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'Digital blackface' is a thing and here's why it's not OK

'Digital blackface' is a thing and here's why it's not OK

People constantly using GIFs featuring Black people to give an exaggerated reaction is problematic.

Nothing quite captures our thoughts or emotions like a GIF and it shows, literally, as we scroll through our messaging platforms and social media. GIFS and memes have become the language of the internet. We all have our favorite GIFS and memes, saved on our phones, ready to be called upon to elicit a laugh, land a sarcastic blow, or deliver a curated reaction. What you may have noticed is that there are a set of popular GIFs and memes that dominate conversations — from Michael Jackson eating popcorn, NBA player James Harden walking away, Real Housewives’ star Nene Leakes rolling her eyes, Beyonce smashing a car window to Donald Glover walking into a garbage fire. What you may not have been aware of is the reinforcing of Black stereotypes through 'digital blackface.' The conversation around digital Blackface started when Lauren Michele Jackson wrote an op-ed for Teen Vogue.

 



 

 

What's Blackface?
Blackface a theatrical tradition that dates back to the early 19th century, and features, primarily, White people donning black paint and dressing up as caricatures of the Black community for the entertainment of White folk. Minstrel shows would perform exaggerated songs and skits, and profit off of mocking the African-American community while reinforcing racist stereotypes. The shows exaggerated Black people's expressions and features. Over time it's been widely accepted that blackface is offensive and racist, but it still continues to surface every now and then thanks to more than a century of popular forms of art, including cinema and cartoons, celebrating it. It wasn't too long ago that Robert Downey Jr. wore blackface in Tropic Thunder. Justin Treadeu recently apologized after an old picture of him wearing Blackface surfaced on the internet. In 2019, Florida Secretary of State Mike Ertel resigned after a newspaper published photos of him in blackface and wearing earrings, a New Orleans Saints bandanna, and fake breasts under a purple T-shirt that said "Katrina Victim," reported ABC News. 

 



 

Digital Blackface
What's digital Blackface? It's the use of a GIF or a meme featuring a Black person by White people or a non-Black person. The reason it's called digital Blackface is that they are making a choice to metaphorically don the skin of a Black person to give a reaction. Why is it problematic? Popular culture has for years, and still continues to exaggerate African-American characters by portraying them as loud, angry, and sassy, and often hyper-sexualizing them. White people are channeling these caricatures of Black people while sharing these GIFs and memes. Of course, no one's banning you from using GIFs featuring Black people and you could still use them but you would do well to check if the majority of the memes and GIFs you have on speed dial feature Black people. 

 



 

 


GIFs are already exaggerated expressions and it's no coincidence that a majority of them feature Black people. It's problematic that White people can don "digital blackface," perpetuate a racist stereotype and laugh about it, before washing their hands off it and continue living their lives as White people. Black women are often characterized as loud, angry, and sassy. This type of stereotype enables White people to constantly judge and punish Black women while White women can be as loud and obnoxious as they want without being characterized as such. Digital Blackface enables the double standard by reinforcing the stereotype.

Image Source: Getty Images/ American film star Al Jolson (1886 - 1950) wearing his famous 'black-and-white minstrel' make-up. (Photo by Hulton Archive)

 

 

White people have been co-opting Black culture and profiting off it forever, so it comes as no surprise that many are doing it now to gain clout on social media. Writer and academic Shafiqah Hudson told The Guardian, “It’s superfun to ‘play black’ when you know that you can instantly step back into being non-black, avoiding the stigma, danger, and burdens of reduced social capital that real black people often endure. So while it may not be the stated intention of the folks who participate in digital blackface, it is anti-black racism that makes it possible for them.” And for the record, Blackface wasn't cool then. It still isn't now. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass once described blackface performers as “the filthy scum of White society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their White fellow citizens.” While one can argue that the intentions of using an innocent GIF aren't as crude or direct as donning black greasepaint, it's time to introspect and understand that some of us may still be perpetuating racist stereotypes that could have real consequences for the African-American community. 

Here's are a few alternatives to popular GIFs:

Instead of this:

 

You could use this:

 

 

Instead of this:

 

 You could use this:

 

 

 

Instead of this: 

 

You could use this: 

 

There are literally a million other alternatives out there, so keep scrolling.

 

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