Fans of Sonic The Hedgehog are well acquainted with Knuckles, the red echidna made popular through a series of video games produced by Sega.
Recently, the character has taken on a whole new persona online in the form of Ugandan Knuckles.
Not only has the character morphed into its own meme, complete with catchphrase, it has devolved into an unfortunate fixture of Internet memes — a troll that harasses other online players and spews racist phrases.
Here is what you need to know about Knuckles, and his second life under his Ugandan form.
Who is Knuckles?
He is a video game character affiliated with the Sonic the Hedgehog series. He made his debut in Sonic the Hedgehog 3, becoming popular enough to earn top billing with Sega’s flagship star in Sonic & Knuckles. Sonic is the speedy type, while Knuckles is slower but stronger.
When did the transformation begin?
According to the website Know Your Meme, YouTube user GregZilla published a review in February 2017 for the game Sonic Lost World. It features a parody animation of Knuckles that looks shorter and fatter compared to his original form. The depiction of Knuckles was later turned into a 3D model by a user of the website DeviantArt. Versions of Knuckles have since appeared in various videos, most notably singing.
So when did the Ugandan version take over?
Ugandan Knuckles is inspired partly by the film "Who Killed Captain Alex?", a low-budget Ugandan action/comedy released in 2010. Ugandan Knuckles’ catchphrase “do you know the way” spoken with an African accent was inspired by a similar line in the movie (it is also phonetically spelled "do you know de wey?")
How did Ugandan Knuckles become so popular?
Through an app called VRChat, a virtual reality social game. With a 3D model in place, users were able to populate VRChat with countless Ugandan Knuckles, all saying the same phrase and sometimes making clucking sounds, an apparent imitation of the sounds that are part of southern African languages. It has also popped up in other games including PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and on tee-shirts emblazoned with a version of "de wey" phrase.
In one video, several Knuckles are seen chasing other avatars around repeating "do you know the way," or making clucking sounds.
This sounds racist
Outlets including New York Magazine and gaming news site Kotaku note when users are mimicking African accents or clicking sounds, they will crack jokes about the Ebola virus. In one YouTube video, a version of Knuckles is shown wearing what appears to be blackface with the image of a watermelon across its chest.
The pairing of Uganda Knuckles avatars with these comments got gaming computer company Razer in trouble last month after it tweeted out an image featuring the character. Some Twitter users complained they were using a racist meme to promote their products. In a subsequent tweet, Razer confirmed the tweet was deleted after people pointed out its "negative undertones."
Many users criticized Razer's decision to delete the tweet, claiming they gave in to political correctness.
Sega's Sonic account admonished users that the "right way" to use the meme was "respecting other players while having fun as Knuckles" and included a link to donate to a Uganda charity.
Meanwhile, the online, multiplayer game Roblox has told developers Ugandan Knuckles is not allowed within the game.
If Knuckles' path away from innocence sounds familiar, it's because we've sort of seen this unfold before.
Remember Pepe the Frog? He started out as a mellow amphibian featured in Boys Club cartoons before he played a key role in politics as a racially charged meme.
His impact was powerful enough the Anti-Defamation League declared Pepe a hate symbol. "Once again, racists and haters have taken a popular Internet meme and twisted it for their own purposes of spreading bigotry and harassing users," said ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt in a statement in 2016.
Ugandan Knuckles isn't being used as a badge in the same way Pepe ultimately was by some, as a nod to white supremacism. But it's a controversial meme whose joke is wound up in racial stereotypes. It could become the next Pepe, or it could just fade into obscurity.
Follow Brett Molina on Twitter: @brettmolina23.