At a time when Black voices are being raised louder than ever on social media in an efforts to enact positive change, we look to the ‘typical’ representation of Black culture on the internet.
Whether replying to a message in a group chat or reacting to someone’s opinion on Twitter, our first port of call will always be a GIF. If it be RuPaul staring you down or Beyonce flicking her hair behind her, there is a wealth of images to convey each and every emotion we have.
But why is it often the images of Black women we reach for first? Black reaction GIFs now seem synonymous with reaction GIFs. As often with pop and online culture, Black people seem to be at the centre of the content used for GIFs and memes.
What is Digital Blackface?
In a discussion that has grown rapidly since the late 2000s, the question ‘is this a digital form of Blackface?’ is being asked again and again.
Shafiqah Hudson, writer and academic, is said to have first noted the trend of presenting as someone from the Black community by borrowing aspects of their culture when online. Laura M. Jackson defines digital Blackface as “taking advantage of the relative anonymity of the internet to perpetuate decontextualized stereotypes and project an image of Black people that fits the desire of anti-Black individuals”.
Now, it is so much more widespread that, whilst the intent may not be there, using a GIF to illustrate your ‘sassy’ or ‘boujee’ point means the act of Blackfacing is still very much there.
Where did Blackface come from?
Blackfacing has its origins in minstrel performances that took place in Northern and Western America from the 1800s. They were performed by “white performers with blackened faces and tattered clothing who imitated and mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations”, according to the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
The comedic aspects of the shows came from the over-emotional performances of the characters. They were depicted as idle, uninformed and ill-moraled; stereotypes of Black people were created by those who had never come into contact with one.
Although we no longer see minstrel performances in their original form, they continue to influence the entertainment industry. Theatre, Radio, Television, Music – they all have elements that were first found in minstrel performances.
But how does this relate to me using a GIF of Rihanna?
Still today, we frequently reinforce the stereotype that Black people’s behaviours and feelings are constantly at a hyperbole. Black women are seen as dramatic and aggressive again and again. To post Tyra Banks’ eye roll online on loop over and over is only bookmarking this stereotype.
Using Black men and women to demonstrate your most extreme emotions only dehumanises them and reduces them to a visual cliche.
“Digital blackface, while less obviously and intentionally harmful than 19th-century blackface, bears many similarities in the way it reduces Black people to stereotypes and enables non-Black people to use these stereotypes for their own amusement,” explains Naomi Day, American writer.
But what about Cross Cultural Blending?
Some may argue that the representation of Black culture has grown tenfold online and therefore allowed us to educate ourselves and understand others better. But, unfortunately, that’s just not the case. If the representation is limited to Sweet Brown saying “Ain’t nobody got time for that’ or Micheal Jackson throwing popcorn into his mouth, it only gives the consumer a very small portrayal of that person and the race they represent.
Naomi Day states that, “Having access to these portrayals may make a non-Black person feel as though they ‘know’ Black people, but using these in GIFs does nothing to actually increase anyone’s cultural understanding of Black folks.”
Instead, as a non-Black person, you are able to borrow the bits from Black culture you find entertaining or humourous, without understanding the context or history behind it.
It’s unlikely that those using Black queer vernacular on Twitter know that slang like ‘serving’ and ‘werking’ originated from Black drag queens rioting at Stonewall, fighting for gay rights.
So what can I do?
Black culture is an intergral part of pop culture. It always has been and always will be. However, next time you want to express your feelings online in the form of a GIF, use the wealth of white celebrities or viral sensations we have available to us.
Post Taylor Swift shaking her hips or Jonah Hill cringing at an awards ceremony.
Furthermore, look inwards and ask yourself why you laugh at that certain image or phrase. Think about what narratives you are reinforcing when consuming and sharing media. Be critical and scrutinise the hidden cost to those whose culture you are claiming.