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What Is 'Digital Blackface' And Why Is It An Issue?

© Illustration by INJECTION - Alicia Lupieri

Should white people be more mindful as to what GIFs we’re posting?

Reaction GIFs. If we haven’t used them ourselves, we’ve seen others use them to respond to tweets and to express every emotion - from joy to disbelief. They can be a lot of fun, but is there a more harmful side to the most popular reaction GIFs we’re using?

Most of us know what blackface is - the racist action of wearing makeup to imitate the appearance of Black people, dating back to around 200 years ago - but are we aware that we may be unwittingly participating in the technological-era equivalent? Digital blackface is when non-Black people use photos of Black people to express their own emotions or reactions; for example, a white person using a GIF of Oprah shrugging to express their thoughts, or a white person using hand emojis in a skin colour darker than their own.

At first, this may not seem like a huge problem, but upon closer inspection, it’s easy to see how these behaviours can be harmful and perpetuate racist stereotypes. Think about it: how many of the most popular reaction GIFs feature Black individuals? Why are so many people choosing a GIF of a Black person rolling their eyes over a GIF of a white person doing the same action? When non-Black people partake in digital blackface, they circulate racist stereotypes of Black people being over-dramatic, highly animated, and highly emotional.

The practice of digital blackface is dehumanising, as it presents Black people as memes and caricatures. Non-Black individuals need to listen to Black voices and understand that we may have been participating in digital blackface - even if it’s unintentional. It’s time for us to question the content we post and share - when we share images that feature Black people, how are they presented? Are we only sharing GIFs of Black people to use for comedic effect or are we actively sharing news of their achievements and stories? Why are we using emojis with darker skin tones than our own?

In a world where Black women are looked down upon because they are perceived as ‘sassy’ and aggressive, and Black men are seen as violent, white people using GIFs of Black people to represent feelings of sass and aggression seems tone-deaf and harmful.

In this video, Kadija Mbowe explains the origins of the term ‘digital blackface’, and how the practice can be related back to minstrelsy - it’s easy to see how non-Black people using images of Black people to express their feelings is similar to minstrel shows where white people would perform racist caricatures of Black people and over-exaggerate their facial expressions.

Digital blackface can also be found in the appropriation of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English). Twitter is a hotspot for white people incorrectly using AAVE - people incorrectly use terms and sayings that belong to AAVE, before considering them overused and ‘basic’ (despite never truly having the right to use these terms, to begin with).

When white people use AAVE terms (such as ‘woke’ and ‘lit’) it’s seen as funny and trendy, meanwhile when Black people use the language that they created and understand the cultural history of, they are often looked down upon and discriminated against.

It’s time for non-Black people to take a step back and critically assess the content we post and share online. Are we using ‘Stan Twitter language’, or are we appropriating AAVE? When we go to post reaction GIFs and memes, who is in the image and why do we find it funny? Many popular GIFs feature Black women or Black queer men, so when non-Black people post these GIFs we are reducing these groups of people to harmful stereotypes - with each retweet, we spread the damaging notion that Black individuals are over-expressive we reduce them to their facial expressions. It’s time for us to make an active effort to stop participating in digital blackface and to start listening to Black voices instead.


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