Welcome to Patia's Fantasy World
The creator of the viral Master List of Resources on How to Dismantle Systemic Racism talks shitposting, activism, and being Black.
For some, witnessing the murder of George Floyd and the onslaught of police brutality suffered by Black citizens of the United States is the first time they have come face to face with the effects of white supremacy. Patia Borja—the 27-year-old behind @patiasfantasyworld, an Instagram account with 138,000 followers known for holding a funhouse mirror up to race, class, sex, and gender through memes—is unsurprised. (It’s likely that in the past week you may have come across—or even shared and reposted—her viral Master List of Resources On How to Dismantle Systemic Racism). Like too many, she knows from experience that the racial injustices defining life in this country are tragically routine.
The morning after news broke on the national stage that Ahmaud Arbery had been hunted and shot to death while out on a jog, Borja was frustrated by the internet’s shock and outrage ritual. “When something happens, people always say, ‘Fuck the system.’ But we need to look at our own systems,” she shares over Zoom. “I don't think people realize how deep this shit goes. People think it stops at the government, [but] it's really person to person. People really only recognize racism, anti-Blackness, and ignorance if you're in the KKK, [or] if you're saying the N-word. People don't understand that they can be racist.”
In the week that followed, many in the Black community shared in her exhaustion with the typical cycle of events—the tragic killing of an unarmed Black person, a social media hashtag, the inevitable resumption of “normal” life. They questioned whether, especially for Black people, the constant, almost daily subjection to such traumatic images is actually useful. Borja remembers receiving a message from one of her white followers, genuinely eager to bring about justice for Arbery. “She said, ‘I know you don't post political things, but I think if you tagged The New York Times under Shaun King's posts and shared them—I was like what?” Shaun King, the civil rights activist and social justice influencer, has been criticized for using violent videos to grow a monetizable following, while others have raised questions as to how the crowdsourced funds are spent. “You're telling me,” Borja remembers thinking, “to repost a video of a Black person being murdered? You have lost your absolute god damn mind."
Borja has always been unafraid of challenging her audience with radical, pro-Black perspectives. “During Black History Month, Trump met with all of these white people and he said ‘You know, I asked someone if they preferred to be called African-American or Black, and they said Black.’ I reposted [the video of] it, like, ‘Go off.’” It is without question that she deplores Trump, but this kind of repurposed remark is at the carnivalian core of Borja’s humor. Her page, like nearly all meme accounts, derives its humor through irony, our age-old tool for both comedy and social critique. She gives an example: “You know how weird it is when a white person [describes you as] ‘African-American?’ I think it's scary for white people to say ‘Black’ for some reason. Black is a negative word for them. If you're white and calling me African-American… I feel like I'm at Harvard." Here she pauses for effect. “The African-American Meme Account. You're really trying to be politically correct. My joke in return is always, ‘I’m Black.’”
Artist, writer, and curator Aria Dean describes Patia’s Fantasy World as driven by “Black irony.” While typically taking power to task by means of trolling and “shitposting” is attributed to young white men on the internet, Dean observes that Black Twitter has been making use of this energy for years; think of accounts like @jaboukie, @pastichelumumba, @therealhennessy, @xXnarcissistXx, and @Slim_Petras. When we say “the internet is undefeated,” we are in large part talking about the jokes and critical analysis leveled by the Black internet. "Blackness always has this ironic approach, especially in terms of our relationship to cultural objects,” Dean tells GARAGE. She cites as a recent example the overwhelming response to Louis Vuitton men’s creative director Virgil Abloh posting a screenshot of a $50 CashApp donation for bail funds to an organizing group as a kind of receipt for supporting the protests, while also criticizing the looting. They felt he missed an opportunity to make a big donation, set an example, and communicate the gravity of the cause from his hard-won position of authority. Shortly after, Abloh was compelled to apologize in an official statement on his social media channels.
What distinguishes Patia’s Fantasy World from other Black gathering places on the internet, Dean notices, is that you would never see an earnest #carefreeblackgirl hashtag float by on your feed. The operating logic is far more irreverent, and far less invested in a coherent or traditional representation of Blackness and Black femininity. In her 2016 essay “Poor Meme, Rich Meme,” Dean argues that memes mirror Blackness in that “there is no articulable ontology.” Offline, Blackness moves disembodied in the form of a fractured African diaspora. Like memes, Black bodies exist in a state of circulation. Since the Middle Passage, they’ve been “shipped as goods to the new world, circulated throughout the Americas as labor, circulating ourselves as fugitives.” The “only home” for Blackness “is in its circulating representations: a network that includes all the bodies that bear its markers, the words produced by such bodies, the words made to appear to have been produced by such bodies, the flat images that purport to document them, and so forth.” A meme is a “copy without an original,” in the same way that there is “no essential Blackness.”
What's more, Dean continues, is that the “very properties that make the meme Black, make it seemingly impossible for Black people to protect it, let alone benefit from it.” The very same propensity for circulation and survival that connects memes to Blackness, also accounts for their “involuntary movement into nonblack networks.” This “tactical similarity” to cultural expressions like Black fashion, Black hair, or use of the Black vernacular, makes these expressions “predictably vulnerable to appropriation and capture.”
Having seen one too many white meme creators making use of memes that include the N-word for comedic effect, Borja felt it her duty to curate a feed that Black people she knew could actually relate to. Sourcing Facebook posts sprinkled in Android emojis, snippets from Black Twitter, and a whole host of other deep-fried, triple-screen-shotted, what-the-fuck curiosities, keeps her audience on the pulse of Black culture while also diving into its deeply complex intricacies.
Borja’s first internet experiences unfolded like most millennials: in AOL chatrooms. She quickly began to venture out into the darker corners of the web, growing curious about what lied beyond the child-proof interface. Inevitably, she discovered 4chan, the message board website some compare to the ninth circle of hell: “I spent hours upon hours on 4chan reading the weirdest, most fucked-up shit you could possibly imagine. Dark web levels. Dial-up was painful but my mom couldn’t afford DSL for so long, so I spent most of my time just reading online since I couldn’t load music or videos.” As a teen, she became a Tumblr queen, back when internet celebrity still guaranteed a certain degree of anonymity. “I was a Tumblr superstar pre-Instagram! One of my usernames was MaisonMartinMarijuana. I was really into heavy metal, Gucci Mane, and Yohji Yamamoto. I was active on like every social media platform. Myspace, Livejournal, last.fm, absolutepunk,” she recalls. “I grew up sitting on a computer because my mom didn’t want me hanging out with kids in my town. There were so many of us online who ended up becoming real-life friends and moving to NYC, around 2010.”
After leaving her home of Jacksonville, Florida at 17, she quickly became a fixture in New York’s downtown social circles. From nine to five, the worlds of fashion and art function as rarified, exclusive spaces for the privileged, but at night, the doors open for the culture. Soon, Borja began to find both her voice, and her audience—it wasn’t long before she launched a party blog, the now-defunct "Bundle Update," with a few friends. “We were posting photos of my friends out and about at night across the world. We weren’t really trying to glorify drug use, it was more like, this is what we are doing at 8 a.m. with our friends at someone’s penthouse in Chinatown.” She’d give the login to friends who were traveling and ask them to document an upcoming trip to Berlin or Ibiza or Paris. “People were always begging to be featured on it. They would submit photos of themselves naked doing crazy things being like, ‘Can you please post this?’ It was nuts. Editors from Vogue were following it.”
“Bundle Update” was shut down, “for obvious reasons,” so she launched @patiasfantasyworld as a “finsta” until a friend convinced her to make it public. “I had 200 followers for the longest time, but it was too hilarious to stay private.” Her numbers grew when she began to use the platform for inter-community discourse. “I ended up publicly dragging a white curator in the art world for having cornrows, so the account gained higher levels of attention. I was savage about it, but also, I’m Black. I’m going to be savage about race because I think you have to be or else people don’t learn.”
This tangled issue of participation and appropriation has become a theme in Borja’s World, as non-Black followers who fall across a wide spectrum of proximity to Blackness flock to the page. She has gained over 50,000 new followers since the lockdown.
“Close friends and people in my DMs always are saying, ‘All my really rich super white friends send me your shit. How do you feel?’ It's weird because, I don't want to pride myself on the fact that they now they ‘understand’,” she says with air quotes. “I think the thing that pisses me off sometimes about it is that there are magazines and brands following me, ones that I thought were cool. Maybe I’d applied for a job there, and didn't get it. I'm just like, okay, if I were to apply for a job right now I would probably still not get it, but these people are like, ‘Hehe, haha,’ looking at my shit.”
She thinks for a second, then adds, “It also makes me feel weird sometimes, especially with the things that are very ‘Black.’ I think I have a few memes about chitlins. And when I see reactions from white people I’m thinking what are you laughing at? You’re not Southern. I just posted a meme referencing that part in The Color Purple where Ms. Celie [played by Whoopi Goldberg in the movie version] says, ‘I can't go outside’. Someone said they didn’t get it. I told them it’s a Black thing. When I see familiar people I know liking these kinds of posts, I’m thinking about how they don't have one Black girl in their clique. I think that's what confuses me. Sometimes I think that account makes people feel like I'm their Black friend.”
Borja has had to negotiate the emotions and messages of a number of white followers, ones who feel alienated by these “by us, for us” moments. Others have rejected the fearless tone with which she expresses her views, claiming that it is exclusionary. Dean imagines white users must experience “a bit of vertigo” while scrolling Borja’s page, describing this non-relatable dissonance as “opening the gates and then saying, ‘No, sorry, this door isn’t for you.’”
In her essay, Dean explains that the power of these kind of memes lies in their ability to “slip through borders for those of us who are heavily policed, whom the state and other forces would like to make fixed.” She references the poet and scholar Fred Moten’s call in "Black Optimism, Black Operation" for “an analytic that moves in and out of the shadows, that moves through the opposition of voluntary secrecy and forced exposure.” Perhaps this unpredictable movement, this “lack of fixity” can “function to confront our simultaneous desire for visibility and awareness of the violence it brings.”
While memes reflect the “statelessness” and “homelessness” of Blackness, they allow for a perceptual fluidity that might serve to both complicate and ease our more rigid visions of who or what constitutes Blackness. Dean concludes that “the meme’s success is just this: its reach and its rarity; its ability to snake through the underground only to re-emerge and mutate; its continued operations of hiding, incubating, and exposing Black cultural elements. As object lesson, the meme teaches a queer body politic, an Afropessimistic, Black accelerationist approach to rendering oneself.”
For Borja, the last year has been punctuated both with successes and unexpected obstacles. She’s suspected Instagram of shadow banning—when the algorithm stops prioritizing your posts to your followers and the people in your community essentially banning them from seeing the content outright—for refusing to mince words about her opinions. She’s also received offers from a few of the big players in the business world of memes. Right now, her focus is on her Master List. Last week, she announced that Joey Valley, and Walter Pearce of Midland Agency, helped her translate the impressive and exhaustive Google Doc filled with videos, podcasts, reflections, trainings, and playlists into a website. Having expanded her reach, Borja is considering what it looks like to grow and develop this work, as she evolves into a thought leader.
It may seem strange that the administrator of a meme page known for shitposting would also be an activist, but this has always been part of Borja’s work. She believes it is important to “to build a bigger table, not a taller fence.” These identities are aspects of a complex Black individual, a living response to Audre Lorde’s suggestion that the things we learn from each other are a “springboard for creative change,” as well as her critique pointing to our lack of “patterns for relating to human difference as equals.” In a 1980 lecture, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” Lorde explains that her “fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restrictions of externally imposed definition.”
In Patia’s Fantasy World, this wish is one come true.