This post was inspired by the podcast Strong Opinions Loosely Held, Digital Blackface.
Let’s talk your favorite memes and gifs.
What is your favorite meme or gif right now? Mine is the one below of Viola Davis. She is clearly unamused and unimpressed, grabbing her purse, tossing a mean side eye before leaving. I love this one because it expresses how I feel about a lot of things; racism, the Trump administration, misogyny, a bad date, any minor inconvenience. I can simply toss it in a group chat and convey my feelings without needing to say anything additional.
So what is yours? Is it of Oprah, Mariah Carey, Cardi B, Beyoncé, or any one of the Atlanta Housewives?
Noticing a trend here? 9 times out of 10, your favorite reaction gifs and memes are going to feature a Black person in it, often a Black Woman. Right now, there are millions of group chats, where memes and gifs of Black stars, often Black Women, are being used.
Lauren Michelle Jackson noticed it too. She calls this “digital Blackface”.
When we historically think of Blackface, we think of minstrel shows of the 19th and 20th century where White men would paint themselves black or brown reenact stereotypes of Black people for the amusement of White audiences (isn’t history terrible?).
But, as we know, Blackface isn’t a relic of bygone eras. The 21st century has been littered with its own Blackface contributions by Julianne Hough a few Halloweens ago, Kim K for the launch of her beauty line, and the existence and unfathomable popularity of the living minstrel, Rachel Dolezal, as well as the usual frat kid who wants to be Jay-Z or Colin Kaepernick for Halloween.
Jackson, says that, while these cultural crimes of Blackface should be talked about and rectified, there are also instances of Blackface online, where the frequent usage of Black Reaction gifs and proliferation of Black memes is just the 21st century’s version of the minstrel.
“If there’s one thing the Internet thrives on, it’s hyperbole and the overrepresentation of black people in GIFing everyone’s daily crises plays up enduring perceptions and stereotypes about black expression. And when nonblack users flock to these images, they are playacting within those stereotypes in a manner reminiscent of an unsavory American tradition.”
That American tradition being those blackface minstrel shows. And while no one (smart) is slathering themselves with brown or black paint in the digital space, the proliferation of Black reactions memes and gifs, often expressing extreme over-reactions an emotional outbursts, by White users can be considered a form of blackface.
Maybe it’s that these gifs and memes, made mostly from reality shows, have become so popular despite the fact that most of these memes and gifs are no longer easily identified that gives me pause. You doesn’t even need to know the women often used in these Black reaction memes and gifs to appreciate and use them. It is like saying “Oh, any general, over the top Black Woman will do.” to assign to any emotional labor, no matter how minute.
Jackson alerts us. “…online minstrels are no more believable than their in-person counterparts to anyone who knows black culture and black people, rather than a series of types. Unfortunately, digital blackface often goes unchecked unless a black person does the work to point out the discrepancies in someone’s profile.”
But there is a darker side to this. Last year, NPR shared an article about white supremacists trolling as Black Twitter users to do things as asinine as bait actual Black Twitter users in to fighting and behave poorly while masquerading as a Black person on social media all the way to attempting to sabotage social justice organization efforts.
Not so funny anymore, is it?
So, what do we do in the digital realm? On one hand, gifs and memes are an amazing, connective way that people, especially Black people can communicate our own emotions. On the other, with the proliferation of Black reaction memes and gifs usage by nonblack users, most of them stereotypical and trope filled, it gives Black users a sense of pause before pressing send or post.
There is no easy answer. But a good place to start is looking at ourselves. Monitoring our own behaviors and editing accordingly is always encouraged.
The point of all of this is simple. Black bodies and imagery are forced to do the huge amount of emotional work in these digital spaces for nonblack users. Caught in a continuous loop of “yaaasss”, “girl, bye”, and so on. We don’t want to be the sassy, angry, loud, argumentative, twerking, hair flipping, side eyeing punctuation to your posts, comments, or emails. Black people aren’t here to be popular culture’s emoticons anymore than Black people are here to entertain popular culture.
So, if you find yourself constantly using Black women reaction gifs and memes, may I suggest using one from Mean Girls, SpongeBob or Arthur.