, read about this big controversy, and I remember having a conversation online with some friends. We all thought it was in bad taste, but in my mind (and the other Canadians’ in the conversation, if I recall correctly), it was bad taste as a piece of jewellery depicting a method of suicide (in its most common contemporary usage) or maybe an outdated form of capital punishment. The U.S. historical context wasn’t the first thing that came to mind.

    5. NaoNao*

      My mother (an otherwise honestly lovely person, I promise!) was raised by what we might call “benign racists” (ie, people who used terms that, at the time, were in common usage but still hurtful or slurs or less than ideal). She had a couple phrases we as children or heard frequently (we lived on a religious commune and were *super* sheltered) used until someone told us that they were racist and hurtful.
      It was hard when we found out that a particular phrase my mother had used 100% in affection and innocence was actually racist and a token/callback to slavery (!!) (think “cotton-pickin'” type stuff) but we stopped. Immediately.
      If your desire to not be offended, or not live in a world where “people” are offended by emoji, symbols, phrases, or words, is greater than your desire to be a good citizen and not hurt people, I feel sorry for you. I really do. It must be lonely. *Not directed at any one commentor. Just food for thought*.

      1. seejay*

        My mother still carries some casual racism from when she was a kid into her old age, but it’s less charming now than it was back in the 80s. I could forgive her for some of the comments she made when I was younger (telling me what the black licorice candies were called when she was a kid back in the 50s for example), but when she makes “casually racist” comments now that make me cringe and side-eye at her, I can’t just let it go.

        It really isn’t hard to just be kind and stop using words (or phrases or pictures or images or symbols) that have been hijacked. Unless there’s some sort of deep-rooted historical meaning and history already in place (a friend of mine does have swastikas in his house, but he’s Hindu and he’s been respectful and careful about their placement so they’re not noticeable from outside so people who don’t understand don’t see them and draw the incorrect conclusion, and he’s explained it to friends/family/visitors), there’s no valid reason to hang onto something that’s hateful other than stubbornness and a desire to be hurtful to others IMO*.

        (*outside of reclaiming words/symbols, but these are fights left up to those who have the power and rights to do that)

        1. NaoNao*

          I can’t tell 100% if you’re agreeing with me, but in case there was a misreading, I’m 100% with you. It’s not hard to stop. It’s certainly not harder than living with the pain of racism/sexism/transphobia/bigotry!

          1. seejay*

            Oh I was 100% agreeing with you, while relating my own tale of casual racism that I grew up around, yet managed to shake off and get away from, although my family seems to have not quite gotten away from it as much as I’d like them to. It was more illustrating the point that some of these things are really small innocuous things that *should* be let go without a fight and not held onto… things like a cartoon frog or slurs or words. I watched a bunch of people arguing why should they stop using a specific racial slur just because one specific group of people found it hurtful… *maybe because it doesn’t harm you to stop using it and it would be a kind thing to do*?

            Words have history. Symbols have history. And yes, some symbols with thousands of years of history can get ruined in a short period of time. I think swastikas have far more importance and historical meaning than a stupid cartoon frog and are worth fighting to take back the meaning of if someone wants to find a worthy hill to die on. Pepe’s been ruined by the alt-right, at least it doesn’t have actual historical significance. People arguing for the right to keep using it and that it shouldn’t mean anything baffle me. Nazis got their hands on it and it’s associated with them? Oh hell no, I’m not going near that with a billion foot pole now. I’ll fight over the words and symbols that have significant historical meanings behind them though if people want to reclaim them.

            Anyway, I think I rambled there. Apologies. It’s the end of the day. >>

        2. Gadfly*

          I have some of the swastika problem. My husband has Sanskrit books, and a number do have swastikas on the cover or spine. It is odd for me in one way as perfect aryan broodmare material in ome way, and for him as a black man in another. But these books are also close to his heart, are his faith and he is proud of them. And many are out of print, small run, no alternatives.

    6. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Thank you for sharing this. It’s an excellent illustration of how things may be problematic even when a person has no bad intentions, and it also shows graciousness on the part of your coworker and yourself for handling a charged issue so well.

  36. bookish*

    I completely agree with Alison’s advice. Bring it up politely as if you are sure she didn’t know about it (which it seems she doesn’t) but are doing her the favor of letting her know it has become a neo-Nazi symbol and thus would be quite embarrassing/insensitive to use going forward.

  37. Professor Moriarty*

    I would definetly say something to her, preferebaly face to face. In general this is bad at work but that she is HR makes it super important that she is not seen in any way to be prejudiced so people are as comfortable as possible to seek help from her on issues surrounding discrimination.
    If I was in her position I would be mortified and might not react really well in the moment but after the conversation would be really great full to whoever let me know so I could stop using it.

  38. Lee*

    I don’t know if this against Alison’s warning at the top (please remove this comment if so) but the OP said: “One issue is there’s a dancing frog which shares its likeness with Pepe the alt right frog.”
    The dancing frog resembles Pepe, and because of this resemblance you want it removed? It’s not actually an image of Pepe? Not trying to be dense or split hairs, but doesn’t Kermit (or a cartoon rendering of the beloved frog muppet) resemble Pepe? Should people (coworkers etc) curtail to a mere resemblance of something? If this emoji just resembles Pepe the green frog, where does the line get drawn?
    Also, people can just appropriate things to become symbols of whatever special interest they have, and then if it becomes “internet sensation/famous”, then it’s set in stone??

    1. Snark*

      How about we not try to rules-lawyer the shit out of this and, as the site rules direct us, maybe take OP on their word, and assume that when she tells us the god damn frog looks like Pepe, it probably does?

      1. Lee*

        “maybe take OP on their word”
        I used a direct quote. I am literally using the OP’s words. So I am taking them at their word.
        “How about we not try to rules-lawyer the shit out of this”
        The overly PC remarks about the offense taken from a cartoon rendering of a green frog the alt right has adopted (or whatever) tells me whoever is actually offended by a green frog dancing emoji may be invoking legal protections (a la the “rules/lawyer sh!t”), not myself. My questions were more or less rhetorical.

        1. Snark*

          Your questions are more or less baseless. Here’s more of what OP said:

          “One issue is there’s a dancing frog which shares its likeness with Pepe the alt right frog”

          So, it shares a likeness. That means it looks like Pepe. Pretty unambiguous.

          “I really am uncomfortable when she uses the Pepe, as it seriously dampers conversations.”

          She refers to it as “the Pepe,” so clearly it’s close enough to Pepe to refer to it as Pepe, and people get uncomfortable when it appears, suggesting that it is perceived as Pepe with all his current semiotic baggage, not as just a dancing frog. And Pepe is pretty unmistakable, it’s a distinctive cartoon.

          PC has absolutely nothing to do with this, other than to overplay your hand. This is cut and dried.

    2. fposte*

      No. Then it’s set in “inadvisable to deploy from a workplace that wants to avoid association with movements it doesn’t support.”

      1. Lee*

        You mean “perceived association”. I’m not convinced it’s actually an emoji of Pepe, just one that resembles him (so a green frog), per the OP’s own words.
        It’s the same reason straight males didn’t always like hanging out with openly gay males (“guilty by association”); it’s a hurtful cruel approach to life and other people.

          1. Snark*

            So, are we seriously being told that avoiding using a common symbol of hate groups and online white supremacy is hurtful and cruel….to the symbol?

            1. Anonymous 40*

              Either that or that gently suggesting a coworker consider new information is the same as widespread, open ostracism of a whole segment of the population.

        1. Snark*

          “I’m not convinced it’s actually an emoji of Pepe, just one that resembles him (so a green frog), per the OP’s own words.”

          This is not a federal case. You’re not going to be presented evidence other than the OP telling us the resemblance is close enough to be problematic. You can be satisfied with that or not, but we’ve been specifically asked to take OPs at their word approximately a billion times, largely to avoid comments which endlessly litigate the details of letters.

          1. Lee*

            In rethinking this, I agree with you. Harping on a written detail isn’t building a strong case for allowing it and, as Emi pointed out below, the cost of avoiding a dancing frog emoji in a professional capacity at work should be very low.

    3. Emi.*

      It depends on how closely it resembles Pepe, but it’s probably pretty close, or they wouldn’t have written in. If it could reasonably mistaken for Pepe, I think it should be avoided at work (especially since the cost of avoiding it is so low…like when do you actually need a dancing frog emoji?).

      1. This Daydreamer*


        Er, I mean, um, well, never mind. But I’m keeping Kermy.

  39. Dee*

    This is not an issue that requires nuance. “Oh, well maybe she doesn’t know what it means, or maybe it shouldn’t be considered offensive…” Her right to use a stupid emoji is not actually more important than the fact that it’s a symbol of profound hate.

  40. Allison*

    I’d just say something like “not sure if you’re aware, that symbol is associated with some hate groups now. I know you’re not using it that way, but it could really upset someone.” She’d likely feel mortified and stop immediately. Note that you’re not telling her she has to stop or that using it is “not PC anymore,” you’re making sure she’s fully informed of the implications that meme has these days.

  41. I Like Stripes*

    I think it’s totally possible that she has no idea and eeeeeesh! That’s really cringey because I’m guessing she’ll be horrified when she find out. I think like Alison usually says, you’re really doing her a kindness to tell her. A reasonable person would want to know if they are accidentally saying something offensive.

    It happened to me once. I made a passing comment to a coworker’s that someone I knew was such a miser. I meant that as the person was really stingey and cheap. Like a lot of words it was something I picked up from context in conversations. I just thought it was a synonym. Never had I looked it up or really thought about it. My colleague said that’s an interesting way of putting it, did you know that the word actually has its roots in being an offensive to Jewish people? And I said really? No way! I had no idea. Wow thanks for telling me! Conversation done. No big deal. And I’m really thankful for it. You might think how can she not know this thing?! But remember we can’t all know everything all of the time, we’re just human like that. Good luck!

    1. Sue Wilson*

      I just thought it was a synonym
      It is just a synonym. It has absolutely been used to malign Jewish people in the context of stereotype (see Merchant of Venice), but that is not at all it’s roots or even it’s common usage.

      1. I Like Stripes*

        Sue Wilson – true and good point! But I work in education with college students so I try to be sensitive to the language I use when talking to my students. I need them to trust me and confide in me. I never know who is struggling with their gender/religious/family/socioeconomic identity and I can’t afford to use language that could be seen as offensive. So my colleague did me a great favor in telling me.

        1. Attractive Nuisance*

          It’s good to know that someone thinks that it’s related to antisemitism, I guess, but the word comes from the Latin for wretched. There are a ton of Jews-are-cheap slang phrases and jokes, but hand to God, I really do not believe it’s widespread as an association. Better than joking about the invention of copper wire, or saying “Jew him down” instead of haggle. (Signed, a Jew who has been lots of people’s first real life Jew, somehow.)

          1. Gazebo Slayer*

            Thanks for clarifying – sometimes really inaccurate rumors arise that a word/phrase has some horrible origin. I strongly suspect “alt-right” types, or others of similar mentality, of deliberately spreading such rumors to make people look ridiculous or to dilute discourse about things that really *are* offensive.

          2. Former Employee*

            Something that Jews and people whose ancestors came from Scotland have in common (being called misers or “thrifty” in a pejorative fashion) and can use as a bonding experience given that they otherwise tend to have little in common.

  42. Kobayashi*

    I find these type of things really sad all around. I would assume she has no idea. In fact, I had no idea until I read this blog post. I did an Internet search of Pepe and received quite the education, and what I find particularly sad is how upset the creator of Pepe has been about the character’s misappropriation. Part of me thinks catering to this lets those folks win.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      I don’t think the issue is as simple as “catering” or not. There’s also a consideration of where, when, and how it’s useful and helpful to fight back.

    2. Mookie*

      Win what, though? Racism and white supremacy exist; feigning ignorance and ‘colorblindness’ and pretending innocuous, painful dogwhistles designed to threaten and intimidate people of color are Just In Your Mind, Man is not anti-racism. Second-guessing and rules-lawyering racist language and images is not anti-racism. This is another “why are THEY allowed to say it, then?” distraction, an attempt at impeding progress by launching an endless, and for many people, entirely academic discussion that will only ever result in an impasse, as it was designed to do. Why the benefit of the doubt is always ever extended to racists is not a mystery to me, but it‘s what makes me sad.

      1. Mookie*

        I guess it comes down to which troubles you more: someone mistakenly employing racist imagery (and thus being mistaken or identified as a racist) or someone experiencing racism, irrespective of another person’s intent. The fear of being called a racist is, for many white people who are knee-jerk defending Pepe despite never having heard of him before, of greater import than that their neighbors are subjected to racism. Sad!

  43. Erin*

    For what’s it worth, I’m (fairly) young and social media savvy and work in marketing and I’d never heard of this or seen this frog before until I just googled it. It’s very possibly true she doesn’t know what it means, which I’d think would make this an easier conversation to have than if she did.

  44. RB*

    This reminds me a little bit of the letter writer who said “my mama didn’t raise no hookers” or something like that to her boss and she totally didn’t get how that might be seen as offensive. Sorry if that’s off-topic but I’m having flashbacks to that letter and I think there are some parallels.

  45. Steve*

    How confident can OP/we be that HR person is not actually a white supremacist using Pepe as a dog whistle intentionally?

    1. RB*

      Well the LW didn’t think that was the case. They had already considered that possibility when they said, “I am confident she doesn’t know what Pepe is or represents, as she is not particularly culturally up to date.”

      1. Steve*

        That’s the whole point of dog whistles, right? That most people will think it’s just a picture of the frog? But there is a secret message hidden in plain sight to tell the other members of the secret group that you are on their side.

        1. BananaPants*

          I haven’t seen Pepe used as a dog whistle, per se – the alt right folks who use it online seem open and proud of their beliefs, unfortunately. They’re not trying to hide who they are.

    2. Akcipitrokulo*

      If she is…. OP should still act the same way.

      If, as is likely given the numbet of Internet savvy people on here who’ve just heard for the first time, she didn’t know, then saying kindly to her “by the way…” is a good thing.

      If she doe have malevolent intent, then saying it kindly with the assumption that of course someone like you would nevery do something like that puts her in an awkward position. Especially if it’s mentioned that an HR person could be in a bad position if they use it.

      It’s like a lot of things… treat it as if person means we’ll. If the do, all good… if not, reason and politeness annoys them ;)

  46. MommyMD*

    It’s sad that an innocent frog emoji can become so politically controversial. I’d be of the mind to just let it go as I assume her higher ups have already seen it.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Yep, it sure does suck when terrible people co-opt an innocent image to use for their disgusting garbage and therefore ruin it for everyone else.

      1. MommyMD*

        It does. I almost think society should just rebel and keep using it in a positive light. Unless someone is posting swastikas (sp) I’m not monitoring their emoji use.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          I’m not sure that’s a good idea for HR. I dunno about you, but I’d hate to be in the position of trying to guess whether an HR person is using a sometimes-racist meme innocently or intentionally.

          In casual use, whatever! But on the job is probably not the place to take that stand.

          1. Czhorat*

            Call me crazy, but in my casual communications I try to avoid things which either make me look racist or make minorities feel uncomfortable around me.

            It costs literally nothing to switch to a different emoji.

          2. Kyrielle*

            I think trying to take it back is an awesome thing.

            But it should be done consciously, by people who know what it has come to mean and want to take it back, in venues where that makes sense.

            Casual emoji in a work slack channel or IM program, by someone who very likely doesn’t know _either_ the original _or_ the more recent meaning/usage, is completely different.

            If the OP tells the woman and she decides to continue using it…that’s her choice, and it’s her coworkers’ right to interpret it however they see fit. But I suspect the woman will quickly stop using it at work.

            If she knows the original and loves the original Pepe, she may find and choose to join in the attempt to reclaim the image (as others have mentioned, the original artist is actually trying to push it back the other way, though I think the odds of that working are perhaps questionable)…but my bet is that she would not choose to do so at work, knowing what other people might think she meant instead.

            Ultimately, it’s about “does this present her the way she thinks it does?” If not, perhaps she should be given a heads-up. I think most people would not choose that as a hill to die on at work – over a cutesy emoji, no less. There are plenty of other emoji and she will likely find others she likes as much.

    2. Czhorat*

      It’s no longer innocent.

      If someone in HR is using what appears to be a white-supramacist symbol then there is every reason for a decent human being to say something about it.

      Go look at Richard Spencer’s Twitter profile; he almost always uses either a frog or milk emoji.

    3. Mookie*

      It’s sad when racism can be reduced to something “politically controversial” — two sides!!1! equally valid! — but there we are. Different strokes.

    4. De Minimis*

      The fact remains, though, it is undeniably politically controversial, and so does not belong in the workplace. It doesn’t really matter if people disagree about how it got to be that way. It is that way, and shouldn’t be at work.

  47. SadReader*

    As a long time lurker who loves this website… This whole post just rubs me the wrong way. The letter, the response… everything. Allison, you usually give such good advice, and I really do take it to heart. I wish I could understand what exactly bothers me about this. The closest explanation I have is that it’s as if the whole post is tone death to a point where I feel sick. I don’t know. I just know this is the first time I’m leaving the website feeling this way.

    1. Paul*

      What type of advice or tone would you like to have seen? I’m not trying to be snarky (I know text is hard to convey snark/not snark in). What pieces of the advice would you change, how would you alter the tone?

      1. Stellaaaaa*

        I think you could argue that there’s a difference between the Swastika becoming the famous symbol of a horrible political regime that became the mainstream, and a bunch of idiots on the internet using a cartoon to communicate among themselves. In this case I think it’s best to just not use Pepe for now, but I could agree with the sentiment that we can’t stop using every little thing that offensive people decide to co-opt when it’s staying relatively under the radar. How many racists have to use a particular image or song before it becomes off limits to the rest of us? What if I love that song? What if it’s meaningful to me in an important way for reasons that predate the racist associations? I don’t want to give my faves to people who suck.

        1. seejay*

          There’s a song by a band that I really like. And I’ll admit, the lyrics are *pretty damn terrible* (at least for a white person). But I love the music and sound of it (if I could get the lyrics changed, it’d be great). I’ve enjoyed the song since it came out in 1992 (or 93, I’m honestly not sure). No one can take the song away from me, I can always enjoy the song, but I make damn sure I listen to it in the privacy of my own home and keep it down low enough so the lyrics don’t get overheard in the hallway. I know the meaning of the song, why it was written and the purpose of it, but I don’t want my neighbours to get the wrong impression of me and it doesn’t harm anyone if I keep it to myself. I don’t have to share it or demand that they hear it or risk offending anyone with it. I would *love* a different lyric version of it, but I’m sure not going to ask Ice-T to rewrite one just for me.

          The way I see it, you can always have your favourites, just keep in mind what it says about you and what messages you want to publicly portray. It’s no skin off my nose to keep one music choice private because it could be offensive and it *really wasn’t written for me*. I know it wasn’t. I can enjoy it though, and I do, but I’ll keep it private and in my home because of that.

          1. Stellaaaaa*

            I’m not talking about a song that’s inherently racist or offensive, just as we’re not talking about a frog that was originally drawn with racist intent. It’s easy for me to say because I don’t care for the design of Pepe and I wasn’t familiar with the graphic novel (or whatever) prior to the racist stuff, but this has gotta be rough for the people who have been fans for 10 years. What about the actual Pepe fans? Do they have to stop talking about liking the story? Does the artist have to disown his own creation? I’m not going to take down my Parvez Taj print if some racist decides to re-appropriate its meaning in 15 years.

            1. seejay*

              I guess the point I’m trying to get at is that if something does wind up getting co-opted, you can still keep it, but in some cases, it might really have to be something that lays low because of what’s happened. I’m not saying it doesn’t suck… I think it does. I think it’s why we can’t have nice things and why terrible people suck. But as others have pointed out, sometimes meanings and symbols change and there’s not much we can do about it if there’s a greater outside force.

              Right now? The alt-right *has* ruined some symbols and images and there’s really no way to argue that. Enough people know about it, enough people give those that use it the side-eye and aren’t necessarily sure if someone’s using it innocently or if they’re sending a veiled message. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and for minorities, it could flag a person as unsafe and untrustworthy, even if they’re really not (better safe than sorry). If I was a Pepe fan, I wouldn’t be throwing out my books and comics (if there are any) but I wouldn’t be advertising my love for him on the Internet and making it obvious to people that didn’t know me. The same way that I know my Hindu friend also is careful about where he has swastikas displayed for his religion. He knows how it’s been co-opted and ruined and he’s sensitive to it, but he also reveres it as part of his religion. He chooses to still embrace it but he’s careful to other peoples’ perception of it.

              That’s all I’m trying to say in a weird roundabout way.

            2. Gadfly*

              Pepe wasn’t originally drawn that way, but he sure is drawn that way now by many of those using him. Things change, and now is pretty important no matter what once upon a time was.

        2. Paul*

          I agree with your general sentiments when it comes to this particular thing (see my comments elsewhere) but just don’t feel that work is the place for that sort of fight in general.

          I’m also stodgy enough to be anti emoji in work emails in general too.

        3. Xay*

          To be clear, the people on Reddit who use the symbol aren’t just communicating amongst themselves. They target anti-racism activists, advocates, journalists and others who openly oppose their views with internet and real life harassment, including death threats and in one case, sending images designed to cause an epileptic seizure to a journalist known to have epilepsy.

          It’s not right that these people have co-opted and tarnished images, but the fact is they have. The real problem isn’t that they have taken a frog cartoon, the real problem is the beliefs and actions they put behind it.

        1. Nephron*

          A member of HR is repeatedly using something that is widely used by white supremacists. The LW states she and every employee besides the HR employee knows what it means. If someone who is not white needs HR, are they going to trust this employee? If a nonwhite employee is fired, does the company want any of those message logs showing up in a court case? If an intern takes a screengrab and puts it on instagram with the name of the company, how many people will consider boycotting the company?
          If multiple employees at the company look at this emoji and see Pepe, the general public is likely to see Pepe.

    2. MommyMD*

      Me as well Sad Reader. Political correctness gone mad. Co-opt the Frog back. I’m turned off by people monitoring every little thing about everyone else and making an issue over it. Imo the response plays right into it. Nothing outrageous garnering this much dismay has been done. Most people don’t even know some unsavory groups have used it for their own selfish purposes. They’ve also used Elmo. Monitoring emojis for internal business communications is the last thing most people have time for. A dancing frog is sometimes just a dancing frog.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Except in this case, it’s not just a dancing frog, as has been thoroughly explained and documented here.

        No one is saying the HR person is outrageous. They are saying she doesn’t realize what she’s conveying, and if she’s a reasonable person would probably great appreciate having it pointed out.

        1. Stellaaaaa*

          No, but you seem to have missed the part where I pointed out the objective differences between Hitler’s political regime and a bunch of losers on Reddit.

          1. Mookie*

            Journalists are using the pepe meme in the White House Press Room, folks. It’s meatspace-serious now. Neo-nazi terrorism already exists outside of the internet.

          2. NaoNao*

            If you watch the miniseries “Genius” about the life of Einstein, you’ll see a few scenes in which major government figures or public figures dismiss Hitler as a kook, a loser, a fanatic and a weirdo.
            I’m sorry that people are saddened by others’ sympathy and frustration for minority and vulnerable groups. I’m sorry that people feel 1/10th of the fear, sadness, frustration, outrage, and confusion or frozen emotions around hate speech that the *targets of that hate speech feel daily*.
            Dismissing fringe white power/white nationalist groups as “losers”, declaring that PC culture has run amok, being saddened by serious discussions and shows of solidarity around these issues, and throwing up your hands and saying things like “I don’t want to live in a world where we can’t use emoji!” are how hate groups, hate speech, and ultimately, horrifying atrocities occur.
            One small action at a time.
            One otherwise good person gives up. Decides to “opt out”. Ignores cries for help and flaps a hand at the uproar.
            Don’t be that person.
            Stand up and protect the vulnerable when they need it.

        2. Paul*

          It’s still used in other context itsel. But it wasn’t a much of a part of European culture before WWII, and I’d argue the symbol was more thoroughly co-opted than Pepe was. The usage was more public, more widespread and by a frankly more…effective (I’m having a hard time coming up with a word) evil. These were a few idiots on a website. The swastika became a symbol of an expansionist, genocidal government that conquered a good part of Europe and killed tens of millions.

          Basically it’s not mine to take back, but I’m not going to get irate about Hindu people using it in the original context. But there’s not much other context within European/white American culture where a swastika was used before either.

      2. oranges & lemons*

        White supremacists actually use Pepe and other memes for that very reason, though–it’s easy not to take it seriously, or to spread it without realizing its significance.

        1. Stellaaaaa*

          I understand why people use the frog. It’s like how trafficking rings advertise with terms like Snow White and Cinderella to describe someone’s appearance. Should people stop watching those films? Should Disney pull them from circulation? Should we allow that to change the entire context of fairy tales that have existed for hundreds of years? Do we ban children from watching them?

          1. seejay*

            I think there’s a big difference between code words used in small select circles as descriptors versus something that actually made it into big media and the news as a symbol for a specific group. There’s a lot of descriptor words that are used within scenes and subcultures but they’re not wide-spread or mainstream, the way this has become.

          2. Elizabeth H.*

            I agree with the sentiment here (ad certainly with your examples of Disney references) but I think with the Pepe image the scale is substantially different (meaning the prevalence and value of the image in its original context vs its new hateful context) and that’s what makes the difference. I do think that we shouldn’t necessarily avoid “every little thing” that could have a variant association, but my opinion is that this particular symbol falls on the other side of the line of being a “little” thing. I *don’t* think it’s a big deal or a major drama. I feel like a lot of the disagreement/debate in the comments is actually about perceived scale of this particular image, rather than the underlying principle.

      3. Sfigato*

        I get that it is annoying that a frog symbol has been turned into a symbol of white supremacists, but that’s because white supremacists are annoying. Is this the hill to die on to not be “politically correct?” Having anyone who spends any time on Twitter think that you are a white supremacist?

        “Political correctness” is often used as a pejorative, but at it’s heart much of what is labeled political correctness is about trying not to be a big old jerk. Do people sometimes take things to ridiculous extremes? Sure, but most of the times people have an actual reason for wanting to be called or not called something, etc. And while it can be a bit exhausting keeping up with terminology, it’s the small price we pay to live in a pluralistic, multi-cultural society. We have a bunch of different social norms to keep track of rather than just anglo-saxon ones. That’s not a terrible problem to have.

        1. RB*

          It’s comments like this that make me hopeful that not all is lost and that reasonable people can still be reasoned with.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I re-read my answer, and I feel good about standing by it. But if you want to come back and tell me more, I’d be glad to listen.

      I will say, though, that this blog has always had a point of view on bigotry, sexism, racism, etc. and that’s important to me to continue.

  48. I am not a lawyer but,*

    I’ve been on the internet almost since its inception (former military contractor) and I didn’t know about Pepe or the parentheses. My daughter wouldn’t tell me why, she just told me to stop using them. I love frogs and hugs, but I trust my daughter more. Now I know. Glad she told me.

  49. beanie beans*

    A coworker of a friend used the word “vajazzled” about an upcoming meeting, thinking she was saying jazzed or something. People told her what it meant immediately, and she was immediately mortified but 100% glad people said something quickly or she would have continued to use it.

      1. Cedrus Libani*

        I once had an Israeli colleague decide that my new nickname should be KKK. (No, she didn’t know what it meant, at least not in English. And yes, I’m VERY white.) She told me this, and I was too mortified to explain, so I just kind of…hoped she would forget? Of course, the next day we had a work lunch (including boss and Jewish grand-boss), and she stood up and announced to the whole group – Cedrus’ new name is KKK!

        1. Gadfly*

          A friend of my sister’s met her shortly after she (the friend) had moved from India. After introducing herself, she told my sister ‘oh, but you can just call me Poo’. She was very grateful that my sister explained why she was not comfortable with doing so…

    1. Paul*


      I had to google that word. I shouldn’t have needed to given it’s a portmanteau, but damn. Just. What.

      1. beanie beans*

        Made even better by the fact that she was the image of purity and innocence. :)

    2. Paul*

      and can I ask *how* they explained it? I’m just….now that I know what it means, how do you delicitetly explain it?*

      *For my fellow squares, vajazzaled apparently means putting sparkly things around the vagina. All my what.

    3. AnonForLaughs*

      My DH recently pulled out his phone and played the song ‘Cake’ during an office gathering for birthday cake. His office is small and skews younger… so luckily someone pulled him aside and told him to google what I only came for the cake means

    4. Anonyforthis*

      Omggg. Similar story. We had an long-acronym-ed organization we wanted to work with that started with “FAP”. My coworker thought it would be great to shorten that to fap, which… well we all know what that means. She said it to me as if it was such a great idea and was super confused when I burst out laughing. I told her we can’t shorten it to that, explained why, and she agreed :P

      1. Pebbles*

        We have an internal tool called “FAP” (it’s an acronym) that we still use and haven’t bothered to rename. It’s been around something like 25 years.

  50. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    OP, I think it would be a kindness for you, or a coworker, to let the HR person know the full meaning of Pepe and that her dancing frog could be mistaken for it. Keep your tone kind, assume she’s not a white supremacist, and say it the same way you would any other social faux pas—that is, don’t lead with your frustration over how jarring it is to keep seeing the emoji.

    If she pushes back, and if your coworkers are ok with you saying so, it may be worth mentioning that others have noticed as well and had the same concern (normally I don’t think it’s right/fair to appeal to unnamed “others,” but if your feelings are as widespread as you indicate, then I think it’s ok to refer to that fact). Don’t let this be miscast as an issue about “being PC”—if ever there’s a moment to be aware of your communication, white supremacy is one of those moments. You can of course cite the ADL (it’s also on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of symbols), or you could provide a printout of a news story discussing the rise of the meme, or whatever “neutral” source that makes it clear to her that this isn’t just about your interpretation/politics but about a well-known, relatively widespread and common usage. Analogize to other clearly unacceptable symbols/words if it would be helpful (obviously don’t say them, though!).

    The closest thing I can think of (in the non-racial context) is if you had a friend from the UK who kept using the term “fag” to refer to cigarettes. Obviously they’re not trying to be offensive, but letting them know that a word/symbol has a very different meaning, and letting them know you don’t think they’d ever mean to use it in that pejorative way, ensures that they won’t inadvertently alienate or offend others. Because this is HR, it’s especially important that people feel comfortable approaching her, which just isn’t possible if they think she’s affirmatively endorsing Pepe. And this is particularly risky when you have new employees or visitors who don’t have the same knowledge, relationship, and backstory that you have with your coworker.

    Most normal, non-white-supremacists will want to avoid even the appearance of signaling or invoking racial hatred. I’m optimistic that your HR person will fall into that category.

    1. seejay*

      Another good story/analogy is the use of the N word too. I had an African American coworker from Texas who worked with a contractor from South Africa for a bit. Apparently the (white) SA contractor picked up a love of rap music while working in the US and would sing it out loud, including some of the, ahem, more questionable lyrics. My coworker discovered this when sharing a car ride with this guy and he was singing along and belted out the dreaded N-word in front of him. He paused. He turned to him. He turned the music off and he gave him a total blank stare. Apparently the guy from SA had *ZERO IDEA* it was such a racially loaded term in the US. According to him, it was a more casual term where he was from, something akin to a lazy, slovenly person, but not something that would incite hatred and anger and could lead to you getting a punch in the nose (or worse). My coworker actually almost hurt himself laughing so hard when he found this out. He wasn’t insulted and the contractor was *mortified* when he found out what a faux pas he was doing and it finally dawned on him why he was getting dirty looks at the gym (where he was also singing these songs).

      I think I was making a D: face the entire time my coworker was relaying this story to me. He was laughing, but I was so, so, so horrified. But definitely yes…. there can be a huge huge gap in knowledge and hopefully filling someone in is a learning moment as opposed to doubling down.

      1. cncx*

        yes. i work in europe and the amount of times i have had to…dissuade people from using the n word, up to and including singing along with songs in public. the good news is they usually had no idea and were mortified when i told them.

      2. Emi.*

        Or the Chinese filler “neige” (nay-guh, roughly), which a lot of the exchange students at my BIL’s otherwise-mostly-black school us.

        1. BananaPants*

          I do find it jarring, even though it’s basically the equivalent of “um” or “uh” in English.

          A few years ago I had to take a group of visitors from China out to lunch, and we very nearly got kicked out of a Panera Bread because the group was seated next to a black family who thought they were using the n-word and talking about them in Mandarin. It was so awkward.

      3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        This happened when I worked in [unnamed country in] Africa! I was really shocked at how ubiquitous the “n-word” was. When I asked about it, my (native-born and raised) colleagues were surprised at my shock and said that they thought that was legitimately the proper terminology to distinguish Black people (descended from the African Slave Trade) from recent African immigrants. They pointed to pop cultural representations and hip hop and were like, “But isn’t that what they [Black folks] call themselves?” It was a mind bender.

    2. De Minimis*

      I have a similar story about a UK student in college, they also call erasers “rubbers,” and he got a lot of odd looks when he asked for one at the library.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Ugh, or ask me about the time I said “fanny” while in London and got a lot of weird looks. :(

        1. Bryce*

          My Grandmum liked telling a story of her first time here in the US, when she walked into a diner and a waitress, taken with her accent, asked if she needed a nappie.

          1. Akcipitrokulo*

            That cheered up my rail replacement journey!

            What was the waitress actaully asking her?

          1. MJ (Aotearoa/New Zealand)*

            I’m in New Zealand (so British English) and… fanny is the front, not the back. Specifically on women.

          2. Kyrielle*

            And I’m going to guess PCBH is from the US, and here “fanny” is one’s behind or rear end (and is as mild as those words, though not as common, at least where I am – it’s not a word you’d be upset to hear a young child using, though I might be surprised it wasn’t one of the more common words).

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              Yes! “Fanny” means one’s rear-end in the U.S., but it means the front side of one’s anatomy in British English.

              1. MJ (Aotearoa/New Zealand)*

                Those of us who speak British English were always deeply amused by The Nanny’s theme song, let me tell you.

        2. Gadfly*

          My poor flatmates and me talking about my pants… not quite fanny, but very confusing for a bit…

          1. JB (not in Houston)*

            Years ago I read a blog post of a UK guy talking about the differences in US and UK English and the awkward situations they can create, and he gave as an example the time he was in a pub, and two young American women came in. It was cold, and both were wearing skirts, and one said she really wished she’d worn pants that night, thereby inadvertently gaining the attention of several of the guys in the pub.

    3. The Cranky Beancounter*

      I had a fairly young British co-worker many years ago, who on his first day asked someone if he could bum a fag. He meant borrow a cigarette … Two years later, and he still hadn’t lived that one down.

  51. AW*

    OP, please take Alison’s advice.

    Literally all you’d be doing is telling her that the frog looks similar enough to Pepe to make people uncomfortable. If she’s upsetting people, that’s something she needs to know. In particular, it is not doing her a kindness to ignore it until someone else goes to management about it because they think she *does* know what it means.

    I’d add, since she’s likely to be horrified that she’s been using it and upsetting people for so long, is to point out to her that lots of other people are unfamiliar with it’s meaning. It’s not like she’s the only person on the planet who didn’t know and it might make her feel a little better if she knows many other folks could make the same mistake.

    OP, I’m inclined to trust your read over whether the HR rep realizes what they’re conveying but on the off chance they either do know or don’t care after they find out:

    Say, “It’s making people uncomfortable. Please stop.”

    Send a follow-up email about the discussion that includes the link to hate symbols. Something like, “As we discussed earlier, the dancing frog looks like Pepe which is considered a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League [link]. I know you like using it but it would make me more comfortable if you found something else.”.

    If it happens again, alert management. Having the email is proof that you tried to talk to them about it first.

    1. AthenaC*

      Tagging along because my actual advice would be similar to yours –

      OP, start by thinking of what outcome you want. You want her to stop, yes, but I imagine you would like to avoid a lot of the tension that usually comes when someone feels like they are being attacked for being racist when that wasn’t their intent. (To be clear (because that seems to be extra necessary lately) – I’m not saying that you would be attacking her. I’m saying it’s probably she will perceive it that way. There’s a difference.)

      I would do the following:

      1) Have 3 – 4 egregious Pepe usage examples prepared
      2) Talk to her in person. Use the first part of the “I’m sure you don’t realize this, but …” script.
      3) When she says, “Well that’s not what I mean ….” you assure her – “Of course you don’t! Unfortunately, it’s common enough that whenever we see your dancing frog, we immediately think of …” And here is where you pull up your egregious Pepe examples.
      4) This allows her to see what you see for herself, rather than you just telling her how it is. Maybe drive the point home with, “So instead of thinking ‘oh that’s a cute frog’ our minds immediately go here. I know that’s not what you want!”
      5) Acknowledge that is is uncomfortable and thank her for listening.
      6) If it happens again, THEN I would use an email similar to what AW suggested to document that you told her it was making you uncomfortable and she was resistant.

      Good luck!

  52. Julia Gulia*

    Was sad to lose the dancing frog that I loved, but Google tells me I was thinking of Michigan J. Frog, thank goodness!

  53. mimsie*

    This sounds similar to a chat program I have used at quite a few different places and custom emoji’s are easily removed. Just ask whoever has admin access to just delete the thing. Or if they argue it’s not Pepe tell them it kinda looks like Pepe and suggest a different dancing frog. (Personally I recommend replacing it with Left Shark, way more fun imo) If they argue that Pepe isn’t a hate symbol, send them the link where the ADL has added it to a list of hate symbols.

  54. Jbean*

    OP, I would suggest to the co-worker that if she keeps the dancing frog (which I immediately understood to be the dancing frog from the old WB channel), that she add something like “Now presenting Michigan J. Frog” or something like that.

  55. The OG Anonsie*

    Man, imagine you have a cute little animal emoji in your messaging system. You use it a lot. Then one day someone fills you in on this. Whooooo.

    “We regret to inform you that the duck is racist.”

  56. Phil*

    The real question to me is why IT lets a hate speech icon exist on the chat server. If this were a Nazi swastika or something similar it would undoubtedly be unacceptable; this isn’t really any different.

    The only complication there is that the requesting authority with the most ethos would be…HR. OTOH, that gives people a pretext to kill two birds with one stone, by informing the HR person that there is a hate speech symbol on the chat server, and it should be eliminated to prevent people using it in corporate communications, either intentionally or unwittingly. (Hint, hint.)

    Regardless, I have trouble blaming the user for unknowingly using a smily on a corporate server in (internal) corporate comms. It’s on IT to resolve the issue, and if they don’t do so once it’s brought to their attention, it’s on them to explain why.

  57. I_am_RADAR*

    I am in my early 50’s but have children in their late teens and early 20’s so I’m fairly savvy about these types of things. I had to laugh though when I heard about the Mom about my age who thought “WTF” meant “Well, that’s fantastic!” This is now a Thing for me!

  58. T-Rex*

    My large, global, company loves their acronyms, to the point that we have a website that lists all of them.

    A few months ago I had mandatory training on a new initiative being rolled out by an exciting new business unit, FAP.

    We recently got a company wide email about another initiative from that BU, except this time the name of the BU was all spelled out, I think it’s the only thing my company has ever spelled in full.

  59. Mrs. T. Potts*

    Wow, I had no idea about this frog thing.
    On a lighter note, one of the VP’s kids works in my department. He’s over 30 years old and has no idea how to conduct himself in the workplace. Our email program has the ability for the addressee to upload a personal photo. Most people use the headshots from their company ID’s. He has some sort of muppet or suchlike on his.

  60. stickyfrog*

    OK here is a suggestion. Instead of looking for things to be triggered by, especially by people who like the HR person that doesn’t know or probably care, why not just live your life and let others live theirs? It is a frog. There are a lot of real life things to be concerned about instead of some cartoon frog that some have used negatively. If you pay attention to your own business and be the person you want to be you will be much more happy with your life.

  61. Tim K*

    “I’m really not interested in hosting a debate about whether not people find the symbol to be a hate symbol. It’s been covered sufficiently below. If you’d like to comment on this post, please stick to giving advice to the letter writer.”

    Good because Title VII doesn’t really care whether the HR Mgr intends it as a symbol of hate. If a reasonable person could be offended then it opens the company up to EEOC claims. If the HR person doesn’t get that when informed then they likely need a new HR person.

    My recommendation is to simply approach her in a non-judgmental way and explain the situation.

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