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Aquarium apologizes after viral tweet about ‘thicc’ sea otter spawns harsh backlash

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Abby the sea otter is in the middle of an online debate after a viral tweet from Monterey Bay Aquarium suffered fallout over its use of African American Vernacular English.
(Monterey Bay Aquarium)

After a brief moment of internet glory, a sea otter at Monterey Bay Aquarium has become the poster child for cultural appropriation.

Abby delighted the internet Tuesday when Monterey Bay Aquarium shared a photograph of the animal along with a string of memes referencing her size. The usually pretty, put-together mammal was snapped lying on her hip, sprawled across the floor, with a caption declaring her “a thicc girl” and suggesting #bodypawsitivity.

The post quickly went viral, with thousands retweeting and commenting with added memes, photographs of other chubby pets and celebrations of Abby’s beauty.

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But some took offense, leading the aquarium to apologize after many on social media pointed out the terms used in the tweet come from African American Vernacular English.

“If our tweet alienated you, please know that we are deeply sorry, and that we offer our sincerest apologies,” the aquarium tweeted Wednesday afternoon.

“If you follow our feed, we often reference popular memes to talk about the ocean. In this case, the memes used had connotations we were unaware of until now.”

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Before the backlash, Monterey Bay Aquarium said in an email to The Times that the primary inspirations for the original post were the “Chonk Chart” and “The Absolute Unit” memes.

According to the site Know Your Meme, the Chonk Chart is a graph that categorizes cats’ weight from lowest to highest — or between “A Fine Boi” and “Oh Lawd He Comin.”

“The Absolute Unit” meme refers to jokes made on Twitter that caption images of large objects or people with the phrase. It originated with a photograph of British hotelier David Morgan-Hewitt with the Queen of England, according to Know Your Meme.

The day after the original tweet, people began to take offense with the wording the aquarium used, noting its AAVE origins.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an assistant professor of particle physics and cosmology at the University of Washington, said the post compared animals to black women because the language used was developed to talk about black women’s bodies.

“Organizations that are not Black run or specifically focused on Black audiences: don’t do things like this,” Prescod-Weinstein said on Twitter. “@MontereyAq, this tweet contributes to a hostile environment for Black people, including Black scientists. AAVE isn’t a meme for white consumption.”

Alvin Grissom, an assistant professor of computer science at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, had a simpler message: “Delete this.”

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Grissom, who researches computational linguistics and has studied linguistics extensively, explained that certain languages and dialects have specific grammar that govern how the language works, even though it’s not considered “proper” or taught in school. The grammar used by black Americans is often pathologized and mocked, he said.

The language expert explained a trifecta of problems with the wording Monterey Bay Aquarium used to describe Abby:

The word “thicc” is a slang term primarily used by African Americans.

“She chonk” becomes problematic when the word “is” is removed because such phrasing also is used in AAVE.

And “Oh lawd she comin” also likely originates from AAVE because “Oh lawd” is a commonly used expression for African Americans in some parts of the country.

“By themselves, I don’t think that any one of these things would have bothered so many people, but, taken together, this tweet is pretty cringe-worthy,” he said.

“While I highly doubt it was intentional in this meme-filled tweet, African American Vernacular English has been mocked throughout U.S. history for the amusement of white people. It’s the linguistic version of blackface.”

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John Rickford, a linguist at Stanford University, said the tweet may have drawn such a large and swift reaction because it was linked to the image of an animal. Historically, comparisons between African Americans and animals have been destructive and degrading, he said.

But the professor said he actually thinks the tweet was intended to be an affirmative ode to Abby using African American language that positively describes women, and he said he wouldn’t be surprised if the author was African American or familiar with black culture and language. The line “Abby is a thicc girl” retains the verb before the noun phrase but not before the adjective “chonk” — the correct usage of AAVE grammar based on decades of studies, Rickford said.

Still, there were plenty on social media who found the backlash over the top, with one Twitter user suggesting anyone who was offended by the posting take a break from the internet for a few years. Another person gave kudos to the aquarium’s social media team, asking, “Where can I donate to your aquarium?”

And Abby? She probably won’t be posing for photos again anytime soon. After all, she’s got a job to do — as a surrogate mom.

alejandra.reyesvelarde@latimes.com

Twitter: @r_valejandra


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