Blackface has gone digital.


Last week, someone asked if I could write about digital Blackface. I need to give Amber a big thank you (and also an apology for not following up, for her to add her contribution. Life is hectic!), because I have had that on my “to write about” list for over a year. It probably would have been another year before I wrote about it, at the rate I was going. 

So thanks, sis!

The term “digital Blackface (DB)” came about in the early 2000s, so it certainly isn’t new; new-ish maybe, but not new. Though it seems to have picked up mainstream attention, within the last few years. 

DB refers to the act of putting on Blackness, in the form of reaction GIFs, using Black skin emojis, memes, appropriating language (think last weeks AAVE post) and using (abusing) the culture for personal gain; i.e. likes and views.

What I always run into when talking about DB, is how people tend to want to trivialize it. 

“Of all the REAL pressing racial issues in this world, this is what you want to criticize?”

“OMG, I just thought the GIF was funny. Have a sense of humor.”

*Cue my deep, heavy, negro sigh* (s/o to Issa Rae for this classic line!)

What’s interesting, is that these sort of things are said by people who supposedly understand microaggressions and the very real impact they have. They just…really want to be able to do this and are perfectly willing to be problematic (yeah, yeah, I know, problematic is used so often these days), for a few laughs.

I’m aware that most people aren’t consciously using Black reaction GIFs, for instance, to perpetuate racism. But that’s the point. It is almost entirely an unconscious bias seeping into your online interactions. 

We know this because of HOW Black reaction GIFs are used. They are notoriously used to showcase sassiness, anger, aggression, excitement, sexuality and any other emotion that is considered to be strong or extreme. When I say notorious, I also mean, that they’re the MOST used for these emotions; not by a little, but by a landslide. And It’s not a coincidence that these emotions are also associated with common Black stereotypes. 

For example, when searching on Giphy, one of the top GIF platforms, for sassy GIFS, the phrase most commonly searched is “sassy Black woman.” For anger, it’s “angry Black woman”.  It’s not simply sassy or angry, according to searchers, that’s important; the identifier Black is too. 

On the flip side, softer, less charged, emotions aren’t looked for, with an emphasis on Black, anywhere near the same frequency.

Even Giphy is aware of the problem, and has made statements and promises to curtail the practice. 

So for the “I just thought the GIF was funny or perfectly expressed anger” people, I know you did. But the question is why? Why do you associate Blackness with those, and only those, kinds of emotions? A lot of folks will swear that there’s nothing behind it, but the data shows otherwise. 

Somebody lyin’ and it ain’t us.

It’s trickier, I suppose, when it comes to language. As there’s some inevitability that a small percentage of our language will be incorporated in mainstream society. We generally hate hearing AAVE being used outside the community, but certain phrases have clearly been commandeered. It is what it is.

But I had numerous conversations with people, after the AAVE post, and quite a few made this point:

How often do we (Black people) incorporate mainstream phrases, sayings, etc, (sans assimilation and necessity)in our daily lives? I had to think about it. Really think about it. The answer is not often. 

It boils down to choices. We choose not to use language (except for when we have to) that doesn’t match up culturally. Other groups of people, choose TO use language that doesn’t derive from their culture. Because it’s what’s in, or is appeasing to the ears, or whatever. It’s a choice.

An easily made one, because you can turn on AAVE for added effect and go back to Standard English (SE), without recourse. Black people don’t truly have that luxury. The moment we’re heard not speaking SE, well, we’re “ghetto and uneducated.” It hits different, when it’s coming from us. 

Speaking of easy, social media has made it incredibly easy, rewarding even, to put on Black culture as a costume for “heart reacts.” Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok are rife with 3 things:

  1. Content being created predominantly by Black people. Of course, other people create content, but ours is what moves. Think about every single viral challenge(as one example) in, let’s just use, the last 5 years. They all started in Black Twitter, Black Facebook, so on and so on. 
  2. Non-Black people getting in on our content success, by using our music, dance, language, everything, to go viral.
  3. Black people not getting credit, being overlooked, silenced, having their accounts shut down and making a whole lotta noise about the hypocrisy of it all.

The idea behind using DB, like most everything, has old roots. The historically popular and traditional Blackface and minstrel shows paved the way for DB. The entire point was to use caricatures of Blackness to entertain. So they’d paint their faces Black, throw on a wig, use makeup to mimick our features, overexaggerate emotions, do a “jig” and put on their best Blackcent. 

Underneath the surface of that “entertainment” was the loaded amusement. They (people of the past) were amused at the “crazy way Black people express themselves, carry themselves.” It was funny because it was peculiar. It was peculiar because “regular people don’t dress/talk/act like that.” It was peculiar because anything done by the lesser groups in society, was seen as odd.

And the oddness was, dare I say, provocative. They could throw us “on” for a spell, and then carry their happy asses back to polite society, like it was nothing.

All of this still happens today.

You shared that viral clip of the Black person speaking AAVE with a news reporter, with the caption “😂you have to see this,” because it amused you. It wasn’t..normal, therefore it was funny. You wanted all of your normal friends to see and laugh too.

You use Black reaction GIFs to get your point across, because you’ve internalized the idea that Black people are extra angry, sassy and aggressive. So of course, those GIFs depict the emotion you want to get across, perfectly.

You decided to join in on that new challenge, that requires you to imitate Black mannerisms (gotta get the head roll and teeth sucking just right, right?), speak like us (hmm, does your AAVE sound right? Let’s try it again in the mirror before filming) and dress like us (you’ll just use tape to achieve fake long nails, use a pound of gel for your “baby hair” and buy some chunky earrings), because it’s provocative. Being provocative gets you ALL the likes, didn’t you know? I mean, yeah, it’s “kinda” offensive, but anything for likes, amiright?

Blackness is not a costume. The fact that you can pull it out, as you see fit, and then stuff it back down, deep down, into that hidden pocket, waiting for the next time you can have it emerge for your benefit, is privilege. It’s anti-Black.

You’ve just been socialized to accept it as okay. “It’s just for laughs. No big deal. Not everything is about race.”

Except we don’t find it funny. It is a big deal. And absolutely everything involves race. You don’t grow up in a society that leverages the oppression of others, where bias impacts the medical care Black people receive, how threatening Black people appear, that makes people clutch their purses and move to the other side of the street, “fear for their life” so I had to shoot them, produce negative images on the news and other media, views Black children as adults, makes you see us on campus and immediately think that we’re there on a scholarship, see us at work and link it to affirmative action, notice us at a store and decide that we need to be followed, untainted. You grew up in a biased society and it affects you, even when you think it doesn’t.

Stop and ask yourself, why that Nene Leaks GIF,  rings more true to you than the one from The Office. It’s the same expression/emotion, is it not? What’s the driving force behind your decision?

Why do you switch the color of your emoji to a darker tone for certain actions?

Why is Blackness, and all that it encompasses, a joke to you?

Why do you think it’s okay to use Blackness, as a way to entertain?

I think I’ll use and distort (it only seems right) a mainstream phrase to wrap this up; sex sells.

Lets’s switch it to… Blackness sells. But it shouldn’t. Not when it’s at our expense.

janay

When JanayB isn’t posting memes, scrolling through “wokebook” posts, ordering food and otherwise being your typical millennial, you can find her here destroying white tears and basking in her unapologetic blackness. Get in touch with her at JanayBsays@gmail.com.

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