What is digital blackface?
To understand digital blackface, you must first understand the concept of “blackface” — the inherently racist practice of performing a caricature of Blackness by non-Black, typically white, individuals. The origins of blackface extend far into the history of slavery, originating long before the notorious and racist minstrel shows which brought them to fame. In a modern context, blackface can take the form of a non-Black person literally painting their face on Halloween, but can also take the form of a white or non-Black actor portraying a Black character (see: Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder) or an individual pretending to be Black in real life for their own benefit (see: Rachel Dolezal). Blackface reinforces stereotypes, while simultaneously allowing white people to silence and take the place of Black folks.
Digital blackface, a term coming out of Black online activist communities and coined by Joshua Lumpkin Green, is the blackface of the digital era, “the way in which technology allows non-Black people to ‘try out’ Black identities online.”
Digital blackface is the commodification of Blackness on social media by non-Black individuals, and it can take many forms, including but not limited to:
Using memes, videos, photos, or GIFs — even those that are funny, celebratory, or seemingly innocuous — featuring Black individuals.
Using Black Vernacular English, also commonly known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), terms like, “periodt,” “yas queen,” “woke,” “bae,” or “turn up.”
Using darker emoji skin colors that are not reflective of your own skin color.
Why it’s problematic
As an Asian American woman who has also seen herself misrepresented in media, I know firsthand that these are nuanced discussions, and they deserve serious consideration and reflection. We are all responsible for doing our own research and thinking critically about the media we consume, distribute, and produce. While images of Black folks and other people of color are often not shared by white allies with nefarious intent, digital blackface is the result, not the intention.
An overwhelming number of the memes, GIFS, and images featuring Black folks reinforce stereotypes. In fact, the GIF hosting site, Giphy, apparently provides users with searchable suggestions, including terms such as, “Sassy Black Lady” and “Angry Black Lady.” According to scholar and author Lauren Michele Jackson in Teen Vogue:
“[These images] include displays of emotion stereotyped as excessive: so happy, so sassy, so ghetto, so loud. In television and film, our dial is on 10 all the time — rarely are black characters afforded subtle traits or feelings. Ultimately, black people and black images are thus relied upon to perform a huge amount of emotional labor online on behalf of nonblack users.”
Sharing out memes, images, and GIFs of Black individuals, characters, or celebrities can also singularize Blackness. A meme that would be innocuous when shared by someone who is Black can take on a different meaning when shared within primarily non-Black communities. Naomi Day says, “...[T]hese images become the single stories for those who don’t have other meaningful contact with Black folks.”
Through the reiteration of these images, Blackness becomes commodified — something re-packaged, simplified, and “highly shareable” for non-Black consumption. This contributes to the over-simplification of Blackness, while simultaneously reinforcing negative stereotypes, and forcing Black bodies to perform for non-Black bodies.
Sharing out GIFs, memes, images, or videos featuring Black folks, when that doesn’t represent you, as an individual or organization, can promote an unintentional, but also problematic, regurgitated stereotype.
How to avoid it
As is the case with most issues around race, digital blackface is complicated and there is no one absolute rulebook that unilaterally determines whether a meme, tweet, photo, or GIF is problematic. These issues are multifaceted and there is no one simple answer, but here are some things to consider to ensure you and your organization do not perpetrate digital blackface:
If your organization’s leadership is entirely or primarily white, if your social media channel is run by white workers, and/or if your organization primarily serves white populations, think twice before using images of Black people on social media that aren’t examples of your organization actually serving the public. Always consider if the images you’ve chosen to post are reflective of the communities your organization serves.
Make sure all digital and communication staff have researched and read up on the digital blackface phenomenon. A compilation of resources can be found below.
Before you post a meme, image, GIF, or other visual media, think about whether or not the image reinforces stereotypes. If it does, don’t post it. If you are unsure about whether or not an image, text, video, or GIF perpetrates digital blackface, play it safe and don’t post it.
Discuss any questionable tweets, stories, or posts with your teammates — sometimes, having more than one pair of eyes on something helps your team evaluate potentially problematic content.
While it’s always best practice to include people of color in these conversations, don’t depend on or require Black folks or other people of color to determine whether or not something is appropriate. Instead, do your own research, listen, seek out information, and think critically before calling on the emotional labor of a person of color, especially Black or Brown co-workers.
There is so much excellent information and commentary on the digital blackface phenomenon out there written by Black, POC, and white authors. With this in mind, here are a few insightful pieces to read to continue learning and thinking critically about digital blackface:
Don't get what's wrong with blackface? Here's why it's so offensive, Jenée Desmond-Harris, Vox
We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs, Lauren Michele Jackson, Teen Vogue
Naomi Day, Medium
Using Black Vernacular English (BVE) as a Non-Black Person Isn’t “Woke” if You Don't Understand the History, Anisha Phillips, Feminuity
TikTok and the Evolution of Digital Blackface, Jason Parham, Wired
Video: Is it OK to use black emojis and gifs?, Victoria Princewill, BBC News